Wing Yau, founder of Wwake, might describe herself as a purveyor of understated gemstone jewelry, but her work is as much wearable art as adornment.
Yau graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in sculpture, and Wwake’s core collection started as small-scale artworks. “I didn’t really ever imagine [jewelry making] for myself, to be honest,” she recalls. “I was really just interested in manipulating materials and exploring different textures. And then the pieces that felt most like jewelry were of course the ones that took off.” She launched Wwake in 2013.
Yau, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who was born and raised in Vancouver, has never been interested in making fine jewelry in the traditional sense. One of her innovations was to apply art-world concepts like seriality to her work, adding one element at a time to a single form, resulting in two-step, three-step, four-step pieces. Another was to incorporate craft processes like weaving, in series that riff on the textile art of Sheila Hicks.
When she started making rings, she thought about what an anti-ring might look like. Could she avoid having a center stone? Or, if there was a center stone, could she make it look like it was floating away from the setting?
Working with precious stones didn’t particularly appeal to Yau either. Opals, most often considered semiprecious, proved to be an ideal starting point. The opal is “a little bit understated, it’s not flashy, but it has an iridescent glimmer,” she says. “Plus, every opal is different.” And it bears mentioning that opalescence is trending in the work of younger fine artists and designers. “My generation is the one of holographic stickers,” Yau says. “Kids had color-changing T-shirts, spoons.”
Though Yau now also uses diamonds, sapphires, moonstones, tourmalines, citrines, sunstones, and pearls in her jewelry, opals remain her signature stone. A lot of designers are identified by a single style or motif—think Elsa Peretti’s biomorphic forms—but to Yau, trained as a fine artist, that seems stifling. “To have a stone as a signature is a dream for me as a designer and as an artist,” she says, “because that really gives me a lot of room to explore.”