The jewels and sculpture of Wallace Chan: ‘Each piece becomes an opportunity to challenge myself’

Where art meets technology, Wallace Chan can be found creating dazzling pieces using materials selected for being ‘closest to eternity’. The largest exhibition of the artist’s work ever staged in Europe can be seen at Christie’s in London in early September

The Beauty of Greatness shoulder brooch. Green tourmaline, rubellite, aquamarine, tanzanite, diamonds, obsidian, yellow sapphire, pearl, The Wallace Chan Porcelain, titanium. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

Fantastical creations inspired by nature, time and the cosmos are a speciality of Wallace Chan, the self-taught Chinese artist and sculptor based in Hong Kong.

Born in 1956 in Fujian, China, Chan found his artistic calling early, fashioning flowers out of plastic at the age of eight. At 16 he began an apprenticeship with a sculptor in a traditional workshop, but left after nine months to hone his skills as a carver, creating raised cameo reliefs and sunken intaglios.

In the subsequent decades, Chan has lectured on the intersection of art and technology, exhibited at art fairs and exhibitions around the world and experimented with a wide spectrum of techniques, materials and themes.

Wallace Chan, The Joy of Life brooch. Sapphires, tsavorite garnet, diamonds, pearl, titanium

The Joy of Life brooch. Sapphires, tsavorite garnet, diamonds, pearl, titanium. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

A brilliant example of his work is The Joy of Life (above), a dazzling brooch depicting a butterfly — one of Chan’s signature motifs — comprising pink sapphires, sapphires, tsavorite garnets, diamonds, yellow diamonds, pearl and titanium.

Another is Eden’s Autumn (below), a brooch featuring a head made of The Wallace Chan Porcelain — a material developed by Chan that is five times stronger than steel — crowned with a leaf-shaped garland formed from yellow diamonds and pink, orange and yellow sapphires. The auburn shades in this piece evoke the end of a leaf’s life cycle, while the vibrant purple, pink and blue hues in its counterpart, Eden’s Spring (below), are symbolic of rebirth, renewal and rejuvenation.

‘Holding Mr Chan’s artwork is thought-provoking and awe-inspiring at the same time,’ says Mei Y Giam, Private Sales Director of Jewellery at Christie’s in London. ‘His creations surpass the intrinsic value of their materials and components — each is meticulously crafted and connects us to the make-up of the universe.’ Eden’s Autumn  and Eden’s Spring, for instance, might be seen as representing the eternal interdependence of life and death.

Eden’s Spring brooch. Diamonds, pink sapphire, The Wallace Chan Porcelain, titanium. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

Eden’s Autumn brooch. Diamonds, sapphires, The Wallace Chan Porcelain, titanium. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

These pieces are highlights of The Wheel of Time, the largest exhibition of Chan’s work ever shown in Europe, on display at Christie’s in London between 4 and 10 September 2023. Alongside 150 one-of-a-kind wearable works of art, most of which are on loan from the artist’s long-time collectors, will be six of Chan’s large-scale titanium and iron sculptures.

‘Christie’s is committed to supporting great artists and the evolution of their work,’ says Giam, adding that this exhibition is the fifth that Christie’s has presented in collaboration with Chan, following shows in Hong Kong (2015, 2019) and Shanghai (2020, 2021). ‘We’re delighted to bring Wallace Chan’s imagination to London and present this landmark exhibition celebrating five decades of artistic excellence.’

Wallace Chan showing the Wallace Cut, which requires precise faceting and reverse carving to produce designs with a three-dimensional effect

Chan showing the Wallace Cut, which requires precise faceting and reverse carving to produce designs with a three-dimensional effect.

Chan finds inspiration in everything from nature and history to culture and the cosmos, delving into what he calls ‘the grand tapestry of human emotions and experiences’.

‘I strive to create universal art that blurs boundaries, not only between art forms but also between cultures, languages, traditions, symbols, mythologies and other differences,’ he says. ‘Ultimately, it’s fusing these elements that helps me to weave narratives and connect with people on a deeper level.’

Although best-known as a jewellery artist, Chan is also a sculptor, inventor and innovator. As well as the aforementioned The Wallace Chan Porcelain, he has developed a patented technology to enhance the luminosity of jadeite, and new methods of cutting and setting gems to minimise the visibility of metal claws. Most famously, he invented a technique known as the ‘Wallace Cut’, which requires precise faceting and reverse carving to produce designs with a three-dimensional effect.

This signature technique can be seen in standout pieces appearing at Christie’s, among them The Hours  necklace (below), comprising aquamarines, diamonds, sapphires, The Wallace Chan Porcelain and titanium. On the back of the impressive central stone, a 58.38-carat aquamarine, Chan has carved a face inspired by the Horae, the Greek goddesses of the seasons and the hours of the day. Thanks to the stone’s reflective properties, the motif appears four additional times.

Wallace Chan, The Hours necklace. Wallace Cut aquamarine, aquamarine, diamond, sapphire, The Wallace Chan Porcelain, titanium

The Hours necklace. Wallace Cut aquamarine, aquamarine, diamond, sapphire, The Wallace Chan Porcelain, titanium. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

In addition to his technological inventions, Chan has pioneered the use of titanium in his jewellery and sculptures. Predominantly used in the aerospace industry, titanium has long been overlooked by artists owing to its cost and complex production process. But Chan is not one to shy away from a challenge. After eight years of research and experimentation, he developed a way of working with the metal on both small and large scales.

‘In Chinese, there is a saying: “Everything, big or small, is infinite”,’ he says. ‘To the naked eye, most jewellery creations are on a small scale, but when you look through a microscope, your perspective changes. You wonder where it ends, where the limit is. Scale is just one of the constraints that I’d like to break free from in the pursuit of infinity.’

Wallace Chan, A Dialogue Between Materials and Time, Titans I sculpture. Titanium and iron

A Dialogue Between Materials and Time, Titans I sculpture. Titanium and iron. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

Welcoming visitors at the entrance of the exhibition will be Titans I, a large, freestanding titanium and iron sculpture that Chan first exhibited as part of his ‘Titans’ series in Venice (2021). Inspired by the gods of Greek mythology, it features an elongated head that can be viewed from multiple angles. It is serene yet strong, with a peaceful aura reminiscent of a statue of a deity.

‘Innovation empowers me to push the boundaries of what art can be,’ says Chan of his decision to use titanium on such an unprecedented scale. ‘It’s a journey of constant exploration, where each piece becomes an opportunity to challenge myself, to question preconceived notions, and to discover novel ways to infuse life into my creations.’

Stilled Life shoulder brooch and sculpture (detail). Imperial jadeite, lavender jadeite, jadeite, ruby, fancy coloured diamond, fancy coloured sapphire, tsavorite garnet, crystal, 18ct white gold, titanium. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

Forever Dancing — Wind’s Tale brooch. Yellow diamond, morganite, tsavorite garnet, crystal, butterfly specimen, mother-of-pearl, diamonds, pink sapphire, The Wallace Chan porcelain, titanium. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

The Wheel of Time  reflects this philosophy. For instance, in Stilled Life (above), a jewelled cicada — the Chinese symbol of rebirth — is imbued with so much vigour that it looks alive. Then there’s Wind’s Tale, a butterfly from Chan’s ‘Forever Dancing’ series, which features a pair of real butterfly wings held within carved rock crystal and mother of pearl. For this piece, Chan employed a technique from the 2000s, which took three years to perfect.

‘Observing the play of light and shadow on natural forms reminds me of the delicate balance between fragility and strength, which echoes the relationship between my subject matter and materials,’ he says.

‘It has been an ongoing quest for human beings to define time. Time is the subject of each and every one of my works’ — Wallace Chan

Enter the West Room and you’ll encounter a series of hanging sculptures suspended like pendulums, among them Titans XIII, in which the facial features have been distorted into an elongated, twisted spiral form. In the Great Room, meanwhile, stand 12 jewellery display cases, configured in a circle like a clock — a nod to Eastern religious traditions in which time is represented as an eternally rotating wheel with neither beginning nor end.

Wallace Chan, Legend of the Colour Black shoulder brooch and sculpture. Diamonds, crystal, sapphire, black agate, The Wallace Chan Porcelain, titanium

Legend of the Colour Black shoulder brooch and sculpture. Diamonds, crystal, sapphire, black agate, The Wallace Chan Porcelain, titanium. On view in The Wheel of Time, 4-10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

Other highlights include Legend of the Colour Black (above), a remarkable brooch featuring one of the largest known cut black diamonds in the world, which weighs 312.24 carats; and Variations of Light, a mesmerising ring set with a 1.05-carat pink diamond surrounded by transparent blue aquamarine, yellow diamonds and translucent green jadeite. Carved onto the band is a swirling water pattern symbolising eternity, humility, power, wisdom and grace.

Also noteworthy is The Beauty of Greatness, a brooch in which a titanium elephant with Wallace Chan Porcelain tusks walks on a bed of gems including green tourmaline, rubellite and aquamarine.

‘He’s playing with notions of strength, scale and weight with the elephant motif,’ says Giam. ‘Then there’s the variety and harmony of the stones, which adds a sense of playfulness and lightness.’

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For Chan, creating art is a way of trying to understand our existence. ‘When someone gazes upon one of my creations, I want them to feel a spark of inspiration, a glimmer of optimism that transcends time, circumstance and the challenges of our world,’ he says.

‘I want my creations to serve as a reminder that even in the face of adversity, there is potential for growth, for change, for a brighter future. I seek to create works that give meaning to the beauty and complexity around us.’

Wallace Chan: The Wheel of Time runs from 4 to 10 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

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