Wynn Wynn Ong
Tells a Tale
There’s something weirdly whimsical and just a little bit absurd with the way Wynn Wynn Ong remembers her childhood in Burma: fishponds teeming with gems and the Moghak mountains birthing rubies in a blood-red haze. Maybe that’s why she was willing to do anything at the RED shoot, “save for hanging upside down.” Ong, clad in black, fields questions with a calm, motherly, and resolute tone, like an all-knowing film narrator in a favorite childhood film. “I used to think I don’t fear anything,” she says, with an unwavering seriousness that could make any far-fetched fable sound like fact.
For 15 years, the fantastical world of Wynn Wynn Ong has spawned a menagerie of gilded and waxcast creatures that are lauded for their painstaking intricacy as much as they are praised for being evocative historical emblems, lending some of our most hackneyed figures—Jose Rizal, pagan gods, trees—an added layer of enchantment.
“My 15th year [in the business] is a year of firsts,” says Ong. “I was thinking of ways to celebrate. I am also an educator”—which explains the demeanor—“and I believe in being a lifelong learner. The best way to celebrate is doing something new.” This month, the designer is set to launch her first ever collaboration with a luxury brand, a project conceived during an exhibit that celebrated a history that
“I like working with concepts. As I learn more, the concept becomes clearer and clearer, and I fear it less.”
was cast in stone. At a dinner for the Philippine Gold Exhibit in New York, where golden relics told of the country’s ancient rituals, expeditions, and beliefs, Ong met with Jewelmer Joaillerie’s Jacques Branellec, and both soon decided to enter their brands into a creative partnership. “It would be interesting to combine the precision and perfection of their pearls with the organic nature of my works,” says Ong. Think brooches, necklaces, earrings, and charms that straddle the reverent purity of the national gem and the riotous whimsy of her designs. Notwithstanding the differences in aesthetic, the designer states the obvious similarity between the two brands: “We both knew we wanted to create something that will last for generations.”
Apart from the collaboration, Ong is poised to dip her toes in the precarious realm of fashion design. From creating dainty bird minaudieres, she makes the leap to designing gowns for a fashion show. “I’ve had to study draping,” she frets, albeit calmly. “I’d been telling my friend that I am employing [this principle I’ve heard was called] layogenics, but just this morning, I realized that ‘ layo’ simply meant ‘far’—that the clothes are made to be seen [from a distance],” she says, with as much mirth and wonder as a student learning and blundering through a new craft.
To the question of whether the thought of stepping into unknown territory after 15 years of comfortably commanding the business of jewelry design scares her, she answers, “No, not really,” in that same calm, matter-of-fact tone. “I like working with concepts. As I learn more, the concept becomes clearer and clearer, and I fear it less.”
It must be the simplest binding philosophy that all her workers (who started with virtually no knowledge in jewelry design), her students, and this writer have, by now, realized: nothing should be feared so long as it can be learned. “No one can tell me, ‘ Hindi puwede ‘yan, Ma’am,’ because I find ways to do it,” Ong says. Relaying how she was able to learn everything, from cutting stones to melting wax and welding metals, this blow torch- and saw blade-wielding teacher proves that she is, as she puts it, “not your ordinary grandmother.”
Her two upcoming collections display her longstanding penchant for fantasy and mythology, both the stones and the fabrics carrying either Burmese references or figures from the Visayan pantheon of the gods, such as the virginal Alunsina lording over the Eastern skies. “Now that everything [has to] make a connection, you have to design with a global sensibility,” she says of constantly finding ways for local mythology’s worn-out tropes to charm and resonate with the world at large.
“If I weren’t a jewelry designer, I’d probably be a writer,” Ong reveals. “Not for fame, but simply to be able to tell a story.” Is this also what she tries to do with her jewelry? “[ When I’m gone],” she answers with certain wistfulness, “the Burmese part of the family dies.” If there is one thing she fears, she admits, it has something to do with mortality and loss. And this might be jewelry-making’s most romanticized assertion, even its simplest virtue: having something eternally cast in stone and creating objects that last long enough to tell a tale.