It is a short walk from St John’s Wood Tube station to Tuan Lee’s London flat. You walk past the famous crossing on Abbey Road where an endless stream of Beatles pilgrims and tourists re-create that shot from that album cover while a resigned white van driver or two looks on. When I arrive, the concierge calls up ahead of me, and I am met at the door by a friendly and already chatty Tuan.
Tuan is a small Singaporean woman with bold tastes and a significant enthusiasm for collecting jewellery, specifically contemporary or art jewellery but not exclusively. Based in Singapore Tuan travels the world following her passion, searching for new and exciting pieces of jewellery. She is a regular visitor to the UK and relies on public transport often taking the bus around London. Her jewellery may be big, but it also has to be practical. Although her definition of practical may vary from the norm.
Her collection was in evidence all over the flat it seemed every surface was covered in works by artists I recognised both displayed in cabinets and scattered across various surfaces. The dining room table was a cornucopia of rings and necklaces, some just purchased in boxes, some just taken off. The evidence of having it all to hand, trying on and choosing as her mood dictates all around her living space. As she makes us both a coffee, she chats freely about the latest galleries she has visited. We settle down in her living room on worn sofas surrounded by artworks, sculpture (including a Henry Moore), ceramics, paintings and of course jewellery.
All the time we are talking she is showing me pieces from her collection and the range of her collecting is extensive both geographically (she has pieces from South Africa, USA, Russia, Japan, UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, Greece to name a few) and covers all materials from plastic and found objects to enamels and gold. Most of her collection centres on art jewellery in non-precious materials.
She started collecting ceramics and paintings before she collected contemporary jewellery and her introduction to jewellery came in the early 1990’s in Santa Fe. In the habit of buying a painting wherever she goes, she had found one that caught her eye. However, ever keen to ensure a good deal she was waiting for the gallery assistant to negotiate a price with the artist over the phone. A necklace grabbed her attention, a beautiful one with cloisonné butterflies and beads. She bought it on the spot.
She started collecting in the UK in 1997 when she was encouraged to visit the now sadly closed Lesley Craze Gallery, which by then had moved from its original Islington location to Clerkenwell Green in the east of the City of London. A little apprehensive about visiting that area of London she nonetheless followed her curiosity and visited the gallery. She liked what she saw and came away having purchased two necklaces both by Japanese artists.
Right from the start of our conversation Tuan Lee is openly disappointed with the opportunities for collecting jewellery in the UK, it would seem art jewellers are hard to find; “My opinion is that [makers] can’t show their work properly in London, you need continental gallery as there are so few places. They have nowhere to show, there is Collect but the Crafts council only showcase a couple of makers, and it is mostly European galleries. There are very few places in the UK for contemporary jewellery. There was Lesley Craze, but I feel sorry for British, there is nowhere to show their work, the British market is timid.” Her view is very international, and that of the UK is a London-centric one, she gave me the impression contemporary jewellery is hard to find in the UK even for a practised collector.
Wearability is Paramount
Travelling around the world on a similar schedule each year, gallery owners from Galerie Ra in Amsterdam, Flow in London, Patina in Santa Fe, Helen Drutt in Philadelphia and Charon Kransen in New York would keep pieces back for her that they knew she would like. She takes time to tell me that she buys most of her art on her credit card to maximise the number of air miles she collects, self-propelling jewellery collecting!
What comes across as really close to her heart during our conversation is the wearability of the jewellery she buys and the quality of the craftsmanship, “I don’t see why I should buy a necklace and something goes wrong very soon and then I have to wait for it to be mended. I bought a collar of Super Man in New York, and it looks quite nice. But it turned out there are three pieces of plastic that were not finished properly, and they stick into my neck, so it was not a good buy. [The maker] should have finished it off properly and it has gone out of shape.”
Ease of wear is also a prime concern, “If I struggle and struggle and can’t put it on I can’t stand that. I Like a T-bar clasp best. [Jewellery] has to be easy to put on or I can’t wear it even if I want to!”
The conversation moves on to what pieces or artists she would most like to collect in the future? She reveals that her collecting is not planned, “As long as I’m around I will get new pieces, I buy what I like and see at the time. I loved a necklace [“Ring of Fire” in the V&A] by Marjorie Schick, I’ve looked at it and loved it. Eventually, Paul [Derrez] in Amsterdam had one I tried it on but did not like it! It was a stiff piece of wood!” She has lighted on that essential element of jewellery as an art form, the moment you wear a piece of jewellery for the first time. A moment so critical that even the most desired jewel by the most established and well-known artist can fall at this hurdle.
A Growing Collection
I ask her what catches her eye when looking for new pieces, and her response is short and to the point – the more striking, bigger and more colourful the better. That is in evidence around her flat; there are pieces by some of the best-known names in contemporary jewellery. Two of my favourite makers Peter Chang and Adam Paxon are much in evidence, but also contemporaries of mine, such as Regina Aradesian and I recognise a couple of pieces from more recent graduates, in particular, an orange 3D printed collar by Carrie Dickens. She agrees to model a few pieces for me and explains how she has to leave Singapore to find the jewellery she loves, “They are only interested in fine jewellery, not art jewellery in Singapore they consider anything not gold to be worthless. What is this trash? They say. So no museum in Singapore would be interested in my collection.” Jewellery as an art form still has some persuading to do.
How to house her growing collection is a problem. Her search continues for the best jewellery pieces and the ones that have become an established part of her collection need to move over for the new. She is discussing housing part of her collection with various museums and a couple of her pieces by Adam Paxon and Jane Adam are already in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She is keen her collection would be on display and not just in storage and is going to some pains to negotiate space for it. Posterity is vital to her and for her collection.
Finally, I ask her what her favourite piece is, her answer is instantaneous, “My favourite piece is always the new one! I always wear my latest purchase.” Here, despite her jet-setting lifestyle, I think she is exactly like every jewellery lover deep down we love treasure, the treasure hunt and finding something new and shiny that speaks our language.