A diamond encrusted, 18k gold spider ring sits on a finger, its delicacy and subtle ‘danger’ contrasting with the elaborate lace-like metal necklace that hugs the neck. A full-length flexible metal mesh sleeve, its fine details picked out in blackened bronze, embraces the arm like soft armour.


Spider ring, Photo courtesy of Ferny Chung


These are among the dramatic designs created by New York’s new design sensation Nghi Nguyen. He envisions jewellery creation as delicate armour-like body adornment, designed to “instigate thought and emotions while questioning boundaries and perceptions in a changing world”. His brand, NNbyNGHI, transcends cultures and creates alternate expressions of beauty and shows hidden emotion, a dream, or a fantasy. “I am often inspired by the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, a way of thought that prizes humility and austerity and finds beauty in imperfection,” Nghi says.


Exploding diamonds necklace, Gouache illustration by Nghi Nguyen


The edgy beauty embodied in each piece owes its existence to the origins of Nghi’s design career. Born in Vietnam, Nghi graduated in Design and Photography in Australia. From there, he embarked on an unusual creative path developing sculptural accessories and costumes for theatre and performance art events, first in Perth, then in Tokyo. Working in Tokyo’s music and fashion industry, he produced numerous accessories for Japanese pop stars. In 2001, he created jewellery for actress and beauty icon Sayoko Yamaguchi for her role in Seijun Suzuki’s cult feature film Pistol Opera. During that time, Nghi also produced a collection of jewellery and accessories promoted by Japan’s leading fashion agent Via Bus Stop.


Tribal metal-mesh sleeve, Photo courtesy of Ferny Chung


The metal ‘lace’ mesh with its intricate patterns that forms the basis of some of his designs is meticulously assembled in a labour-intensive process, usually with four different colour metals. “Mixing different metal colours adds depth to the piece, resulting in chameleon-like surface textures,” Nghi says. “Bronze gives pieces a museum artefact feel, encouraging me to work on bigger and more sculptural pieces.” Nghi routinely experiments with a range of different materials to present a new idea. Gemstones are selected for their unusual natural inclusions and luminescence, and then custom-cut. Sometimes the gemstones are buried in dirt to give the appearance and feel of an artefact. For example, labradorite is among these lesser-used gemstones enjoying new-found popularity. “I picked labradorite for its inclusions and deep luminous quality. My current favourites are fire agate and fossils that represent slices of evolution.”


Floating ring, Photo courtesy of Tim Daley


In addition to traditional techniques, Nghi uses CAD and rapid prototyping technology. “It’s a great new tool that allows me to visualise better and fabricate intricate designs.” Most pieces are hand-finished though, using traditional techniques – minus any harmful chemicals – to create the warmth of a well-worn piece of jewellery. Nghi enjoys the technical side of manufacturing as much as he does designing: “I am very hands-on with all my work, and all pieces are made in New York, supported by a team for CAD work, assembly, and stone settings.”


Aero ring, Photo courtesy of Tim Daley


Aside from having his own store, Nghi dreams to expand his studio while “creating pieces for science fiction films and jewels for a French jewellery house.” Describing the collection he is currently working on, Nghi says it will have the “look and feel of artefacts from a distant civilisation: they are armour-like and act like a second skin, sitting discreetly under clothing.” His next challenge is to take his body armour jewellery to another level, enmeshing both beauty and functionality. “For example, could jewellery help maintain body temperature at a desired level in different environments?”


If Nghi had his way, jewellery will take on a whole new dimension of function and beauty in the coming years. “My ideal customers are poets, dreamers and visionary warriors who see beauty in imperfections,” he shares.