The genuine article

A purely cerebral process denies a piece its soul whereas a purely emotion-driven piece may fail to function as it should because it was ill-conceived.

— Wynn Wynn Ong

Johanna Poblete on Wynn Wynn Ong

PHOTOGRAPHY  JASON QUIBILAN

“If paintings don’t punch you in the gut, they have no business being on your wall,” says jewelry designer Wynn Wynn Ong, noticing the High Life team’s interest in (and this writer’s perturbation over) the dark-themed canvases mounted all over her studio, in striking contrast to the fiery flashes of warm metals and colored gems scattered about on desks and secreted in shelves.

In the foyer is an unfinished chinoiserie cage festooned with ornamental sculptures in jade or plated in gold, but also an eerie painting by Tatong Recheta Torres of a blind albino girl and her dark male companion depicted in a dour workshop. Step into Ms. Ong’s personal workspace, and amid jewelry displays and objets d’art are hidden-faced men in suits painted by Allan Balisi on canvases that she has placed side by side as a diptych. These pull you in, practically inviting you to delve into their mysterious world.

But the focal point of her office is a painting by Alvin Villaruel, titled Touchdown, which shows a massive, roiling, pitch-black twister, mere inches away from ripping into a placid rice field. It captures a moment of tension: the tornado is poised to fall… but will it spin in the opposite direction without actually laying waste to the ground?

Evocative? Quite. Powerful? Definitely. Unsettling? Not to a lady whose Burmese name means “bright” and “radiant,” yet readily admits that she has her moments of sadness, and even a keen interest in antique memento mori. “I like the word ‘melancholy,’ because there’s an affinity to being melancholy. The paintings, they’re gray tones, dark tones, but I believe that being melancholy produces more profound things,” she says. “I think if I were Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I would not be producing this kind of work, maybe?”

Ms. Ong does not hesitate to collect what fascinates her, but she felt particularly compelled to purchase the buhawi painting after seeing its image on the gallery exhibit invitation—despite the fact that at the time she was just about to board a plane to Singapore, and somebody had already beaten her to the punch and reserved the art piece. Learning the sale hadn’t been made official, she immediately offered to send a check and won the bid. “I was so stressed when I bought it, and I think it reflected my emotions,” she recalls. “I didn’t know—do I want to continue with the business? Because I’m not, by nature, a business person. I love everything about it, except the running of it. I don’t want to do business. I want to do creative things.”

Charmed one

Ms. Ong’s creative bent—and love of pretty baubles—became apparent when, as a precocious six- or seven-year-old, she made her first “crown” from aluminum foil, stolen from the kitchen, and a few Christmas ornaments. “It came on the heels of my fascination with the British Crown Jewels. My majestic moment lasted about a day before my mother spotted her hand-blown Venetian glass balls bobbing up and down from the taped ends of the crumpled foil,” she says.

“Win” (as she spelled her name as a child) was always getting “sent to the corner” for borrowing her mother’s things, such as authentic saris she used for makeshift canopies and fortresses. “I was the tomboy who rode a bike but always felt like a princess,” she says.

Born in Burma (before it became Myanmar), she grew up surrounded by gems that all the women in her family adorned themselves with on a daily basis, even for mundane chores such as arranging flowers. “As a child, I was fascinated with my grandmother’s toilette—she would carefully select her jeweled buttons for her Mandarin-style eingyi and her bracelets so they would be a shade deeper than her longyi. She wore jeweled tortoiseshell and gem-studded gold combs in her waist-length hair, which was worn in a high bun. She would prepare herself this way even if she was having tea alone. This was just the way she was—very proper,” says Ms. Ong.

Her great-grandmother also embedded semi-precious stones—garnet, peridot, sapphire, ruby, amethyst, spinel, tourmaline, etc.—in the fishpond. “Every household in Burma stored their wealth in the form of gold and gems. Even a woman selling fish from a basket in a market will wear gold bangles and gem-studded rings,” she explains. “It was not uncommon for some households to have semi-precious rough stones in their aquariums and ponds.”

The tomboy princess, who would spend summers in her ancestral home even after her small family moved abroad, got caught with her hand in the fish tank, playing with the decorative carpet of uncut gems. She says it was her “earliest manifestation of a life-long interest in creatures,” a predilection now expressed via her highly detailed, nature-inspired wearable art. “I had a pet red-eared slider turtle, a hamster, goldfish, and a pet lizard as a child—and large, amiable dogs and mildly neurotic cats as an adult,” she says.

Based in Vienna in the 1960s (her father was a nuclear physicist at the International Atomic Energy Agency and her mother, a sociologist and librarian, worked for the US Information Service), Ms. Ong remembers fondly a “magic realist” childhood, peopled with a motley crew of characters of various nationalities and quirks—among them a Filipino West Point graduate and career army officer with a great cook for a wife and 13 children; a whiskey-drinking saxophone-playing Vietnamese with a facility for languages; a debonair Pakistani scientist whose Danish wife was a doppelganger of Princess Alexandra of Kent; and an Indian family with their hunch-backed, slightly mad cook. “It was a fabulous way to grow up. We were, literally, the United Nations—so diverse and yet so similar,” she says.

On holidays, the family would travel around Europe and Asia, visiting “the souks of Istanbul, the gold markets of Beirut and Karachi, and the gem emporiums of Chandni Chowk in Delhi.” Such exposure engendered a passion for gems. “How the Cullinan Diamond and various large gems from India and Burma ended up in the Imperial State Crown completely absorbed me,” says Ms. Ong.

‘Midnight hobbyist’ turns pro

When her father passed away, the family moved to Manila, where her mother was the first female professional hired by the Asian Development Bank. Then, as now, the teenaged Ms. Ong, had an eye for the extraordinary and a rebellious heart. Rather than get stuck with what was available, she started making accessories of her own. “My first necklace was a leather cord with a pair of boar’s tusks from the market in Baguio, when I was 14 years old. I wore it on top of my Assumption uniform for about 30 minutes before it was noticed and I was asked to remove it,” she says.

Ms. Ong never quite broke the habit of collecting oddities to create wearable art. The arduous task was as much to soothe her soul as an outlet for her creative imagination. So in 2001, when she found herself at loose ends, after having sent her youngest to college, she started tinkering with silver and gold-filled wire and her mother’s strands of semi-precious stones. Her woven cuffs and rings easily caught the eye of stylist Michael Salientes.

“The pieces I had made were only for myself but Michael felt they were good enough to be sold in Corso Como. The pieces were more therapy than anything—I made all my pieces late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, on my bed,” says Ms. Ong. “I was forced to move beyond the midnight hobby mode when my designs became increasingly complex. We registered with the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) a few years later.”

Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, proprietors of Firma, were the first to feature Ms. Ong’s work. At the time, no one besides her had dared to make chunky pieces with “tumbled” non traditional stones. “She used labradorite and kunzite, stones I’ve never heard of,” says Mr. Vijandre. “She has a very unusual choice of stones, like the Paraiba; it’s mined in Brazil and it’s very rare.”

Adds Mr. Toledo: “It was unlike anything we saw around trade shows, jewelry shows, and fashion accessory shows in Europe and around Asia. Up to now, the things she makes are never what you see in the market.She has the gift of knowing how to combine the right colors, the right textures and shapes of stones, and how to put it together that everything harmonizes.”

Avid collectors started asking each other, “Is that a Wynn Wynn Ong?” as magazines clamored to feature her work. “She couldn’t keep up, she was only making it by herself, and it sold out very fast,” says Mr. Toledo. “Nag-away-away pa ’yung mga clients. One wanted this, and the other wanted the same thing.”

Opening day of her trunk shows were a hit. “Women were grabbing frantically… becoming unladylike in trying to get first dibs at her collection,” remembers Mr. Toledo. “She wouldn’t show clients until the opening, so they were really waiting until the doors opened to finally see [the collection] and try them on.”

Mari Cris Olbes, Ms. Ong’s dearest friend and one of her first clients, will not part with one of those long-ago chunky bracelets made of multicolored tourmalines, never mind that her daughters covet it. “Wynn makes every piece look rich. Her joie de vivre just comes out… she’s not big on restraint, she really goes all out. It’s like a tapestry of all kinds of colors and all kinds of combinations,” says Ms. Olbes.

What makes the jewelry so covetable is Ms. Ong’s painstaking detail-work; in this era of 3-D printing, she prefers laborious hand-crafting. Rarely do present-day designers employ ancient methods like lost-wax casting, where each piece is first sculpted in wax that will be eventually be dissolved by molten metal. “The wax is displaced; you lose what you’ve sculpted forever,” she says. “It would make more financial sense to make 20 variations of the same piece by making a mold and merely varying the gems, but that doesn’t interest me. My clients understand that by sticking to my policy of only making one piece per design, I lock out the possibility of my using that design for someone else. It is essentially haute couture.”

She admits to being “time-inefficient” because every piece she makes goes through a minimum of 10 phases: conceptualization, research, sketching and technical layout, sculpting in wax, spruing, casting, cleaning, benchwork (soldering, sawing, cutting, setting), cleaning again (polishing, tumbling, steaming), plating or final setting. Once finished, the piece is fully documented in technical drawings and photographs. “It’s the way we choose to do things because how else do you preserve the wonderful traditions that existed before our time and we hope will continue to exist beyond our lifetime?”

She makes an average of 250 pieces every year, mainly composed of jewelry and objets d’art.  She doesn’t retail directly, and can only be bought locally at Firma, or via in-house trunk shows. Much of her work is bespoke, with a select few clients.

At least once a year, she also takes part in fundraisers and charity auctions. In nearly 15 years of being a jewelry designer, Ms. Ong has only come up with six limited-edition collections.

The benchmark of an artisan or artisanal work, she says, is to produce pieces of high quality, and in small quantities. “It’s a celebration of craft, it is something that is done without mass production. They are—usually—one-of-a-kind pieces. In every sense of the word, it is artisanal, because from the very start, from the thought process, down to the very end where you finish four stages of quality control, every piece has a hallmark of every individual that works for you.”

Mr. Toledo says a metamorphosis occurs in the laborious process of creating Ms. Ong’s jewelry, which is “organic and florid” and cannot be replicated by machinery. “Between her mind and the drawing and the first wax sculpture, somehow it evolves. There’s a mind and a hand working there, so the piece changes every second, every minute. It cannot be done exactly in the same way, move by pattern or by rote. It changes, it evolves,” he says.

Computer design, says Ms. Ong, is too industrial and not at all organic. “Design of human crafting is not present because the machine makes sure the wax is perfect. That’s what they do—the wax injection, the molds—and it’s precision. You can set diamonds now with lasers,” she explains. At Artisanal Works, Inc., Ms. Ong’s atelier, everything is done by hand. “What’s important is the mark of the human hand and the crafting,” she says.  

Infinity in one’s palm

It’s almost reverent, the way the team works at Artisanal Works Inc. Everyone takes responsibility for their own space. The discipline is almost ritualistic. “We start with the same frame of mind, the same music… we are always on the same page. It really works,” says Ms. Ong, who opens all the windows for natural airflow, lights incense sticks, and offers up a Buddhist prayer before knuckling down.

There’s a healthy respect among the members of the production team—a bevy of sculptors, former carpenters, and technicians she plucked from Pangarap Foundation—none of whom have had any formal education in gems, Ms. Ong included. “My knowledge is self-taught and gleaned from what I saw and learned growing up. When I went into this profession seriously, I made the commitment to attend classes together with my men so that I understand all the processes and could make educated decisions. I can handle a mini-blowtorch, solder, and use a saw blade if I have to,” she says.

Clients make appointments to drop by for an unhurried chat. Ms. Ong makes time for them, but the tacit understanding is she needs space to create.

“She sits down with them to conceptualize,” says Tiny Guidotti, chief operating officer of Artisanal Works Inc. “Our clients know that she’s an artist, and that it takes a while. It’s a back-and-forth, it’s really a learning process for both.”  A recent client made eight visits in the past three months for several pieces in the making.

Bespoke jewelry has exact measurements of the face, ear, and neck, even the space between the clavicle and the midrib, and the position of the holes in the earlobes. Minute adjustments are made on the design depending on how it will affect the fall of jewelry. You’ll even see the workmen wearing some of the jewelry—just to determine whether the wearer will be able to take the weight.

Sometimes clients bring found objects to Ms. Ong. “My husband would find a shell on a beach and would give it to her and she would dream up something,” says Ms. Olbes. “She is nice enough to accommodate because I really don’t think she has time to do that, but she also gets kilig that the other person thought of showing her something he found.” As a designer, Ms. Ong finds everything inherently interesting, regardless of whether they are found objects or gems worth six figures. Some of her most interesting pieces, she says, “contrast the relevant with the irrelevant, the seemingly worthless with the worthwhile.” She has combined Bakelite with brown diamonds and aquamarines with carved bone. The patina of tahong, which she has used for a chest of drawers, she compares favorably with verdigris.

“I’m interested in things with stories. I really am. Wood, for me, is far more interesting than plastic because wood has an inherent shape. The rings are about its life and what it went through, so the grain of the wood speaks something about the material. The same way horn is so diverse, all types of horn, the striations, the depth,” says Ms. Ong. “Things that I find at the beach are beautiful; stones are part of the burning process of the volcanic eruption that gave birth to that particular stone, to that particular glass. There is an inherent story in everything. So when I see something, I can feel a kinship to it.”

“Secrets,” a popular collection, felt almost interactive in the way it invited a sense of play and discovery: giant charms concealing a surprise such as a fat squirrel hiding an acorn; a pendant in three layers that locked together and formed a story; or even a tiny ornamental beetle that found sanctuary in a drawer, hidden away from the gang of geckos on the outside. “You know they’re all searching because they hear the beetle, they can hear the chirp—where is it? The only guy who found it is just staying really still,” says the whimsical Ms. Ong. “I think we all tell stories, we just do it in various ways.”

While her stories are extensively researched and meticulously rendered, they still have heart. It’s all about balance. “A purely cerebral process denies a piece its soul whereas a purely emotion-driven piece may fail to function as it should because it was ill-conceived,” she warns.

This September, she was invited to show at Filipino Design Now, an exhibit at the Asia Society Museum paired with the Manhattan debut of the 10th and 13th century gold collections of the Ayala Museum and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. The artisanal team pored over pictures, books, and templates to achieve an aesthetic that was not anomalous to the time period—the result was a “black and gold” collection, a deliberate departure from her usual color given that “the Philippines does not have a rich history in colored stones,” and emulating the matte finish of gold from a period where coconut husk was used to burnish gold (she did that too).

You could say there’s a bit of madness in her method: boxes dubbed “works in progress” repose in her shelves, labeled “Things Mrs. Ong Is Still Working On” or “Things That Mrs. Ong Is Still Thinking About,” and in some instances stuck with Post-Its: “No, I’m not very sure,” “Cannot stand, awful” or “Mrs. Ong said NO!”

Three years ago, she decided to overhaul “Archipelago,” a Filipino-themed collection, two months before it was supposed to show at open auction in London, because “it was not gelling perfectly.” It took incorporating miniature oil paintings, mounted via the old method of repoussé, to achieve the look she wanted. It must have been a good decision as one of her neckpieces, meant to emulate Spanish lace and featuring a baroque pearl pendant, sold for £10,000. “It was an outright donation from me, and the single highest price raised at that auction,” she says.

When the High Life team visited the studio on a typical working Friday, there was a buzzing in the air, the industry of men and women crafting the latest jewelry collection at the workshop. At the same time, a hushed energy, a bated-breath stillness, could be felt as Ms. Ong sat at her desk, wearing her pencil to a nub, sketching her designs.

She is past that long-ago moment of indecision, and these days, her creativity has free rein. “Now, I enjoy running it [the business], because now I understand it… And also, because I have people who give me sanity, you know?” she says. The painting of the tornado serves as a reminder to keep her heart in the right place. “People don’t realize it at the time, and I don’t know if it’s because of ego, or if they have no time, or if they forget the very reason they went into something, because if you’re at a height and you’re looking forward to your whatever, you tend to forget, but it’s important not to,” she says. “If one doesn’t have the power of passion, one really cannot continue. One really has to be swept up in whatever they do.”