Wallace Chan has spent most of his career sculpting treasures small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. But now, at the age of 66, the jeweller-turned-artist is pushing himself to new heights – literally. At his current exhibition at the Fondaco Marcello in Venice, which runs until October 23, he is exhibiting monumental metal sculptures that tower over visitors’ heads.
“In Chinese, there is a saying, ‘Everything, big or small, is infinite,’” says Chan, who sometimes speaks in pithy philosophical statements, smiling behind his owlish glasses and long grey beard. “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 the jewel ends, where the limit is. When you continue to magnify, you continue to be surprised by new discoveries. Scale is just one of the constraints that I’d like to break free from.”
Chan’s career has been an exercise in breaking boundaries. He started working at the age of 13, when he left school and found a job as a jade carver to support his penniless parents and siblings, who lived in To Kwa Wan in Hong Kong. The family was so poor that Chan would often go to bed hungry and dream of food. But Chan had such an affinity for working with precious stones that he soon had his own company and, in 1987, when he was in his late 20s, shot to international fame by creating the Wallace Cut, a technique of carving an image into the back of a gemstone. When viewed from the front, the three-dimensional image is reflected multiple times inside the stone.
He has since developed new ways to carve jade and invented a porcelain stronger than steel, to name just two of his more recent inventions. These techniques have enabled Chan and his team of 16 craftsmen—who are split between his workshops in Hong Kong, Macau and China—to create some of the most intricate pieces of jewellery ever made, such as his dazzling, life-size brooches of butterflies that are encrusted with dozens of precious stones.
Many of Chan’s pieces have sold for tens of millions of US dollars and, in September 2015, he unveiled what is widely described as the world’s most expensive diamond necklace. A collaboration with Hong Kong-based conglomerate Chow Tai Fook, the piece was named A Heritage in Bloom and features 11,551 diamonds, 72 pieces of white jade and 114 pieces of green jadeite, with an egg-sized 104-carat diamond at its heart. It took 22 craftsmen a total of more than 47,000 hours to make. It is estimated to be worth US$200 million.
Since then, Chan has spent much of his time creating artworks to be exhibited in museums or galleries, rather than producing jewellery to sell to the one percent – although he doesn’t see much of a distinction between making a sculpture and making a necklace. “The jewellery pieces that I admire, those that I consider embodiments of the highest ideals in the history of jewellery, I consider art. The jewellery that I create, I create with the intention of pursuing art,” he says. “But not all jewellery is art, just like not all noises are music.”
There are physical similarities between Chan’s jewellery and his artworks. Like many of his most spectacular brooches, several of his sculptures on display in Venice are made of titanium, which is one-fifth the weight of gold but one of the strongest metals in existence. One of the reasons Chan is so obsessed with the material is its longevity. “It can last many hundreds of years,” he explains. “It’s not easy to rust and its melting point is 1700°C. It is the material closest to eternity.”
The exhibition itself is an exploration of the passage of time. Titled Totem, the show features a series of titanium sculpted heads, some of which are bisected by iron beams. These works are spread among the dark and cavernous Fondaco Marcello, a former warehouse on the Grand Canal. Most are positioned upright, but others lie on their sides, amid scattered, rusting iron poles. The overall effect is of stumbling upon the ruins of a once-great civilisation, with the remains of the statues of its leaders poking above the rubble. But all is not lost: there are instructions on the wall detailing how all these disparate parts can be slotted together to create one towering 10-metre-tall sculpture.
Totem is a reflection on the rise and fall of empires and, Chan says, the dispersal of the sculptures throughout the space is an illustration of the social fragmentation that is dividing many societies today. But beyond that, Chan hopes that the exhibition is a reminder of both the strength and fragility of nature – all that has survived from this lost civilisation are the natural materials of iron and titanium, although even they lie in ruins. “All my inspiration comes from mother nature,” he says. “I feel like I’m a messenger from nature, from these materials.”
Humanity’s destruction of the natural world and the collapse of civilisations are two enormous, complicated topics to tackle in the format of one exhibition. But Chan is ambitious. “These are messages that should be left to the next generations, so in the future, people can be inspired” he says. “I create knowing that my works will outlive me.”
Whether Chan’s art will be celebrated in the future is impossible to predict. Perhaps in centuries to come his work will be hailed as prophetic. Or maybe, like most art, it will fade into obscurity. Whatever happens, the show has helped cement Chan’s own sense of himself. “I have many identities–carver, jeweller, sculptor,” he says. “But all of them have now come together to build one identity – and that is ‘artist.’”
Chan could just as easily call himself an inventor. He seems happiest discussing big ideas, but arguably even more impressive than his philosophical musings are the pioneering ways in which he uses materials. Only a handful of artists have worked with titanium on the scale at which Chan has in Totem, and he has spent decades studying the material, learning how to sculpt it and dye it different colours.
Chan has gone even further with jade and porcelain. He has patented a technique of carving jade that makes the stone appear brighter by letting in more light. After he secured the patent in 2002, watchmaker Corum commissioned him to make a pair of jadeite and diamond watches. A private collector bought the set for US$1 million.
In 2018, Chan secured another patent – this one for the Wallace Chan Porcelain, a ceramic that is five times as strong as steel. Chan has used the material to make porcelain jewellery that doesn’t shatter when dropped. The first ring made with the ceramic is now in the collection of the British Museum in London. Named “A New Generation,” the porcelain band is set with sapphires, aquamarines and diamonds. It was the first piece by a contemporary Chinese jeweller acquired by the institution.
“When traditional materials cannot fulfil my creative spirit, I start searching for new ones,” Chan is quoted as saying in Coveted, a book about high jewellery published by Phaidon. “When I cannot find the right material, it is a form of depression, of pain.”
So Chan keeps working, always pushing himself, and the materials he works with, to new limits. “When I’m working, it’s like there’s only me and my materials left in the world,” he says. “And when I’m working, I’m also working on myself. I have this strong desire to transcend myself, to make possible what is not possible.”
Totem runs at the Fondaco Marcello in Venice until October 23, 2022. Click here for more information.