When Wallace Chan was 15 years old, he had no money, no prospects and no idea of who he was.
He’d grown up in poverty in Hong Kong and only spent two years at school. His uncle gave him two suggestions: he could become a mechanic or become a gem-carver's apprentice.
He chose the latter and 50 years on he has become one of the world’s most famous jewellery artists. His creations – a menagerie of animals and insects out of rubies, sapphires, and diamonds – sell in the tens of millions of dollars.
In 2015 he broke the then record for the most expensive piece of jewellery – a $200 million diamond necklace.
Ordinarily draped around necks out of view of the public eye – or perhaps secreted into vaults – these works are on display at The Wheel of Time exhibition at Christie’s London until Sunday.
Despite the wealthy circles he now travels in, Chan has maintained his humility.
He describes himself as in service to the gemstones he works with, as he looks at them in different kinds of light and draws on his vast experience to understand how best to carve, facet or set them.
“They are like your children,” he says. “You have to know your gemstones – what kind of attitude they might have, what it wants to be, how it interacts with stones around it. Just like a parent learns to understand a child and how to raise it best.”
Gems react differently to the light, he says. Rubies and sapphires are of equal hardness, but rubies show themselves best under warm light and sapphires want bright, cooler tones. Almost all gems, he says, want to be in the sunlight.
This is Christie’s fifth exhibition of Chan’s work and his first and largest in Europe, comprising 150 works. His prior shows were in Hong Kong and Shanghai, where most of his collectors are based.
This isn’t an exhibition of items for sale, but it raises Chan’s profile among a new base of collectors and emphasises his work as an artist as much as a jeweller. Clear motifs become visible across his work – not just the butterflies, which he is best known for, but also bright green and golden dragonflies, a frog with an obscenely large stomach made of an extremely large jewel, and flowers whose gem-encrusted petals curve gently inwards.
His large-scale sculptures are on also on show for the first time, which wrest titanium into a flowing, organic form.
Chan says he is happy he did not become a car mechanic – which might be one of the understatements of the century.
“I chose something closer to eternity,” he says. “You cannot guarantee a car will last. But materials like jade and titanium will outlive us, and so will the stories I make from them.”
Wallace Chan: The Wheel of Time is at Christie’s London until Sunday