Fann Zhang spent many days of her childhood learning to paint at the Beijing Youth Palace. She sketched at the Forbidden City so often that its textures and colours left an imprint on her imagination. As she grew older, and eventually studied jewellery at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, it was a natural choice to pursue a master’s thesis on court jewellery and artisanal culture. Zhang went beyond the Qing Dynasty, during which art had evolved to incorporate both Manchu and Mongol traditions, to much earlier Han aesthetics. There she found a preference for simplicity rather than complexity — contrary, it seems, to popular stereotypes of ancient Chinese jewellery.
It was this study that led Zhang to rediscover the ancient processes of gold and silver mesh making. The technique has long history in China, but was used exclusively for jewellery for Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) emperors and royals. One of the most beautiful Chinese crowns ever unearthed was that of the Wanli Emperor in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was made of coiled and woven gold mesh, and featured a dragon adorned with pearls and 20 other jewels.
Beginning in 2003, Zhang trained in the gold mesh technique as an apprentice to jewellery artisans restoring royal jewellery in the Forbidden City. She fused the technique with the simplicity of early Han Chinese aesthetics, but instead of merely replicating heritage, she sought to make it relevant to modern lifestyles. The result is jewellery often described as wearable sculptures. By weaving gold and silver mesh into free-flowing forms, she creates fluid, lithe pieces of jewellery that drape across shoulders like scarves, and move and morph with the body.
Zhang’s foundation in painting and sketching greatly enhances her work. She uses a tie-dye method to ‘paint’ the gold or silver mesh, creating shadows and highlights. She also does not shy away from using precious stones to accent her work. The YanYi collection, for instance, features gold mesh jewellery with pearls, jadeites, rubellites, and drops of gold hanging from the threads.
Zhang also looks to ancient Chinese poetry and landscape paintings for design inspiration. One such poem is Visiting a Garden Without Success. Penned by Song Dynasty poet Ye Shaoweng, the poem describes a visitor being denied access to a garden despite knocking 10 times on the gate, and thinking that perhaps his clogs stepping on the moss have offended the garden owner. However, spring cannot be contained, and over the wall peeps out a crimson spray of apricot blossoms.
This reflects the Chinese ideal of harmony between people and nature. Chinese culture also emphasises the expression of “inner emotion through presentation of tranquillity and fluidity of form,” says Zhang. She captures these ideals of harmony, beauty, and expression through her jewellery, which she sees as a conduit between “the inner person and her surrounding environments”.
Most of all, Zhang hopes to provoke viewers and wearers of her jewellery into considering the questions: “What are precious objects? What do they mean to people? In our pursuit of precious objects, how do they derive their value, and how would that value evolve?” After all, throughout history, jewellery has transformed to become universal as well as singular — often a popular piece of adornment, sometimes strictly a ritual symbol, and at other times a rigid social marker.
For Zhang, precious objects must become one with the wearer. “I believe the best design for jewellery is one that complements and accentuates a person. The person and the jewellery are a match, just like two lovers,” says Zhang. And when such a match is created, beauty and energy burst forth, and harmony is finally achieved.