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.

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