When Tuan Lee Unlocked The Secrets Of Her Jewellery Collection.

It is a short walk from St John’s Wood Tube station to Tuan Lee’s London apartment. I walked past the famous crossing on Abbey Road. 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.

Who Is Tuan Lee?

Tuan is a small Singaporean woman with bold tastes and a significant enthusiasm for collecting jewellery. Her love is specifically for 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 varies from the norm.

One of my earliest pieces "Podium Neck Wreath Gold" originally in the collection of Tuan Lee now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. A gold coloured neck piece of regular mechanical shapes with iridescent inlay worn by the owner a Singaporean lady with short hair bright red lipstick and a black top.
One of my earliest pieces “Podium Neck Wreath Gold” originally in the collection of Tuan Lee now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Photo: Poppy Porter

Her collection was in evidence all over her small apartment. It seemed every surface was covered in works by artists I recognised. These were 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 were 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 and as she offers me a moon cake I see I am surrounded by artworks. There are sculptures (including a Henry Moore), ceramics, paintings and of course jewellery.

Where is Tuan Lee’s Collection From?

All the time we are talking, she is showing me pieces from her collection. The range of her collecting is extensive geographically (she has pieces from South Africa, USA, Russia, Japan, UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, Greece to name a few) it is also and made from so many different materials. There is jewellery made from plastic and found objects, stone, non-precious metals, leather, silver, enamels and gold. Most of her collection centres on art jewellery in non-precious materials.

Big rings and bracelets from Tuan's collection
Big rings and bracelets from Tuan’s collection Photo: Thomas Lisle Coe-Brooker

How Did Tuan Start Collecting Jewellery?

Tuan Lee started collecting ceramics and paintings before she collected contemporary jewellery. Her introduction to jewellery came in the early 1990s in Santa Fe. In the habit of buying a painting wherever she went, 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. By then it 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.

Disappointing UK Opportunities

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 the 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. I wonder if she travelled north to MIMA or Kath Libbert or The Scottish Gallery whether her opinion would change.

Read more about Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) in my post about the opening of their jewellery gallery.

Ease of Wear is Very Important

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!

Tuan wears a Paul Derrez necklace from Galerie Ra
Tuan wears a Paul Derrez necklace from Galerie Ra Photo: Thomas Lisle Coe-Brooker

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!”

Once Owned By Elizabeth Taylor

She brings out what is one of the chunkiest silver bracelets I’ve ever seen. It turns out to be a Louis Osman silver cuff from the 1960s that was once owned by Elizabeth Taylor. Tuan Lee describes an unusual technique the jeweller used to make the bracelet. He built up wax over many days to create the organic texture of the cuff bracelet. He presumably then cast it in silver. Tuan encourages me to try it on, she is not precious about he jewellery being handled and worn, that is its purpose. This bracelet despite its weight is incredibly comfortable and has an ingenious screw clasp that incorporates one of the uncut turquoises set into the bracelet. A masterclass in stunning jewellery that takes account of the comfort of the wearer.

My favourite piece from her collection a chunky silver and turquoise bracelet once owned by Liz Taylor.
My favourite piece from Tuan Lee’s collection a chunky silver and turquoise bracelet by Louis Osman that was once owned by Liz Taylor. Photo: Thomas Lisle Coe-Brooker

What Of The Future?

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” now in the V&A] by Marjorie Schick, I’ve looked at it and loved it. Eventually, Paul [Derrez, Galerie Ra] 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 critical moment. Even the most desired jewel by the most established and well-known artist can fall at this hurdle.

Tuan Lee’s Growing Jewellery Collection

I ask her what catches her eye when looking for new pieces. 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. There are 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. Then 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.” It shows Jewellery as an art form still has some persuading to do.

Hands holding large colourful wooden bracelet, "Dance The Night Away" by Poppy Porter
Tuan Lee holds “Dance The Night Away” bracelet by Poppy Porter

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.

What is Tuan Lee’s Favourite Piece of Jewellery?

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.

Poppy Porter and Tuan Lee wearing All you Need is Telstar by Porter/Lopez and Blue Collar by Carrie Dickens
Poppy Porter and Tuan Lee wearing All you Need is Telstar by Porter/Lopez and Blue Collar by Carrie Dickens

Further Reading: an interview with Tuan Lee in the Financial Times

This blog post formed the basis of an article in the Singapore edition of Adorned and this post on Prestige with Melissa Pearce