LONG before Spanish conquerors came to our shores, we enjoyed a lavish and highly sophisticated culture. Gold jewelry was worn with extravagance by women and men alike—necklaces and woven belts delicately crafted to sheer perfection.
Of that period, the pieces that still exist are among the most exquisite in the world.
On Sept. 10, the Asia Society in New York presented “Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms” at an opening gala that celebrated the precolonial collections of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and the Ayala Museum. The New York Times hailed it as “a gorgeous and historically intriguing exhibition.”
Complementing the show were contemporary works displaying the originality and craftsmanship of Philippine design.
As early as November last year, prestigious artists like Bea Valdes, Tina Maristela Ocampo and Wynn Wynn Ong had been invited to prepare for their participation.
The invitation was an exhilarating challenge for Wynn Wynn. It addressed her introspective side: the scholar, the researcher, the intellectual. Since her works had to parallel the singular treasures of the exhibition, she incorporated in the earrings, brooches, and medallions our ancient bulol or rice gods, the pagan and the Christian.
She aspired to give form to our history, “to use Philippine icons that resonate in our collective consciousness.”
Wynn Wynn had the discipline for this. Many years ago, when she decided to take up jewelry-making seriously, she engaged private tutors and consultants for six months to know every aspect of the craft—from the skill of cutting stones to the welding and molding of the finest metal strands.
She learned to use a blowtorch and a saw blade.
Intrigued by the woven gold sashes of Butuan, Wynn Wynn did extensive research on the secret of their magnificence. Sharply observant, she wondered about the artisans’ ancient tools, which were not highly technical, and tried to duplicate their technique, seeing that no modern method had equaled theirs.
She was awed by what pure gold could endure: the heat, and the beatings to make the finest filigrees, beadings and repoussés. She was intent on translating the timeless beauty of the old into a contemporary aesthetic. And she succeeded masterfully.
Her work ethic is intense and extraordinary. It is as though the metals or gems in her hands have a language that must be discerned and expressed.
Working with craftsmen whom she herself trained, every piece is first cast in a mold, then meticulously refined until it is exactly the way she envisioned it. She is completely aware of each step in the process of creation, inspiring and guiding artisans, whose atelier is adjacent to her studio. She is committed to excellence.
Her gold cuff bracelets are miniature sculptures, solid and inventive. On one end, there may be a delicate carving; on the other, a single geometric gem. They do not compete but balance each other, the feat of an expert eye.
The world of Wynn Wynn Ong has always been imaginative and expansive.
She was born in Burma where jade, emeralds, and rubies were playthings that awakened in her a love for incredible beauty.
When she was almost 3, her family moved to Vienna, where her father, a nuclear physicist, had become deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. By then, the opulent charms of lustrous gems had become a part of her.
At age 5, she began to delight in creating spaces. She sensed this in Vienna while sharing a bedroom with her younger sister.
One day, in a rush of enthusiasm, she gathered her mother’s silk saris, each one sheer and iridescent. She partitioned the room, happy that her end had a lovely bay window overlooking a verdant orchard.
She vividly recalls, “When the wind blew, the saris would billow and dance, and so would my spirit! I discovered a space of my own—apart from the outer world—where my imagination could soar. It is with me still, through my daydreams, a parallel reality that will always be important to me.”
Moving to Manila as a teenager, she discovered antique jewelry of Spanish influence, and began collecting peinetas and lace-like alfajor necklaces.
In time, she would make a necklace of peinetas strung together by clusters of diamond flowers.
In 2000, Wynn Wynn began to design in earnest, starting with gifts for friends and family.
Seven years later, as she was moving back into a house redesigned by Ed Calma, a passion for the essence of space was rekindled. She wanted to pay homage to greats like Frank Lloyd Wright and Zaha Hadid, and introduced a collection named “Intersection.”
She made cantilevered brooches and used architectural materials, like steel and kamagong. Gold and silver simulated columns and trusses.
With luminous simplicity, she says, “I don’t design out of context. I have a thematic approach, a story to every collection.” Little wonder that her jewelry pieces have presence.
The collection she prepared for the Apec Business Advisory Council expresses, in superlative detail, the breadth of her background and her vision as an artist. The exquisite pieces—necklaces, brooches, bracelets, rings and evening bags—have unexpected elements that make you smile.
A tiny Chinese temple is hidden in a medallion. Philippine bulols, Chinese peonies and the mythical phoenix are luxuriously carved in a large gold cross. A filigree clutch bag has a whimsical clasp. The concepts are articulate, the craftsmanship superb.
When asked about the richness of her life and her travels around the world, she says, “I’m not the product of one culture or one country. I spring from all the stories of my foremothers and forefathers, from their very being. I feel connected to my roots this way, like pulling from something deep inside. Maybe that’s why my designs do not follow fads or trends…. There are so many subtleties that play a part in the evolution of a human being.”
Intellectually and visually adventurous, she is also a terrific writer, articulate and lyrical in her self-expression. But for the moment, she is too busy with the demands of her career.
Wynn Wynn balances an exacting work schedule by retreating to Anilao, in a refuge that she and her husband, Norby Ong, have created for their family.
Even as a child, she wanted to devise her own environment, a place that would not only be seen but felt. In this sanctuary, she has the candor to turn a life of movement into art.
“We are often cluttered by things so immaterial to our lives,” she says. “We bind ourselves with a mental framework. Here, with the harmony of beauty, I find the time and space for reflection. Here I am free.”
In the heart of her cool Zen garden sits a stolid land turtle facing the ocean, facing eternity. She loves this turtle. It reminds her that at the end of our timeless tomorrows, “We all go home where we belong.”