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May 2014

A designer by training, Michael Koh, managing director of Singapore-based fine jewellery company Caratell Pte Ltd, is putting his own twist on conventional jewellery designs to create what he calls "wearable sculptures." Skilled at structuring and layering geometric patterns, Koh pays tribute to modern art with works such as his signature Cubism Collection inspired by Pablo Picasso's paintings of the same genre. The collection features fluid lines and multi-dimensional facets, creating depth of field within a jewelery piece. The designer and lecturer at Singapore's premier arts institute Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts explains to JNA his design philosophy, the art of jewellery making and how he tackles technical challenges when dealing with forms and structures.

JNA: How did you get into the jewellery business?

Michael Koh: I was very much influenced by my father and brothers. are all in the jewellery industry. Mv father is a general manager at one of the oldest jewellery chain stores in Singapore. My elder brother is a jewellery manufacturer, and another brother of mine is a gemmologist and wholesaler.

JNA: What is a beautiful jewellery piece in your opinion?

Koh: A beautiful jewellery piece is comfortable to the eye. When I teach about jewellery design, I always instruct my students on flow and energy. A fluid line actually has a form of energy that manifests beauty in itself. It flows very much towards gravity. How a piece rests and looks on a wearer is, very important. For my Cubism Collection, I used a lot of straight lines, but they are not rigid because they are all in the form of energy sprinting out in different directions. But balancing creativity and wearability is often a challenge.

JNA: How do you describe the art of jewellery making?

Koh: It's about technique and understanding the history of how jewellery is made. Leaming the history of jewellery making is not just about who made what. but also about how the piece is made. Nowadays, a lot of things are designed with the help of modem technology. Most of the designs we see are computer-aided. But because of this, we see many similar designs in the market simply because of the use of the same design software. This undermines the feel and thrill of craftsmanship.

JNA: What is your design philosophy?

Koh: My philosophy is to tum jewellery pieces into wearable sculptures- not the usual conventional ones, but to promote artistry in a jewellery piece in the same way that we appreciate an artist who transforms paper and paint into beautiful paintings. This is my idea of ​​being a jewellery artisan, not just a jewellery designer. It is also about transforming jewellery into wearable art pieces and cultivating a new level of appreciation towards the gemstones mounted in the design and the precious metals used.

JNA: You often incorporate mechanism, structures and dimensions in your designs. What are the technical challenges that you face in your design process?

Koh: All designs come with some technical challenges. It is important to know how to address these issues without modifying the original idea. You have to be open to all types of fabrication methods such as those used in engineering or furniture industries in addition to the common methods we've seen in jewellery design.

JNA: You work with many stones. Which one is your favourite?

Koh: There is no specific one. As long as the stone inspires me or give me ideas, I would like to work with it. I studied gemmology and gemstone cutting on top of jewellery design. I regularly travel to various mines in the world to study and source gemstones. Some designers are constrained by pre-fabricated faceting, but I can do my own cutting, which gives me more flexibility in design.

JNA: Which artist or jewellery designer's work do you admire?

Koh: The designer that inspired me the most during my school days was Gillbert Albert, a Swiss jeweller. He received the De Beers Diamonds-International Awards 10 times. As for artists, it has to be Pablo Picasso, who is famous for his cubism paintings, featuring highly abstract geometric forms. His works serve as one of my sources of inspiration. JNA

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