China's Red Princess Wan Baobao on Being a "Translator of Beauty"

Jewelry designer Wan Baobao

If you didn’t already know about jewelry designer Wan Baobao’s background, the name she chose for a pair of her earrings might give you a clue. Each formed in the shape of a Chinese pavilion, the kind that wouldn’t be out of place on a “Willow Pattern” plate, and bejeweled and wrought in the rosiest of 18 carat gold, the earrings bear the title “La maison de mon enfance,” the house of my childhood.

Wan is what the Chinese like to call a Red Princess. She grew up in Zhongnanhai, the red-walled compound reserved for China’s top leadership and their families, which once formed part of Beijing’s Forbidden City. The privilege of residence at this most toniest of addresses came courtesy of her grandfather Wan Li, a member of China’s first generation of Communist revolutionaries who served as the country's Vice Premier and then as the Chairman of China’s “parliament,” the National People’s Congress.

With such a childhood it is perhaps not surprising that Wan's designs contain such a Proustian frame of reference. Pieces of her jewelry conjure the swish of a sandalwood fan, the drip of ink from a paintbrush, a black and white photograph, an old camera. Yet Wan weaves such whimsical imagery into unmistakably modern jewelry.

Being a Red Princess may have been all and good but Wan took off early to see more of the world. At the age of 15, she enrolled at the Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in photography and French literature. After graduation, she went to France for further study where in 2003 she became the only Chinese born girl invited to make her debut at the famous Crillon Ball. This most exclusive of debutante’s balls brought her into contact with both some of the great French fashion houses, such as Dior, Chanel, and Christian Lacroix, as well as many budding beauties of the international social scene.

In 2005, she moved to Hong Kong, where she took a GIA jewelry appraisal course, while at the same time staking a name for herself on the city’s social register. Her rebellious, distinctive, style made her a perfect target for the tabloids and gossip magazines, but she was all the time preparing to make her design debut. In 2007, she launched Bao Bao Wan Fine Jewelry with a fashion show in Hong Kong.

Though widely educated in the West, Wan’s jewelry has an unmistakable oriental flavor. Apart from the La maison de mon enfance series, she has also created the beautiful L’Amour Paradoxal collection riffing with gold and diamonds on such symbolically important forms as bamboo and butterflies.

Wan is quick to disavow the idea that her success is due to her powerful background.The first person in her family to be involved in fashion, her connections were of no help to her as she took on every part of the business on her own from finding suitable manufacturers, to negotiating with suppliers, to marketing. And there is certainly no doubt about the quality of her designs. Today, her jewelry has earned her a cult following among such Asian A-listers as actors Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing, and Zhou Xun, and Vogue China’s editor Angelica Cheung. And last year she joined together with Zaha Hadid, Stephen Webster, and Patrick Mauboussin on the Enlightened TM project for Swarovski.

Today Wan divides her time between her studios in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui and Beijing’s Nanchizi’s street (which is only a stone’s throw from her old digs in Zhongnanhai) and provides both a ready to wear and bespoke service to her clients.

ARTINFO Hong Kong caught up with Wan at the launch of her new casual daytime jewelry collection “And the Little Ones…Season II” at Lane Crawford Beijng.

Given you were educated in the West, why do you think your designs have such a strong Chinese flavor?

From my point of view, not all of my works have a Chinese-inspired theme, but it’s undeniable that Chinese culture has been ingrained in DNA. My creative ideas mainly come from my emotions and memories, many of which, inevitably, are related to China since I am a Chinese. On the other hand, I don’t want to set a boundary that I only design jewelry with Chinese features. I would rather regard myself as a “translator of beauty”. I am willing to use my Chinese appreciation of beauty to translate the inspiration I received from all over the world.

How do you express your feelings in jewelry?

I love traveling, and I often get inspirations on my way. I won’t limit myself to forms or surroundings when it comes to design. When I’ve got an inspiration, I will even forget where I am, and think about nothing but the idea emerging just now. “And the Little Ones…” is a good example. In this collection, I didn’t put too much emphasis on Chinese imagery, instead I added in many lovely features like a camera, a train, and a statue of a goddess. There is a story that lies behind each of them, some of which are stories that happened to me, while others are a vague impression or dream in my mind for many years.

What do the small animals in “And the Little Ones…” collection represent?

The owl came from an image of it in my mother’s traditional Chinese painting, and so I used black and white to express the feeling of ink and wash. As for owl, it represents longevity and wisdom in the West, while in the East, especially in the Southeast Asian culture, the owl is the symbol of gaining wealth and happiness. I like all kinds of animals and plants. But the beauty of the natural world is the most difficult one to express.

How would you describe your design style?

I just follow my feelings. Just like travel, I never set any plan before I set off.  I prefer to wander around randomly rather than pursuing the most popular tourist spots, thus I often encounter extraordinary scenery and experiences. It’s the same with my design style. I may suddenly get an inspiration on my way to the office, or during a rainy Sunday afternoon, or casually sitting in a trance in my car. What a designer should do, I believe, is to perceptively capture those inspirations, then to make them into reality with his/her own approach.


Can you express your creative ideas completely when providing a custom-made service? Do you sometimes have to sacrifice part of your design?

For custom-made jewelry, I communicate a lot with customers in order to reach an agreement on design. In this process, they will tell me some personal information, like their nickname, their favored patterns, symbols, or textures. I will then try to interpret these personalized features in their jewelry. I always believe appropriate communication makes for a perfect result. 

Which artists have influenced you the most?

Dali influenced me a lot from the art side. He broke through the shackles of the old conventions and inspired people to see “It can be like this!” His spirit encourages me to achieve the “mission impossible,” to develop complicated craftsmanship and to realize the idea of my design. Here I have to mention “And the Little Ones…” again. The pieces in this collection seem small and simple, but actually the technique is not simple at all. I had to overcome many technical problems coming one after another during the production process before these final images could come into being. 

For a taste of Wan Baobao's designs click on our slideshow.