Interview with Wallace Chan: Old Liquors Magazine Exclusive

My favorite place to see art is the microscope

Hong Kong-based Wallace Chan is one of the most gifted designers of his generation. His work has featured in exclusive art fairs and exhibitions around the world, selling for tens of millions of dollars.

In 1987, Chan created the “Wallace Cut,” a technique that involves carving intricate designs into gemstones. This technique has featured prominently in Chan’s work since then, earning him countless accolade22s and guaranteeing a place in the annals of art history.

“Curiosity is my biggest drive”

In March 2017, Chan will be showing his creations at Maastricht TEFAF for the second time. He will be one of the biggest artists featuring at this prestigious art fair, and we have managed to secure an exclusive interview with him before he prepares his final showcase.

How would you describe your average buyer?

Wallace Chan
Wallace Chan

“People who collect jewelry art pieces are successful and confident individuals. They are cultivated persons with a great passion for life and art as well as knowledge in gemstones and jewelry. Artistic values and refined craftsmanship particularly appeal to them. They also prefer jewelry pieces that are unique. They are not confined by tradition and trends, but they do feel engaged with pieces that come with stories and meanings. My collectors appreciate the spirit of the works. ‘Resonance’ is the key word in our artist-collector relationship.”

During an interview with Hong Kong Tatler, you described your creative process as “mercurial” and your mindset as “rebellious.” Can you tell us a little more about this process?

Change, transformation, and enhancement is three major processes to embrace when I try to create a piece. In the creative process, a design sketch is two-dimensional. No matter how attractive or beautiful the sketch looks, it is just a reminder to me, a way to quickly jot down my idea. The idea must then be re-formed during the process of 3D production when it enters the dimensions of craftsmanship, colors, and light. Therefore, the original idea is constantly twisted and enhanced. This process comes with numerous factors of change–and so mercurial it is.

“People who collect jewelry art pieces are successful and confident individuals”

“To show respect, I rebel. By rebelling against traditions, I pay respect to the past. By rebelling against the status quo, I pay respect to the present. By rebelling against myself, I pay respect to the future. I believe in thinking outside the box. It is also the respect I pay to each gemstone I use.

Brooches A Tale of Two Dragons
Brooches A Tale of Two Dragons

How has your creative process been altered by improvements in technology over the last few decades?

“Technology has fascinated me since I was young. Whenever I hear of a technology exhibition, I am eager to pay it a visit. Such curiosity for technology has helped my research in metallurgy.

“More than a decade ago I read about the pacemaker, and it led me to research on titanium, a bio-friendly, colorful, light, hard and extremely strong, space-age metal. Using the pacemaker as the starting point, I began my researches in titanium. After 8 years of repeated experiments, I found the ways to freely apply titanium in the creation of jewelry art.

“My favorite place to see art is the microscope”

“After titanium, I became interested in nanotechnology. By deconstructing and reconstructing a piece of gold, I alter its physical properties.

“The improvements in technology have affected our life in many aspects. But as a person whose sole passion is to create, one of the biggest advantages, the improvements of technology, have brought a smoother, freer creative space than before.”

You have studied many art disciplines throughout your career, including painting. Has this influenced your work in any way, do you still find time to paint yourself?

Necklace Damask Silk backside
Necklace Damask Silk backside

When it comes to art creation, painters use paint, musicians use notes, and jewelry creators use gemstones. Like paintings, sculptures, music, and poetry, jewelry is a form of expression.

I started as a carver in 1973, and since then I have been creating using different materials. From opaque gemstones to transparent gemstones, translucent gemstones, wood, steel, gold, platinum, silver, copper, porcelain, and titanium, etc.., I apply my experiences and knowledge as a carver and sculptor on jewelry creation. I constantly nurture my skills and thinking through the learning of other art forms such as Chinese ink painting, oil painting, music, poetry, and architecture. I believe that all art forms share a common origin.”

What project are you working on now?

“Creation-wise, I am always working on many projects at once, numerous jewelry pieces, large-scale titanium sculptures, and paintings, as well as different experiments in metallurgy. But event-wise, I am happy to announce my upcoming talk at Central Saint Martins, London on 7 March, where I will be sharing my experiences with inspiring educations and aspiring students. After that, I will be exhibiting at Maastricht TEFAF for the second time.”

What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?

“Me. I have to be there. Every time I am away from the workshop I feel like a fish out of water. I cannot live without it, and it doesn’t have a life without me.”

Do you have a favorite alcoholic tipple?

Sculpture Rise of Heart
Sculpture Rise of Heart

“No, I don’t. But the taste of wine or liquor gives me fascinating experiences. When the alcohol touches the tip of my tongue, it seems that I could discover the journey it has been on: from the growth of fruits and its time in the oak barrel to its fermentation process and its intensity.

I seldom drink, but when I do, my excited taste buds send signals of an enriching experience straight to my brain. As the alcohol enters my stomach through my mouth, and the sensory signals reach my brain, it feels as if my soul was cleansed in a moment.”

Do you have a favorite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant?

“If I have to name a place, it would still be my workshop. I order simple takeaways from the nearby restaurants so I do not need to leave my creative process.”

The life of an artist can be lonely, with long hours and little interaction. What do you do to counteract this?

“It is difficult to feel lonely as I constantly interact with all things. Through a gemstone, I communicate with the universe. Through an antique artifact, I converse with people in the past. Through different kinds of media, I connect with the subjects of my creations, be it a fish, a fairy, a dragon, or a butterfly. The joy of creation keeps me away from any sense of loneliness.”

“There is nothing that we can truly own on earth.”

Who’s your favorite living artist?

“Art is too big a category. I admire many artists and enjoy seeing and experiencing new art pieces all the time. I have admired director Ang Lee and architect I. M. Pei for a long time. But when it comes to my favorite, it has to be Mother Nature. Her creations are everywhere and ever-energetic. Even an ant is a magnificent art piece.”

What’s the last artwork you purchased?

“I bought a white Carrara marble sculpture by Pio Fedi titled Immortalita (1883) and a marble sculpture by Hiram Powers titled Ginevra (1863-1873).”

If you could own any piece of art from history, what would it be?

“There is nothing that we can truly own on earth. Even if I buy an object, I do not truly own it. I would love to own more time than I do now so I can keep creating more and more. My creations will always be mine, but it is my wish to give them to history.”

What is the biggest driving force behind your career? Why do you do what you do?

Brooch Apsara
Brooch Apsara

Curiosity is my biggest drive. When I was 5 years old, I moved to Hong Kong from China with my family. We were poor and so I was unable to receive a formal education. By 9 years old, I found a rooftop school that would accept me. But by 13 years, old I had to quit school to work full-time. After a few years of odd jobs, my uncle introduced me to work at his friend’s gemstone carving workshop.

“I understood that I had to acquire a skill to make a living and so my life-long love affair with gemstones began. 9 months later. I left the workshop to work on my own as my curiosity grew to a point where I could no longer allow myself to spend my time doing repetitive, low-quality production and not explore the fascinating world of gemstone carving. At that time I was 17 years old.

“44 years have passed now and I am still curious as a child, waking up with the eyes of a newborn daily. The creative process is a process in which I am constantly looking for the answers to life, the world, and the universe.”

What role does the artist have in society?

“It really depends on the vision of each individual artist. When art is free, the artist is, too. But generally speaking, an artist expands the viewers’ experiences. Through an artist’s works, the viewers are stimulated to expand their time and space, reaching out to the past, the here and now, and the future, as well as places that they are familiar or not familiar with. A quality art experience gives the viewers transcendental experiences.”

What art do you most identify with?

“Art is art, although there are many different art forms. I embrace all and choose not to be confined to any formats. Art is often born where the seemingly most irrelevant ideas connect ingeniously.”

What’s your favorite place to see art?

“When I am in Hong Kong, I often go to the Gagosian Gallery in Central. When I exhibit at TEFAF, I love the fact that all the best galleries are there. I visit the Venice Biennale every two years and Art Basel every year. Wherever I go, I always make sure that I pay a visit to the local museums.

“But my favorite place to see art is the microscope. When I place a gemstone underneath a microscope, I enlarge it to one thousandth of a micrometer to see the crystal structure of different forms and colors. It is just like a universe, which contains mountains and waters. When I continue to enlarge it to one hundred-thousandths of a micrometer, I discover the greatness of the universe where I no longer see mountains and waters. When I am overwhelmed by nature’s sublime, I feel the smallness of my own being.”

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