Singaporean collector Tuan Lee might be small in stature but her bold tastes and infectious enthusiasm for contemporary and art jewellery leave a big impression.
Lee travels the world on a quest for the new and exciting and when in London, her base camp is in St John’s Wood, where her outsized accessorising (statement necklaces are a favourite) can be glimpsed bringing a flourish to her local bus route.
Her collection covers every surface of her London flat, with works displayed in cabinets and scattered across various surfaces. The dining room table is a cornucopia of rings and necklaces, some just purchased and still in their boxes, while others are left on a table after a day out in the city.
Lee started collecting ceramics and paintings before she collected contemporary jewellery and her introduction to jewellery happened in Santa Fe in the US. In the habit of buying a painting wherever she goes, she was waiting for a gallery assistant to negotiate a price with an artist over the phone when a beautiful necklace with cloisonné butterflies and beads grabbed her attention. She bought it on the spot.
Lee accrues serious air miles in her search for new finds but once on the ground, the practiced collector is a flâneur at heart. Her immersion in the UK jewellery scene started around 1997 when she was encouraged to visit Lesley Craze Gallery in Clerkenwell Green in the east of the City of London. A little apprehensive about visiting the down-at-heel area, she nonetheless championed her curiosity and came away with two necklaces by Japanese artists.
Consider it a pragmatic drive to flee Singapore in search of the jewellery she loves. “In Singapore, people are only interested in fine jewellery, not art jewellery; they consider anything not gold to be worthless.” Travelling around the world on a similar schedule each year, gallery owners anticipate her arrival at Galerie Ra in Amsterdam, Flow in London, Helen Drutt in Philadelphia and Charon Kransen in New York, ready to show the unique pieces they have kept especially for her.
What comes across as really close to her heart is the wearability of the jewellery she buys and the quality of the craftsmanship. Ease of wear is also a prime concern: “If I struggle and struggle and can’t put it on, I can’t stand that.”
Ask her what catches her eye when looking for bright new pieces and her response is to the point: “The more striking, bigger and more colourful, the better.” Her collection encompasses the best known names in contemporary jewellery: Adam Paxon, Jane Adam and Peter Chang, and emerging artists such as Poppy Porter, Regina Aradesian and Carrie Dickens. And it’s a given that new graduates are always on her radar. Materials might take in wet-look acrylic, dyed anodised aluminium, silicone, resin, titanium, enamel, leather or nylon. The value of these one-of-a-kind visions is not posed on their components in as much as on impact, concept or complexity.
As her collection grows, storage is clearly a problem and the pieces that have become an established part of her collection need to make way for the new. She is looking to collaborate with museums and a number of institutions but the most interesting developments are with the Victoria and Albert Museum, which already has a couple of pieces by Adam Paxon and Jane Adam from her collection. She is keen to see her collection on display and not just in storage; her collecting may not be planned but its posterity is clearly important to her.
It is obvious that for Lee, jewellery is an art form and her reaction to a piece she has fallen in love with can be intensely visceral. When she is prompted to single out her favourite, her answer is instantaneous: “My favourite piece is always the new one! I always wear my latest purchase.” –Additional reporting by Poppy Porter
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