An interview with: Penang-based sculptural jeweller Jonathan Yun
Finding beauty in nature
While Malaysia has a local pool of talented designers that never ceases to amaze on an international scale, there is the occasional skilled individual who is armed with talent and an impeccable eye for design—but much prefers to keep it under wraps while staying true to his/her ethos. Penang-based sculptural jewellery designer Jonathan Yun, is one such craftsman. With almost two decades of experience under his belt, Yun is famous for his "neo-Peranakan" designs that take inspiration from Penang's rich culture. Tucked in a heritage shophouse along Armenian Street in Georgetown, Yun's store is a must-see for a range of exquisite, handmade nature-influenced jewellery and if you're also interested in commissioning a specific piece of jewellery from the artist himself.
Find out what inspires the jewellery artisan along with his favourite materials to work with in an interview below:
Tell us about your background in jewellery design.
I graduated from RMIT University in Australia majoring in Fine Metals. I fell in love with jewellery-making when I was still in my foundation year in design school. I've been designing for about 19 years, my shop has been situated in Penang for about 10 years now.
It's been mentioned that your work combines minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic and Baroque influences—do you find it hard to create something unique but wearable for clients?
From the get go, I stood by my point of view in terms of design direction but of course tempered with what I perceived the market would accept. There really is no point in doing all of what the market wants and none of what you really want.
What are some of the challenges you've faced as a jewellery designer?
My work gets copied everywhere. When I started out, I was approached by various parties who wanted to market my pieces in Kuala Lumpur, and along the way my designs were hijacked and claimed as theirs. The challenge is managing the emotions as I go through situations as such and to overcome the unfairness of it all, battling throwing in the towel.
What is your most memorable or favourite piece of jewellery you've made, and why?
It would have to be the Phoenix as it documents the journey I'd went through, with the bird rising from the ashes of despair. This represented my journey after discovering that my designs were stolen and copied in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. That piece symbolized leaving of the past behind and starting anew.
What are your works usually inspired by?
I'd say God's creation, that is nature.
What are the materials that you usually work with?
I work mainly with Sterling silver. Each collection is distinct according to the subject and source of inspiration and is not defined by the materials used.
Are there any new or unconventional materials you'd like to explore?
I've used many unconventional materials in the past like butterfly wings, bugs, fossils, sharks tooth. I am currently keen to explore glass, fabrics and textiles and incorporating them into my designs.
Do you think that there is a part of the body should be highlighted more in terms of jewellery i.e. the neck, wrist, ears?
Definitely the ears! Fashion went through a decade of no-earrings but trends come and go, and now earrings are back because its impossible to ditch something that had worked, is working and will continue to work in the future.
Tell us more about your latest collection, the Acropora Coral collection.
It's my break out collection, a bold splash into the deep blue of fashion. I have never ventured into the world of fashion in all my years of a jewellery artist, although my pieces have made it into pages of top fashion magazines (only that they were never credited to me.) Acropora is about the sureness and boldness of who I am in terms of design, and in a way its also a celebration of non-conformity.
What is an important lesson(s) you've learned throughout your journey as a jewellery artist?
Never give up something that is worth fighting for but choose wisely which battle to fight.
What is one most bizarre piece that you were commissioned to do?
It would be the binding wire wedding bands that were commissioned by the bride who had a heart problem when she was young. She kept the binding wires that were removed by the surgeon all these years and wanted to incorporate it into their wedding bands.
Walk us through your design process for each collection.
My design inspirations are centred around my interests so it's not too difficult. Clients do help as they know know whats spurs me on—they bring me leaves or shells from their travels. My most inspired moments come from my travels that were initially supposed to be a break from work, but I end up getting more inspired so I tend to fall back to working. Once you free up your mind, ideas just flow in easily.
After I zero into a subject matter, I begin a series of rough sketches in scraps of paper, be it receipts, napkins, tickets or anything that I can scribble on at the spur of the moment. I'd sleep on the idea and if I find it good the next day, it would be realized in wax models. The not-so-good ideas would fizzle away as quickly as they appear. Once an idea actualizes into a physical entity, it still is in a state of flux and changes are often made until I reach a stage where the design has found a resting place—then it will be the final design. Sometimes there are detours and I get lost as well but its all part of the fun in designing.
What do you love the most about Penang?
Definitely, the food!
How do you constantly stay inspired?
As I've mentioned previously, freeing the mind is an exercise I commit to do—whether it's a well-deserved sleep in, going for a massage, meditating, or going on a vacation. I make sure I do that often to keep the mind well-oiled to produce a steady stream of ideas.
Check out Jonathan Yun's designs on his Facebook and website here, or visit his store located at 152, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, Georgetown, Penang. His designs are available in Penang at The Bombay Shop at E&O Hotel, The Spice Garden; Bonton Resort Langkawi, Pangkot Laut Resort, Gaya Island Resort in Sabah, and Moripin in BSC.