Mischelle Thuy White on living her life through gemstones
Throughout the rise of civilization itself, nothing has been more consistently definitive of luxury, wealth, and power than the gemstone. Today, precious stones have just as much gravity and desirability as they did in eras past—and those who dedicate their creative output to perfecting nature’s most dazzling rocks are literally on the cutting edge of beauty itself.
“Gemstones have been coveted, pursued, fought over and traded for thousands of years,” muses Saigon’s own premier artisan jeweler, Mischelle Thuy White. “Fashions and tastes may have evolved since lapis was mined from Afghanistan in the 7th millennium BC and amber beads were being produced in the Orient, but the essence has remained the same.” Mischelle’s jewelry atelier and showroom Damian by Mischelle in District 2 has been operating in Vietnam since 2002, producing contemporary works of wearable art easily recognizable for their striking, sumptuous designs. Her own love for the craft stems from early childhood, although it was only in her later years that her creative focus rested on gemstones. Acquiring her design skills in her native France, she went on to develop her knowledge of gems in Antwerp, where she was greatly inspired by leading Belgian diamantaire, Eddy Elzas.
“I was always a curious and yet determined child,” she says. “I didn’t grow up dreaming of jewelry, but I always wanted to know how things worked to solve practical problems, like how to make something move or work in its surroundings. The love for gemstones and design came once I was a teenager and could understand what I was looking at through the windows of Place Vendome. Many years later, the desire to problem-solve remains at the heart of good design. It is a subconscious element of how I approach each client commission today.”
This month, Oi Vietnam interviews Mischelle Thuy White to learn more about her stunning fine jewelry and philosophy of design.
How does being based in Saigon influence your design aesthetic?
As a designer, you are influenced by every experience that you have. Things you see, hear or smell. It can be during a quiet moment on a beach up north or during a hectic crossing of a road in downtown District 1. Ideas can come at the strangest times. Being in Asia certainly influences some of the shapes and ideas that we design around. The flowers and animals, for example. But there is always a global element. It can be something as casual as a music video that I am watching with my daughters or as intense as a recent trip to Miami, an audio-visual encounter that will inspire a future collection, I am sure.
Inspiration truly is everywhere.
What is the nature and scale of your market in Vietnam? Are your clientele local Vietnamese, or foreigners, and how active is your business here? Is it predominantly “tiger wives”?
Damian By Mischelle was founded here in Vietnam using local craftsman and developing their skills over time. The business has grown and developed alongside Vietnam over the past decade, so naturally this accounts for a very large part of our Asia-wide business.
Within the domestic market, the vast majority of our clients are Vietnamese. Many of our female clients own and run their own businesses. They are independent, successful and always looking for something unique to them. And that is why our bespoke business has expanded so fast within Vietnam.
What is your impression of the luxury industry/market in Vietnam?
When I first came to Vietnam in 1992, the luxury market simply did not exist. So the developments in markets such as real estate, automotive, fashion and accessories have been incredible to see and be part of, in particular over the past decade. The pace has been both breathtaking and inspirational to us as a business.
Of course, the luxury market is a global one. Vietnamese now travel extensively. They now have access to the entire spectrum of e-platforms and are highly informed. They demand the best and they can pay for it.
What compels you personally to be a designer who works with gemstones?
It is all about passion. I love beauty, color and composition. Being a designer gives me the platform to be able to create bespoke jeweled art that both surprises and delights our clients. The nature of gemstones themselves is also so unique that each stone has a story to tell. And the way that the story comes alive within a piece is something that, even now, is only revealed in the final stages of the composition.
Honestly, I cannot think of anything else that would give me this kind of creative freedom and the ability to express beauty. So, jewelry designer it is!
What difficulties did you have to master in your studies in jewelry design?
Expanding the range from women’s to men’s jewelry was both a conceptual and design challenge. Men are very different creatures when it comes to jewelry as well as most other things, I suppose. They can be simultaneously much more conservative than my female clients and yet surprisingly avant garde at times.
What they are willing to wear and how they will wear it requires an altogether alternative approach that starts at the very design foundation. I love that challenge, and perhaps that is why we now have such a large body of design work that is specifically for men.
How was your work matured since your time in Antwerp, and what have been the major development along your path?
Antwerp was more technical and focused primarily on diamonds. My learning after that incorporated all of the other fine colored gemstones that you now find throughout our collections.
As for the design side, that has been an evolution consisting of time spent working with pieces, developing setting techniques and finding the best format for expressing ideas. There truly is no substitute for experience and practice.
How would you describe Eddy Elzas, and what did he teach you?
He is a lovely man and a diamantaire from the truest tradition. His passion and love for diamonds were instrumental in guiding me to the path that I am on today. I owe him a great deal for that.
What are the core design elements that you consider in building a jewelry collection?
Beauty. Originality. Composition. These are the essential elements that must underpin every collection that we produce—whether it is for women or men.
Your website quotes you as exploring the “Very French art of cultivating the perfection of the unseen.” How do you apply this in creating your jewelry designs? What is it about the French jewelers’ tradition that you channel into your creative work?
There is an art form to the work. A sense of balance and proportion. A composition framework that is hard to define but it is just there. It comes from the history of France, from her artwork, her architecture and her people. It is the emotion that you feel when you see a piece of French jewelry. It is very French and very different. Do you see?
In what ways do your gemstones capture luxury, energy, femininity? How do you reflect avant garde, contemporary fashions in your pieces?
The style of Damian By Mischelle can oscillate between a tradition-rich invisible-set ruby eternity ring and a diamond-encrusted skull complete with a working jaw and emerald eyes. With almost 80 percent of our work being bespoke commissions, the tone of our pieces varies enormously.
A young female CEO may want something unique and yet everyday practical, whil3 a 40-something entrepreneur wants a piece that makes more of a statement. This is part of the design challenge that we face every day. To create pieces that work with specific clients and yet which are still unmistakably Damian By Mischelle.
How do you achieve invisible setting in your designs?
Typically, invisible setting will feature in higher-value pieces with more complex designs. We often use it to create smooth set surfaces across curved areas, perhaps a leaf or a butterfly wing. Or it may consist of baguette diamonds that create a backdrop for a signature colored gemstone, such as a red spinel or Colombian emerald.
Would you describe yourself as living in a world of luxury at this point in time? How would you describe your lifestyle, and what are your values?
Our products are very luxurious, and so are our events, but that is the world viewed through a very corporate lens.
My own life is rather more simple. I enjoy spending time with my family and with my many dogs. I take my greatest pleasures from some of the least complicated experiences— like sharing food and stories around the dinner table. And after an intense day of Damian By Mischelle, I like to retreat with my loved ones to a peaceful environment—very far from the fast lane of glamorous events and the glare of publicity.
You are known to be involved in charity work. What motivates you to help those in need, and how do you balance your business and status in the world of the wealthy with your work for the poor?
The Heart Institute program for providing lifesaving operations to underprivileged children is something that I am personally very passionate about and this is the major focus for the charity efforts of Damian By Mischelle.
In fact, our entire family is involved in the annual gala to raise money for the operations. The children volunteer for the event and actively help raise money during the evening, we donate jewelry for auction, we encourage our clients to participate—it is a very special experience.
Why do we buy and love precious stones? What do they represent to us and what has drawn people to them across the ages?
They represent beauty, rarity and value. Many were believed to have healing or other powers, and indeed some still do according to feng shui masters. For example, emeralds have been sold in the markets of Babylon since 4,000BC and were believed to offer healing, vitality and hope, and were a particular favorite of Queen Cleopatra. Today we still see many clients who are guided to one gemstone or another by a variety of beliefs. I don’t think that it really matters what the motivation is as long as they love what they wear.
For others, the attraction is purely aesthetic. A case in point—sapphires have been popular for many centuries, and we still work with a number of larger examples of these in our bespoke work.
When it comes to diamonds, there is a growing emphasis on the investment value of fancy colored diamonds. Over the past ten years, there has been much more demand not just for yellows but also pink and more recently green diamonds. Across the color spectrum, these have appreciated in value by much more than colorless diamonds, and this is a trend that seems likely to continue.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY DAMIAN BY MISCHELLE