Sustainability was the main topic of discussion during the recently held “State of the Art Jewelry Summit” at Harvard University. Well-known jewelry industry professionals joined Harvard educators to discuss the many facets of creating a sustainable industry. Topics included detailed analysis of the sustainability of mining, designers who incorporate sustainability into their creations, ways of helping artisan miners who are often neglected in the jewelry industry supply chain, and the global consequences of not taking sustainability seriously.
High jewelry artist, Wallace Chan, gave a 10-minute speech placing his own personal spin of what sustainability means.
Chan was born in Mainland China and his family moved to Hong Kong when he was five years old. There they lived in extreme poverty. “Every single day of my childhood was about food, warmth and keeping a roof over our heads.” He started working immediately. “My siblings and I were taught the value of hard work long before we learned how to write our names.” During this time Chan said sustainability meant reusing everything. Even the plastic spoon he shared with his three siblings when they ate soup. In addition to the thriftiness of reusing the spoon, he said it caused them to eat slower so they would fill up on less food.
In the early 2000s, Chan lived as a monk for six months, giving away his personal possessions and burning his photos. At the time he believed it would be lifelong calling, but something changed.
“I realized that the creative process is the ultimate practice of the heart,” he told the 100 or so persons in attendance during the daylong forum. “The only way for me to achieve higher wisdom is through art.”
However, there was a problem. He had nothing left from his former life and had no materials to create. He started using materials discarded by others. At first, he found a block of concrete, took it home and carved a sculpture. At this time, living a sustainable life meant creating with materials that others saw a trash.
“It reminded me of the superpower of creativity,” he said. “Creativity was my lifeline, and it remains my lifeline. An artist creates not only things, but dreams, meanings and his very own being. I like to think that when a dream falls into pieces, it multiplies and becomes more bright and beautiful dreams.”
A lid from a cracked purple teapot became a ring. A broken vase was turned into a bangle. Even some his celebrated high jewelry creations included discarded items. An old dusty snuff bottle became a pendant for necklace. A dead butterfly became immortalized as a brooch. “It took me three years and countless attempts. I set the fragile, powdery butterfly wings in between crystal and mother-of-pearl, using titanium as the structure.”
For Chan, sustainability also means working with materials and producing creations that will last centuries.
“When creating art, my ultimate goal is for my work to outlast me,” he said. “To achieve this, I seek out materials that are closest to eternity—such as stones, titanium, porcelain, together with love, hopes, beauty and dreams, the eternal values of mankind.”
He is an early pioneer in the use of titanium in his creations. One reason why he chose it is because it doesn’t rust. He invented unbreakable porcelain because of a childhood incident. As previously mentioned, he and his siblings were so poor they were forced to share a plastic spoon to eat. The adults also shared a spoon, but it was made of porcelain. Like most children, Chan became curious about something that was unavailable to him. He handled the spoon and dropped it, causing it to break. His parents were not happy.
The 2018 introduction of “The Wallace Chan Porcelain,” is his response to the incident, which is not only unbreakable but five times stronger than steel.
He says perfection is elusive but it’s something he is constantly trying to achieve.
“When I set out to create a piece, I do my best with all I have, to give it the strength, meaning, emotions and story to sustain as a life of its own, and on its own,” he said. “It will always be my priority to create works that will stand the test of time and be passed down through generations. It is my wish that, one day, when mankind exists no more, my works can still be among the things that live on to be the proof of our lives, to be the carriers of our memories, and to reflect the spirit of our times.”
He added that sustainability for him is more than a marketing term, or a trend. It is infused into his being.
“For me, it is not a buzzword but a way of life. Perhaps my poor-child mentality has simply made it a natural thing to be very careful and thorough with what I have, how I live and what I make,” he said.
“I believe, at the end of the day, it is about honoring the materials, be it a stone, an old tool, a tea pot, a fragment of memory, the wings of a dead butterfly or our very own existence—our limited time on earth.”