Top Techniques: Austy Lee Reveals His Jewellery-Making Methods

Even when a spark of inspiration hits, a jeweller must have the relevant skills in their arsenal to be able to bring their vision to life. Some, like Hong Kong-born artist Austy Lee, are adept at switching between creative processes, whether that’s lacquer, mother of pearl inlay or Shakudō (a Japanese billon of gold and copper), to create abundantly artistic designs. Personally, when I see Austy’s pieces, I am first drawn in by the details, the colours and the textures, and then when I discover the intricate craftsmanship, my fascination doubles! So, to dig a little deeper, I asked Austy to share more about the techniques that shape his creativity below…

The freedom to explore is a principle that Austy Lee holds dear. “I wholeheartedly believe that maintaining creative freedom is paramount to establishing my brand,” he tells me. With such a naturally audacious and eccentric design style, it’s understandable that Austy found working for other brands restrictive. He explains that it “stifled the emergence of new ideas”, and only by becoming his own boss could he “break free from such constraints and create jewellery that is otherworldly and boldly unique”.

Austy Lee ‘The Wheel of Sophia’ earrings from The Gnostic Vines collection in 18K rose gold with Japanese lacquered Tahitian pearl, fancy yellow diamonds, red, blue and white enamel and white diamonds

His unique form of psychedelic jewellery art stems from formal design education, as well as factors that are unique to Austy, such as meditation and religious beliefs. He describes these as playing “crucial roles in my ability to generate ideas, collect inspiration, engage in calm analysis, and process information”. There’s something compelling about this balance of spirituality and methodical project management, and it’s yet another example of how being a jewellery artist is a multifaceted role! Austy continues: “Each day, I am flooded with numerous new ideas. As soon as an idea surfaces, I diligently record it in my visual diary. While many designers have abandoned the use of visual diaries, I continue to rely on this practice every day. I fill it with numerous fragmented thoughts and concepts, ensuring that no idea goes unnoticed. When these fragments reach a mature stage, I transform them into cohesive collections.”

“Rather than adhering to a strict timetable or principle for launching new collections, I allow ideas to germinate organically, nurturing them into extensive and cohesive collections,” Austy Lee. 

I think we can all learn a lesson from this approach. Austy shows his ideas the respect, patience and time they deserve before systematically processing them to “not overlook even the smallest of thoughts”. We’re so often distracted by the bigger picture, but there’s potential in the details, too. “By diligently recording every small idea, I ensure that no valuable concept slips away,” he explains. “This practice is immensely important to me as a designer and serves as a cornerstone of my design process.”

Austy Lee ‘The Butterflies of Lover’ bangles from The Jade Dynasty collection in 18k rose gold with Burmese green jade, abalone shell, Mozambican unheated rubies, red enamel, fancy colour diamonds and white diamonds

Evolving Ideas

Although a specific gemstone can trigger a design concept, it is this constant, steady stream of “unconventional thoughts” that coalesce into a series of designs. These thoughts are informed by Austy’s passions, including movies and books, which typically lead to more data collection and methodical research. He continues: “One area of focus in my research is totems, as they encapsulate the religious and cultural evolution of specific ethnic groups.” In fact, this personal interest in cultural identity, ethnic artistry and diversity is one of the core principles of the Austy Lee brand.

Often, there are crossovers between these sources of inspiration and Austy’s passion for antique Chinese and Japanese decorative items, which inform much of his work. “The ancients possessed a remarkable imagination, constantly exploring and refining the techniques they created,” he explains. “History and storytelling form the foundation of my design process. Ultimately, the success of a design lies in its ability to evoke associations and resonate with others. It is this deep connection that captivates and engages people with a design, making it truly remarkable.”

Austy Lee ‘The Datura of Eden’ ring from The Gnostic Vines collection in 18k rose gold with fancy purplish pink, pink and vivid yellow diamonds, red, blue and white enamel and white diamonds

Worldly Techniques

Rather than focusing on the inherent value of materials like gold and coloured gemstones, Austy is more interested in incorporating narrative and contextual elements into his designs. However, to do this authentically and with deference to ancient cultures, he’s had to embrace a wide variety of traditional and contemporary techniques. Austy notes that he has “sought to challenge the existing framework of jewellery design” by inventing methods for applying different coloured surfaces on 18k gold, which in some cases appear to the eye like aluminium or titanium. He pairs these surface finishes with coloured gemstones, lacquerware, Raden (the Japanese technique of inserting mother of pearl into a carved surface of lacquer or wood), Ukiyo-e, Shakudō, enamelling and zōgan (metal inlay).

Katerina Perez holds the Austy Lee ‘The Night of Floréal’ ring in 18k rose gold with Fanta spessartite garnet, Mozambican unheated rubies, abalone shell and fancy colour diamonds, alongside ‘The himitsu-bake’ ring in 18k rose gold with Burmese peridot, blue sapphires, mother-of-pearl, onyx, abalone shell and white diamonds, both from The Sanctus-cubes collection

Another factor that I have always appreciated about the Austy Lee brand is the way three-dimensional antiques are built into pieces, like living fragments of history and culture. Austy has a habit of collecting antiques and then interpreting them through his own lens of history, art, culture, ethnicity, symbolism and so on. “You can see this in one of my collections called "Ancient Fetus," where I extensively use different antique objects to create new products that are full of storytelling and uniqueness,” he says. One of the most memorable pieces is a series of hairpins in the shape of red-crowned cranes made using Japanese lacquerware. It is inspired by the story of Tsuru no Ongaeshi, a Japanese legend, and features dancing, red-crowned cranes paired with traditional Japanese kimono hair accessories. Austy adds: “It is a way for the ancient legends to be reborn in an artistic form.”

Austy Lee ‘The Tsuruhime Sen no Odori’ brooch/hairpin from The Ancient Fetus collection in 18k yellow gold with antique Meiji lacquerware hairpin, South Sea golden pearl, rubies, blue sapphires, red and black enamel, mop, onyx, fancy colour diamonds and white diamonds

The Art of Surprise

With such a myriad of techniques, materials and ideas infused into each design, how does Austy keep his clients engaged with his creations and maintain the art of surprise? Interestingly, Austy says the route to achieving this is bringing joy to himself and quenching his own thirst for books, research, new techniques and craftsmanship. He explains: “I believe that for a brand to be successful, the designer must first entertain and find personal fulfilment. From ancient antique jewellery to emerging designer brands, it feels like I'm reading an encyclopaedia every day, exploring different people's preferences for beauty and artistic pursuits across different times and places.”

Austy Lee ‘The Apple of Singularity’ brooch from The Fruit du Désir collection in 18k yellow gold with Mozambican unheated rubies, red enamel and fancy colour diamonds

This level of intellectual devotion to jewellery making as an art form isn’t something I see every day. Although I meet many designers who draw inspiration from art, nature, films, books and other references, I know few who do such a deep dive into their ideas. Austy is almost like a historian, an investigative journalist and an artist rolled into one!

“As a designer, you have the power to move your clients and bring them new surprises. But if you can't inspire yourself with fresh ideas, how can you create a sense of surprise for your clients?” Austy Lee

Latest Treasures

Recently, Austy has been working on three new series of works, each with its own ideas and inspirations behind it. The first centres around a distinctive white crystal cutting theme, while the second “delves into the realm of peculiar cubes crafted from unconventional materials”. Lastly, there’s a series related to the “charm of cutting fruits,” which has resulted in a vibrant and fresh high jewellery offering according to the designer.

Austy Lee ‘The Red Figure8 Knot’ earrings from The Lock-Knot collection in 18k white gold with blue zircon, red enamel and white diamonds

Although we may have to wait a little longer to see these creations, there’s a fourth offering that Austy has launched only in the last month. These pieces explore the theme of knots as a symbol of unity, strength, and connection, including reef, figure eight and lariat loop knots crafted in enamel-coated gold and precious gems.

I feel I have only scratched the surface of an incredible mind in this interview with Austy Lee. Some people are clearly born to be creative – it’s in their blood and bones – and the results, in this case are unusual and eccentric jewels that are rich with meaning and symbolism. As Austy says: “My passion and excitement for jewellery stem from turning design into a way of life.” The results of this ‘way of life’ are a pleasure for jewellery aficionados everywhere.

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