When Chinese jeweller Wan Bao Bao walks into a room, you’ll look. You’ll look at least twice if she’s wearing both her own sparkling creations and an ensemble by her fashion designer friend Huishan Zhang, as she is today. When she speaks — her accent ostensibly American — you listen.
Articulate, fiercely intelligent, and savvy before a crowd, she isn’t just the face of her brand, but she is the brand. She is as likely to be tracking down gemstones in Sri Lanka as she would be visiting a Florentine museum and drinking in all particulars that could inform new works. Procurement, design, quality control, marketing — Wan oversees it all at Bao Bao Wan Fine Jewelry; though one gathers that she chooses to work, rather than needs to.
A “Red Princess”, she is a granddaughter of Wan Li, a former Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China. Her early years were spent in the privileged confines of Zhongnanhai, the former imperial enclave just west of the Forbidden City. Since arriving in New York to attend private school at age 15, however, she’s largely led a nomadic life.
A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Wan later moved to France, becoming the first Chinese invited to debut at the Crillon Ball. Upon returning to Asia, she completed a Gemological Institute of America programme in Hong Kong, and in 2007 launched her eponymous jewellery line.
Favoured not just for artisanal craftsmanship, Wan’s pieces often find genesis in the personal memories and experiences gleaned from across the globe. Bridges at Beijing’s Summer Palace, pagodas from her travels across Myanmar, even art movements such as cubism and surrealism have been woven into Wan’s elaborate jewellery.
But today, at the unveiling of her new teapot-shaped pendant for the St Regis Hotels & Resorts (she’s a brand “Connoisseur”), one storyline stands out from the rest. To the casual observer, her gold teapot with seven inlaid diamonds and a ruby takes inspiration from the hotel’s afternoon tea ritual, but at the heart of the endeavour lies Wan’s earliest memory of the St Regis brand: The warmth of the New York hotel staff who ran out to Chinatown to buy porridge for a very ill and homesick Wan on her arrival in the US as a teenager.
How has your design evolved through the years?
In the beginning, I took forms very seriously. I was into photography, so I liked capturing moments. One very early piece, for instance, was a butterfly emerging from a bamboo. Another was of a water droplet on the tip of a butterfly wing. They were small moments frozen in time — like photographs. Now I could be inspired by the cubism of a Picasso painting even. Imagine you’ve got a mirror on the floor and the reflection of your face may be like facets. And surrealism has always been my favourite [art] movement. The artist may put together unrelated, even crazy forms, in a painting, and it just works. I approach jewellery in the same way: I open up my imagination.
You employ many traditional Chinese symbols, yet your designs are unmistakably modern. How do you strike a balance?
The symbols may be traditional Chinese, but the shapes can be contemporised. I was educated in the US and France, and I studied literature and existentialism, so I understand that sometimes design inspiration transfers by smell or memory, and it doesn’t have to be in a particular form. You know, like a whiff of perfume in the streets may remind you of a memory with your mother. So I wanted to translate my memories and experiences, my upbringing, and the shock of growing up both in the West and the East into my jewellery.
Do you see yourself as a storyteller?
Definitely. For example, the bamboo and butterfly was a love story. Sometimes romance and love is very momentary. Love can last, sometimes it can’t. It’s a cruel, realistic world. There is beauty in lost love too.
You apprenticed with photographer Joel Sternfeld. Do you still take photos? Or has jewellery become the medium for capturing memories?
I barely take out my camera anymore. After putting aside the camera for a while, my [photographic] “eye” closed, but my “eye” for jewellery opened. The joy came in part from printing in the dark room. My record was 12 hours in there, printing one photo. I only came out because I was feeling nauseous, from the chemicals, obviously. I was a perfectionist.
Huishan Zhang, whom you are wearing, and Guo Pei are some of the designers making international headlines. There’s yourself too. Is this the time of the Chinese creative?
Huishan is a very close friend and Guo Pei puts the most magnificent details into her work. They really are the two greatest personalities and they are quite similar too. They both prefer working back stage; you rarely see Guo Pei out front [in the limelight]. And they both work so hard in their studios. You know, Huishan was the best cutter when he graduated from Central Saint Martins. He’s a genius. He worked in Dior right after graduation. So yes, at this stage, I think [made-in-China] is regarded very differently and I’m very, very glad.
How about yourself? Do you consider yourself as an ambassador of Chinese flair?
Oh, I don’t think I’m good enough. But I do try to be an ambassador, to try and convey how beautiful our world is and how great our culture is, as much as I can.