Interview: Jeweler Wynn Wynn Ong's Unique Appreciation for the Unconventional

 Jewelmer Joaillerie President and CEO Jacques Branell and Wynn Wynn Ong collaborate on a new line of jewelry that features the South Sea pearl.
Jewelmer Joaillerie President and CEO Jacques Branell and Wynn Wynn Ong collaborate on a new line of jewelry that features the South Sea pearl.

Long before becoming a professional jeweler and designer in 2000, Wynn Wynn Ong's artistic identity and aesthetic began forming at a very young age. Today, her designs reflect a lifetime of experiences, showing influences of her Burmese heritage, her adoptive home in the Philippines, her favorite works of literature, and international travel. Asia Society spoke to Ong about her collaboration with French-Filipino jewelry line Jewelmer Joaillerie.

What sparked your interest in design?

If one definition of design is "purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object," then I think I was born interested in it. Perhaps not to the extent that it is now, but with an innate curiosity as to how things could look better, and adjusting the objects in my environment or creating my own adornment even at a young age.

When did you realize you wanted to design and make jewelry professionally?

I started making the pieces for which I later became known for in 2000. I had no intention of selling them but rather made them because I couldn't find anything that I was personally excited to wear. If it weren't for the active encouragement and direction of an old friend, Michael Salientes, I would not have gone into it professionally. He studied in Boston and used to live in New York while working for Kenzo, so he had a keen sense of design. He was convinced I needed to put it out there and not stay within my normal, very private, comfort zone.

You are known for only creating one-of-a-kind pieces. Tell us about your creative philosophy and why making unique pieces is important to you.

My creative philosophy is a result of my childhood experiences and my love of literature. We were fortunate to be able to travel extensively and meet extraordinary people from an early age. We were often in the company of First Ladies, women married into power, as well as those who were accomplished on their own. They had different styles and approaches to the way they adorned themselves. They were distinct, but in retrospect, I noticed their jewelry was traditional. Perhaps because to a certain extent, it was what was expected. I was also fortunate to be raised in a family of readers. The circumstances converged to make me wonder how it would be to wear unique jewelry that mirrored the individuality of the wearer and told a story at the same time.

I was about 10 when I first read Rider Haggard's She. The story of adventure revolved around a queen named Ayesha who was probably my first literary feminist figure. When we moved to Manila, I designed a rather large six-inch wide pendant made from a pair of boar's tusks that I purchased in a northern market. I was 14 at the time, and Sister Carmen, the dean of students at our very conservative girl's school, was not amused. It was deemed more appropriate for a heathen than on a girl from an exclusive academic institution. It wasn't conventional but it resonated with me. I decided at a young age that I wanted to own only things that created that resonance, that were uncommon. I still collect rare and unusual objet d'art.

The focus of the line is on the South Sea pearl. What is the symbolic significance of the pearl to the Philippines and the rest of Asia?

The golden pearl was declared the national gem of the Philippines by then President Fidel Ramos. Asia has many gems but as the fight to protect the environment and the bodies of water on our planet continue, there's greater significance to the growth and well-being of the golden pearl. Because it is nurtured carefully in the most delicate of environments, the health of the world's oceans has a direct impact on the pearl. In a sense, the welfare of the golden pearl is tied to how we nurture and guard the planet's health.

You are Burmese, grew up in the Philippines, and have traveled all over Asia. Describe the process and challenges of transforming these experiences into ideas for your jewelry designs?

I was fortunate to be raised in the West by Western-educated parents though I am pure Asian by blood. This natural balance shaped my sense of aesthetics. The Asian side of me is drawn to delicate details and to the use of painstaking techniques. It is visible in every piece that I make. The global third-culture being in me is visible in some of the more modern techniques I use, the research that I conduct, and in the tight editing and literary bent of each collection.

Design is one space that Asians and Asian-Americans are very successful in. Who are some of your design role models that are Asian?

My design role models are, interestingly enough, not in the field of jewelry design nor is their work in any way similar to the kind of work that I do. I love the work of Japanese like Akira Kurosawa who wove powerful visual tapestries that fed my imagination. Sculptors of textile, like Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, inspire me to create sculptural pieces. Having said that, I am awestruck by the intricacies of carvings I see in Shwedagon Pagoda or Angkor Wat — every time I visit it, no matter if it is the thousandth time in my life.