Friday May 18, 2012
The courtship with Baba Nyonya jewellery was a love-hate relationship for Jonathan Yun. The 46-year-old Penang-based jeweller begin flirting with Baba Nyonya elements back in his university days in Australia.
"My family was not of Baba Nyonya descent but I grew up surrounded by their rich culture. My maternal grandmother and grandaunt used to wear kebayas and my childhood friends lived in quaint pre-war houses with grand gilded doors. The smells of Baba Nyonya cuisine and the sounds of old George Town always stayed with me but it was only when I was working on my graduation show (back in the 1990s) that I revisited my childhood," he recalls.
While working on his thesis, Yun's appreciation for Baba Nyonya heritage grew and his passion was rekindled.
"My academic training taught me ‘less is more' but Baba Nyonya jewellery is often frighteningly garish. There are so many different designs crammed into one piece - it's an absolute design mess yet I found myself drawn to it despite its ‘loudness'."
Yun was a late bloomer in the jewellery scene, having only started his workshop in 2005. His pieces started to gain attention when he displayed them at Little Penang Street Market - a small flea market in the heritage enclave.
"I did not come from a goldsmith family nor did I have the funds to start my own line after graduating. Also, I wasn't sure whether anyone would buy my pieces at the time so I went to work for companies like Risis and Royal Selangor. At the back of my mind, I always knew I'd one day save enough to set up a workshop," he says.
Using simple, clean lines to "contain" the ornate traditional Baba Nyonya designs, Yun created pieces with a modern silhouette.
"I want to show that more can be more. The intricacy of the traditional designs are maintained but they are contained within the lines - that's my style."
Semi-precious stones were never featured in Baba Nyonya jewellery - not until Yun came along, that is.
"Usually you'll see the intan (unpolished diamond) in traditional Baba Nyonya jewellery. At the most, rubies, sapphires and pearls are used but these are rare. I incorporate semi-precious stones in my quasi-Baba Nyonya jewellery. I don't do replicas or reproductions but give these traditional designs my own spin," he explains.
The Baba Nyonya range is the anchor in his Vintage collection. He is currently collaborating with a Chinese jewellery manufacturer on a new imperial jade Baba Nyonya range.
"The exquisite stones will be set in gold and we hope to debut it in Singapore at a jewellery show in June."
Unsurprisingly, the certified divemaster, avid hiker and fern enthusiast's other collections are heavily inspired by nature. With Mother Nature as his muse, Yun's Flora, Butterfly Wings and Underwater collections celebrate the fragile preciousness of life.
From crosiers (the coiled end of a fern) to vibrant encased butterfly wings and exotic sea creatures, Yun carefully immortalises the intricate details in his creations.
Silver is Yun's metal of choice and he waxes lyrical about it.
"Silver has a mysterious, organic appearance. It goes through a myriad of colours during the oxidisation process - yellow, amber, purple, brown and grey, before turning black. It's very interesting.
My jewellery is heavily textured so the oxidisation process actually enhances the finish, making the pieces ‘pop'."
Despite leaving home to study design and fine arts in the LaSalle College of the Arts in Singapore before heading to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), the Malaysian flavour is undeniable in his masterpieces.
Spices like the star anise, lotus seed pod, onion, cannonball tree and even an old colonial shophouse, are some of the local elements found in his designs.
Paying homage to lush Penang Botanic Gardens, Yun transforms the flowers of the cannonball tree into unique pieces that embody the essence of his homestate's natural beauty.
Yun is excited about his next endeavour - a batik range under the Vintage collection.
"I stumbled upon jasper stones that bore a close resemblance to the batik motif so I'm looking to explore the possibilities," he shares.
Though his roots and culture are evident in his work, Yun insists it's not contrived.
"I don't just incorporate elements that I think will sell or appeal to certain markets - the subject must touch me."
"Life" is a word Yun likes to use to sum up his work.
"It encompasses nature, lifestyle, who I am and all that God has blessed me with," the soft-spoken craftsman muses.
As an artisan, the best compliment he's received from a client is that "one can always tell a Jonathan Yun original".
When his coral designs were "openly copied and hijacked", Yun - dejected and disillusioned, almost bid goodbye to the world of jewellery designing.
"I continued because I realised that this is what I was meant to do."
His growing legion of admirers would surely agree.
* Jonathan Yun's collections are available in Penang at the E&O Hotel, Spice Garden and Yun's studio at 88, Armenian Street; Mori Pin and Spice of Life Valencia in Kuala Lumpur; Bonton and Andaman in Langkawi; and Pangkor Laut Resort, Pangkor.