It took time and distance for Jonathan Yun to go full circle before returning to his roots and finding inspiration for his jewellery.
Peranakan culture was always at the back of his mind — he was immersed in it whenever he visited his maternal grandmother. Yun also spent many afternoons playing with a primary school classmate whose grandma, also a Penang Nyonya, was always well put together and lived in a house filled with beautiful Straits Chinese furniture.
But typical of youth who need to spread their wings, he wanted modern things and left home to study art, majoring in fine metals, in La Salle Singapore. For a final-year project, he decided to do a study of Peranakan designs and “fell in love with the culture again”.
The affair was brief. “At that time, nobody appreciated it much so I went back to doing modern things again,” says the 56-year-old jeweller, one of 60 participants at Langur: Building Bridge Between Our Worlds, a multimedia exhibition currently on at the Penang State Art Gallery until Dec 31. Each artist presents one work and Yun’s is a silver necklace with jade and tourmalines titled Your Home, My Home.
“It shows langurs frolicking in their habitat. My design rationale is, what goes around comes around: When we deplete the forest and encroach on their territory, they will come and bite us.” A percentage of sales from the show will go towards the preservation of the endangered creatures.
Returning to Penang after chalking up work experience in various places, Yun has turned his focus to preserving the beauty of Peranakan identity through his jewellery. Once a regular diver, he also looks under the sea for ideas to shape coral and fish creations using silver, colourful gemstones, gold, beads and leather straps for pendants.
Confident yet cautious, Yun says he did not dare to step onto the cultural path earlier because “I didn’t know how far my boundaries were. And I don’t want to go beyond the boundaries because then, I would be making new things that had nothing to do with Peranakan”, such as costume pieces that replicate Nyonya design. “One look and you can tell they’re not real.”
More than creating new pieces made the old way, he wants to show people a different way of wearing them, especially with modern attire. “I feel like we need to move with the times, if not, we’ll be missing the point.” Fresh ideas will, hopefully, attract new customers and from there, create demand. “When there is demand, the culture will be alive.”
Silver is his metal of choice. “It’s easy to work with and really syncs with what I do. When you are familiar with a metal, it becomes like putty in your hand. You know where it can go, where it can take you — like second nature. I’ve used silver from day one and continue to do so because I know what it can express best, what I can do with it and what it can give me.”
Silver affords him the fluidity to fashion the detailed, intricate coral pieces that have become his signature. On display at Jonathan Yun Sculptural Jewelry in the heart of George Town, Penang are also chunky pieces made using different types and tones of stones and materials reflecting his love for nature.
Sculpting jewellery comes naturally to Yun, who says his way of designing is quite seamless. “There is no point where [I’m staring at] a blank piece of paper. I have project upon project and the ideas keep growing. Something may start with just one curve and from there, it develops more and more until it becomes the entire thing.”
Talent is part gift and part skill, he believes. “There are things you acquire through experience and hard work. If you are lazy, you will be less skilful and it shows in your work. The more you do, the more skilful you are.” As the great, late Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim put it, art is work and not inspiration, [and] invention comes with craft.
Yun says in the early days, he did every piece himself, from start to finish. “Before, I could see a stone’s flaws with the naked eye. Now, I have to rely on my staff to do the finer things. It’s frustrating but that’s the only downside of ageing,” says Jun, who went through the mill when he started. One particularly unpleasant experience was supplying his jewellery, mostly big statement pieces, to a shop in Kuala Lumpur, whose owner then claimed to have created the designs herself.
“They were good marketers but I stopped supplying them when they refused to credit me for my work. It was a dark period for me. I’m not from a goldsmith’s family. Basically, I worked and saved and bought one piece of equipment at a time until I was able to set up my own workshop. Now I have four staff, craftsmen who work with me on my designs.”
Taking time to learn is crucial in this business. Yun gathered experience working in Singapore, then Royal Selangor in KL as well as Penang Pewter and Franklin Mint in Penang (both now defunct) before he felt ready to strike out on his own.
Asking himself what’s next, he hopes to groom another generation of jewellers and maybe mentor them and create a fresh pool of artisans. “Malaysians don’t lack talent. It’s just that the arts are not prioritised and we don’t know how to harvest and harness the talent available.”
Getting interns in to learn the ropes is one step towards passing the baton. A grant could jump-start that and help him organise things in a systematic manner, such as having them train for six months or so. “I want to teach them the basics. If they feel this is something they want to do, they can take it to the next level and grow from there.”
Meanwhile, Yun is using a grant from Cendana (the Cultural Economy Development Agency) to develop moulds for new designs based on the daun kadok, a plant that strikes a chord with him. “I grew up with that — its taste, flavour and the look of it — and have developed a whole range centred around its leaves. I’ve also developed a botanical series based on the mosaic plant, which floats on the water’s surface.”
He is also returning to his Nyonya series, set aside during the pandemic, by fashioning bracelets and smaller items from the big silver belts women used to wear with their sarong.
“Before I would buy an old piece, like the kerongsang, and take it apart to figure out what goes where and how to construct it. Now, after six years, I’ve gotten the feel of it, and am designing new Peranakan pieces.”
But, at the root of it all lies the source of his inspiration. “As the years go by, I’ve come to appreciate the culture. I want to retain it, in a way that [my pieces] still have integrity.”
This article first appeared on Dec 6, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.