Meet Vivek Chaudhary, a designer who turns accessories into pieces of art

Inspiration. It’s the difference between a Chanel bag that retails for thousands of dollars and a similar-looking knockoff sold for a fraction of that on the sidewalks of New York or an outdoor market in Hong Kong. For Coco Chanel, it was the iconic quilting inspired by the puffy jackets worn by horse breeders, and the threaded leather chains reminiscent of ropes anchoring a yacht, that has made her bag one of the most coveted for more than half a century.

In the art world, more so than the construction or even the materials, the inspiration and the personality behind a piece is what determines its value. It’s the reason collectors the world over clamor for the latest designs of the likes of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Donatella Versace, and why works by Van Gogh, Picasso and Warhol routinely sell for the hundreds of millions of dollars. Far more than fabric and thread, paint and canvas, collectors eagerly buy into the inspiration. “Why should it be any different with jewelry?”, asks Vivek Chaudhary, owner of the gallery vivekkevin (35 Dong Khoi, D1). “When you go to a normal jewelry store, you will see 99 percent of the jewelry sold is mass produced, or replicated. People will bring in a book or magazine and ask if this can be made. Or they have a stone that needs to be set. There’s no innovation. Even people who are privileged want to feel secure, so when they wear something, it has to be a brand name. It may be beautiful, but it’s mass produced. Where’s the story behind it?”

Landing in Vietnam 10 years ago, Vivek transitioned from furniture design to jewelry design and along with late business partner, Kevin Lane, opened gallery vivekkevin in 2009. The small gallery is surprisingly stark, the only color provided by the eclectic collection of pendants, rings and brooches set out on display, surprisingly none under glass as if inviting physical interaction between viewer and pieces. A trio of colored hearts adorn the bare white walls, Vivek’s own creations, beaten, burnished, enflamed and engorged using Mercedes Benz S-Class color coating technology. “It’s conceptual and represents the complexity of human nature,” explains Vivek of the highly glossed silver brooches finished in the car manufacturer’s workshops. “When you’re wearing them, others may see [their reflection] inside but only the wearer knows whether that person is inside their heart or not.”

Passion Behind It

Another collection by Japanese artist Jiro Kamata features reflective circles of glass which are actually old camera lenses. “For each piece, there’s a hidden story behind it,” explains Vivek. “Somebody used it to shoot something throughout their life and now someone else is wearing it.” Works by Germany-based Vietnamese jewelry-artist Sam Tho Duong are also on display, taking on an organic, almost frozen quality, mimicking the bark and skin of branches, twigs and fruit covered in ice crystals, but made entirely of oxidized silver and tiny freshwater pearls, fused together with nylon string. “A store is somewhere you buy a design. A gallery is where you buy a piece of art,” clarifies Vivek of the notion that the worth of jewelry should be measured only in carats and ounces. “Some of these works have been bought by collectors all around the world and have been displayed in places like the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. The artists I represent create either one of a kind pieces or limited collections, using very unique techniques and materials like recycled fabric, silver, zinc… But the jewelry I represent isn’t about how expensive the material is or how big the stone is; it’s about the technique and the inspiration. If you see a chair made by a designer, you think ‘I can make that,’ but you know, someone already made it. That’s the thing. Someone had to come up with that idea.”

The world of contemporary jewelry is slowly following in the footsteps of other, more established fields like fashion and art, where collectors gravitate towards individual designers instead of simply purchasing end products. Developing that level of admiration, though, comes with a cost. “Before a collector buys a work, they want to know the passion behind it, how it’s made, how successful the artist is, which galleries represent him or her, which prestigious museums have shown them or bought their pieces. Sometimes it takes up to a year to sell one work to one person.” Being the first gallery space dedicated entirely to jewelry in the Asia Pacific region hasn’t been easy, considering the long educational relationship that often develops between collector and gallery. “I still sometimes think, ‘What am I doing?’,” admits Vivek. “But this is my passion. I saw an opportunity in Saigon and thought that as the country changes, as the city changes, I could be part of the change, changing people’s perception of art, culture and design. Initially, our clientele was expats, but now a big chunk are locals, maybe even more Vietnamese than expats. As they’re learning more, they love the concept, the idea, the story, the technique. Still, it’s difficult, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything. This is what I love.

Image by Adam Robert Young

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