A fastidiously hand-chiseled neckpiece emulating the intricacy of Spanish lace, highlighted by a baroque pearl pendant, commanded £10,000 pounds (close to P600,000) at an open auction in London. Rendered by jewelry designer Wynn Wynn Ong, it garnered the highest bid among the other luxury pieces donated by other Filipinos.
The occasion was the London-Philippine Fashion Show, organized by Prospero World, a UK-based philanthropy group that promotes nongovernment organizations. The Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education (Centex), a program of the Ayala Foundation, was its first Asian partner. The event was attended by London society with VIP tickets that cost £1,000. Top Filipino designers participated in this fund-raising event to help Centex’s beneficiaries.
Ayala Corporation CEO Fernando Zobel de Ayala had invited Ong to be a part of this show. “It clicked with me because Hands-On Manila has a longstanding relationship with Centex,” she said. Ong is a former chair of Hands-On, a foundation that promotes volunteerism and community service.
Ong’s “Las Islas Filipinas, Pearl of the Orient” neckpiece was one of the 36 pieces of her latest collection. While other local designers presented clothes and accessories with modern sensibilities, Ong, in her characteristic individualism, took a different route. It was ironic that Ong, a Burmese, had produced a visual profile of Philippine history and culture.
Ong was mostly educated in the Philippines and is married to a Filipino. She could not acquire a Philippine passport since the Burmese government did not allow dual citizenship. Nonetheless, the collection was an homage to her adopted country.
“I wanted to capture its essence—the biodiversity, the richness of our pre-Hispanic history, the individuals that enriched it as the ‘spirits of the Philippine revolution,’ and the portraits of the Filipina,” she said. “It’s important to celebrate what we have instead of just trying to appeal to the rest of the world. For as long as we have international standards, people are willing to collect because there’s a story behind each design.”
Constantly pushing the envelope, she introduced a new style, miniature oil painting, for the pendants and upped the ante of the classic metalworking techniques rarely done today such as repoussage and embossing, both of which lend a three-dimensional quality. Her other methods involve texturing on silver and etching. The collection underscored the Wynn Wynn Ong brand’s forte—“elaborate and painstaking metal work,” she said.
“Every one of the 36 pieces were meticulously researched—from the old archival photographs to the research on old embroidery techniques. It took us quite a while to create techniques to make silver come alive and look like intricate embroidery, particularly callado, French Laid embroidery and back-stitch embroidery,” said Ong.
The pre-colonial era was depicted by minaudieres, made of 24k gold on alloys of copper, brass, gold and silver, that symbolized the country’s major islands. Suggesting the agricultural economy of Luzon, a purse was sculpted to mimic the ridges of the rice terraces. For a whimsical touch, a tiny rice-field egret was perched on the carabao clasp. Their eyes shone with tiny diamonds and the horn was encrusted with recycled carabao horn, naturally.
To illustrate the Visayas, the designer drew inspiration from the Manunggul burial jar found in the Tabon Caves in Palawan. The scroll patterns, characteristic of the jar, adorned the body of the minaudiere while the clasp was an accurate sculptural representation of the lid—a boatman ferrying the dead. The design conveyed the artistry of the early Filipinos who created this jar.
Mindanao was depicted through a minaudiere with the alibata, the Tagalog alphabet and a silver sarimanok clasp, of which its feathers were meticulously chiseled. “Imagine toting a representation of your ancient alphabet,” said Ong.
The Philippine formal wear, a vestige of Spanish influence, was interpreted through a necklace imitating the needlepoint callado design taken from a portrait of an illustrado.
This long silver necklace boasted of its flawless repoussage, a technique that shapes metal from the backside to form a relief or a raised design on the front. Ong brought out the Old-World craftsmanship and elegance that defined the barong but gave it a modern touch through her medium.
“Our Burda Barong took six weeks to make and involved eight people at times,” she said. “It’s made of 18 individual pieces. To make each piece, you trace the design on metal sheet, cut out, create a repoussé, cut and etch with the filligree parts such as the flowers and the vines. You polish it so that the edges don’t hurt. They have to be buffed by hand and linked together.”
Likewise, the minaudieres took 125 hours to sculpt and cast.
The country’s critical moment, the turn of the 20th century was interpreted through belts and pendants with miniature oil-on-canvas paintings of revolutionary heroes, the dalagang Filipina and the maritime empire with images of the vinta, banca, balangay and the galleon.
The emancipation of the Philippines from colonialism was illustrated by portraits of Filipinas in that era. Ong fancied a photograph of a feisty mestiza from Sangley Point and a T’Boli maiden which were captured in pendants, of which the fine details including the shadows, can stand up to close inspection. The designer not only wanted to show the various facets of Filipina beauty. A sculpted honeybee on top of the T’Boli maiden was made to symbolize the Filipino woman, the real worker of the family.
These portraits were set in frames rendered in repoussé, topped with Philippine animals and strung with little gemstones. An allusion to the art of the santos, a pendant frame had a motif of rays emanating from religious icons.
Test of time
The other pieces illustrating Philippine flora and animals lent a playful touch. A pair of earrings were composed of miniature paintings that paid tribute to Fr. Francisco Manuel Blanco’s “Flora de Filipinas” prints. They were mounted on sculpted flowers and adorned with pink tourmalines and citrine droplets. The Philippine owl earring was decorated with smoky quartz.
Another minaudiere collection was made of metal that imitated the tree bark, a secret technique produced in Ong’s workshop. The gecko (tuko) and varieties of hornbills such as the kalaw, tariktik and the writhed hornbill sat atop the clasp. The meshlike minaudieres is composite of fiberglass, resin and paper pulp depicted the marine life such as the octopus in Mindoro. A ring that simulated stingray leather was crowned with mabe and blister pearls.
“I want to keep on creating pieces that would withstand the test of time and push Filipino craftsmanship to its limits. I want to continue to create legacy-building’ collector’s items,” said Ong. “My standard of judging myself is: Can this go to a museum? I don’t like to call my jewelry ‘accessory.’ Its function is not to accessorize. It has evolved into an art piece that you can wear.”