Anabela Chan’s Gilded Exoskeletons
The architect-turned-jewelry designer is subverting convention with ingenuity, precision, and a cache of insect carcasses.
By Eimear Lynch
Photos by Jooney Woodward
September 19, 2016
Anabela Chan’s London flat is filled with dead bugs. Boxes of them.
On her favorite days, the 32-year-old jeweler kicks off her Charlotte Olympia kitty flats, removes several rings encrusted with diamonds and freshwater pearls, and cracks open a box of carefully preserved beetle corpses or butterfly wings.
With a surgeon’s delicacy, she’ll cast insects’ bodies in gold or build spherical sculptures from unadulterated butterfly wings. And though this form of gilt taxidermy isn’t her only strong suit—she’s also known for arranging hundreds of precious and semi-precious stones to look like blackberries on cocktail rings, or to affix diamonds to gold earrings shaped like wilted rose petals—it’s a strong suit nonetheless.
Anabela Chan at her home in London.
Even if she didn’t collect and repurpose lifeless bugs, Chan would be an unusual jeweler. She favors lab-grown gems over more valuable mined ones. She keeps in close contact with entomologists in remote jungles in the Far East and South America, eagerly awaiting reports of new treasures like butterfly bodies. (Butterflies can only live up to a month, and if found undamaged they’re easy to preserve.) And she’s very likely the only jeweler in London who would direct a customer away from a $50,000 ring covered in natural stones to a similar piece made with lab-grown diamonds that costs a fraction of the price. On this point, Chan was insistent. “It just didn’t make sense,” she says. “You’d put them side by side and they’d look exactly the same. For me, it’s important to be ethical and sustainable, and accessible to a much wider demographic.”
With a small team of goldsmiths, stone-cutters, polishers and setters, Chan hand-makes every piece she sells—from an agate cuff with a flower-shaped clasp covered in 38 carats of manmade diamonds, down to a delicate gold ring adorned with one tiny stone and a pea-sized pearl. She even occasionally mans the register at her flagship store in Soho. To call the shop a jewel box is unforgivably cliché—and perhaps somewhat justifiable. Adjacent to the stylish Ham Yard Hotel, it’s barely the size of a walk-in closet. Dove grey walls are lined in art deco-style gold-and-glass cases, and a stuffed crane stands guard in one corner. But what makes it enticing even to a jewelry agnostic is a central display of hand-blown, basketball-sized glass spheres holding brilliantly hued things: butterfly sculptures and bright green brooches made from scarab beetles.
A piece designed by Chan at her boutique inside the Ham Yard Hotel.
Bernhardt Design’s president and creative director, Jerry Helling, for one, was surprised by his own interest in the store during a weeklong work trip to London. “I don’t know anything about jewelry, I’d never set foot in a jewelry shop other than Tiffany, and I don’t usually like small spaces filled with a lot of stuff,” he says. “And yet I was like a moth to the flame.” Helling left that first visit with earrings and a ring for his wife—and a plan to convince Chan to design limited-edition upholstery textiles for Bernhardt.
To create the prints for the resulting collection of Bernhardt fabrics, which debuted earlier this year, Chan distorted and abstracted the materials she works with every day. Creating textiles wasn’t much of a stretch, as she spent much of her early career designing prints and embroidery for All Saints and Alexander McQueen. It was her time at the latter house that set her course. “Working at McQueen was intoxicatingly creative,” she says. “Nothing mattered except pushing the boundaries of design and craftsmanship. It wasn’t about business, it was just creativity, and that’s very rare.” Before that, Chan worked as an architect, contributing to Richard Rogers’s currently-under-construction 3 World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan.
Materials and sketches inside Chan's workspace.
Chan might have dabbled in skyscrapers and ready-to-wear, but today she’s settled on a medium that seems to suit her. “From architecture to fashion to jewelry, I’ve gone smaller and smaller and smaller!” she says. And although her current creations are relatively slight, there’s more at play than meets the eye. “What I love about jewelry is that it can carry emotions and memories,” she says. “And I can’t think of anything more magical.”