Published - Asian master brings his work to Paris

The butterfly has profound symbolic  meanings in Chinese culture, representing both everlasting love and the idea of life as a dream. For the master jeweler Wallace Chan, the delicate insect has an additional meaning, standing for the power of life.  He has chosen to celebrate this by sealing real butterfly wings in rock crystal to create a stunning butterfly brooch  —  further embellished by diamonds and pink sapphires.

The result,  ‘‘Forever Dancing,’’ will be one of 50 unique jewelry pieces that Mr. Chan, who is based in Hong Kong, is presenting at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris.

 This is the first time since it started in 1962 that the Paris antiques and fine jewelry show has reached out to an Asian jeweler to exhibit alongside Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron and Chaumet.

For Mr. Chan, 56,  the invitation was a  milestone. Even though his brand has dedicated counters at  Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Neiman Marcus nationwide in the United States, Mr. Chan says his creations are sold primarily  through private showings.  ‘‘I feel like I’ve waited all my life for this moment to come,’’ he said while in Paris to present some of his pieces to the press during haute couture week, in July.

  ‘‘I attended the Biennale five years ago and I was extremely impressed by the quality of the works on display,’’ Mr. Chan said through a translator. ‘‘I really wanted to participate and I started planning for this well before I was invited, because you cannot find a lot of high-quality stones in a short period of time.’’

 Mr. Chan started his artistic career as a sculptor, before rising to international attention as a fine jewelry artist in 1987 with his now famous ‘‘Wallace Cut,’’ a carving style that creates multiple reflections of an image in transparent materials by combining medieval cameo and intaglio techniques into three-dimensional engraving.

 Since then, he has continued to innovate. He patented a technique for cutting jade into fine slices that enhance the luminosity of the stone, and  created new setting techniques to replace the claws most often used to hold a stone in place. His ‘‘diamond claw setting method’’ fashions claws out of diamond or other gems rather than metal; while his ‘‘inner mortise and tenon’’ technique relies on interlocking cuts to hold the materials together  — a joinery method borrowed from wood- and stone-working.

  At the Biennale, Mr. Chan will present ‘‘The Grandeur,’’ a 19.01-carat yellow diamond ring that exemplifies his special techniques. The main stone is held in a setting of  diamonds and jade, creating a look reminiscent of the elegantly upturned eaves of the roofs of old Chinese temples and other traditional buildings. Slivers of emerald framing the main stone further accentuate the play of yellow and green.

 ‘‘When you take a top view of the ring, the emerald surrounding the yellow diamond creates a floating water effect, which further highlights the illuminating effect of the yellow diamond,’’ Mr. Chan said. ‘‘It also creates harmony with the round bean jadeites.’’ 
 He describes his pieces as ‘‘wearable sculptural artworks’’ that express his emotions as well as his love for Chinese culture and eastern philosophy. ‘‘My jewelry pieces are created to open up a dialogue between cultures,’’ he said.

 Christian Deydier, president of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, which puts on the Biennale, and a dealer in Chinese antiques, said he was introduced to Mr. Chan by Fran├žois Curiel, the head of Christie’s in Asia.

‘‘I think he offers something completely different and very new,’’ Mr. Deydier said in Singapore while on visit to Asia this year to drum up interest for the Paris exhibition. ‘‘It combines Oriental philosophy with Western techniques. So we felt he would be a great asset for the Biennale.’’

 While Mr. Chan’s output is small compared with that of  other jewelers invited to exhibit,  ‘‘he has all it takes to be included: talent, creativity, craftsmanship, uniqueness and top quality,’’ Mr. Deydier said. ‘‘His work is definitely at the level of all the other houses.’’

 Among the 50 pieces on show at the Biennale, Mr. Chan has created 10  masterpieces inspired by his love of nature and the famous Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who was influential in the development of Chinese Buddhism.

The pieces include ‘‘Stilled Life,’’ a cicada brooch made of Imperial jadeite, lavender jade, rubies and fancy colored  diamonds. Cicadas, which feed solely on plant sap, have long been celebrated in Chinese poetry as a metaphor for nobility of character, Mr. Chan said. To enhance the green of the jadeite, Mr. Chan has set fancy colored diamonds on the cicada’s body and used small rubies for its eyes.

 Another of the pieces is an aquamarine necklace, playfully named ‘‘A Drop in the Ocean.’’ The main stone alone weighs 379.21 carats and is of a rare clarity. The jeweler has imagined it as a mermaid’s tear, set with small diamonds, crystals and sapphires, while smaller aquamarines are embedded polished-side down, an unconventional treatment that highlights the brilliance of the main stone.
Perhaps the most spectacular of the pieces that Mr. Chan has created for the Biennale  is ‘‘The Eyes of Infinity,’’ a transformable parure composed of a necklace, two brooches and a ring on the theme of two scorpions falling in love.

One large scorpion is made of rubies while the other is made of demantoid garnet,  a green variant of the normally red semiprecious gemstone. The two face each other across a cracked ground of yellow sapphires. Between them is placed an alexandrite cat’s-eye of 45.51 carats,  described by the Gemological Institute of America as ‘‘the largest example of premium-quality chatoyant alexandrite encountered in the G.I.A. Laboratory.’’ The scorpions can be worn separately as brooches, while the cat’s eye can be worn as a ring.

 Mr. Curiel said he regarded Mr. Chan as a craftsman who had broken through the boundaries between sculpture and jewelry to create ‘‘artistic masterpieces one can wear.’’

 ‘‘He is very much a jeweler of our times,’’ Mr. Curiel wrote in an e-mail, pointing to his mix of East and West, his blending of precious and semiprecious stones with titanium and other unusual metals, and his ability to combine ancient traditions with the most recent technological innovations.

This story first appeared in the International Herald Tribune on Sep 17, 2012