Even though Ada Chen just graduated from Pratt Institute with a degree in jewellery design, her work has already garnered international recognition for its unapologetic exploration of Chinese-American identity. The jeweller’s graduate collection embodies the sharp wit of modern meme-culture while speaking volumes about her personal experiences as a Chinese person living in America.
Ada’s jewellery is undoubtedly political, a reflection of “being forced to wrestle with my identity when I moved away for college”, she tells It’s Nice That. Her strong use of visual metaphors seen in Hot Chinitos and ’Chink’ Eyepiece profoundly communicate the problematic Westernised standards that are ubiquitously enforced throughout mainstream society. Ada’s biggest inspiration are memes and her work clearly mirrors this by being socially perceptive and light-heartedly humorous.
Speaking on her effective, semiotic communication, Ada explains how visual metaphors “seem to just appear in my mind, but I’ve come to realise that I design mostly from experience… The visual metaphors come to fruition simply by relating something I see to something someone said,” she says. “Other times, I have a concept that I want to express and I rack my brain for objects or body parts or memes that I could use in my designs. My process involves piecing together parts of my experiences that happen to work well together”.
Ada’s Text Message Earrings are probably her most popular design. Featuring real conversations that she’s had with men, the conversations show a revealing insight into one’s inherent racial preconceptions. The earrings, like wearable meme’s, also serve a similar function to memes although hung on a pair of ears to emphasise the importance of listening. Furthermore, Ada’s interests involve “how people create content for others to relate to on the internet, as well as the way people express themselves and respond to content… This in turn, helps me choose the concepts I want to communicate and how to articulate them.” Other sources of inspiration for the designer include Chinese food and the jewellers Otto Kunzli and Goran Kling — jewellery-makers that do not necessarily cater to the luxury goods market. Additionally, Ali Wong and Rina Sawayama who are “both unapologetically Asian and loud about it”.
Ada’s work is remoulding the discipline of jewellery from a traditional craft centred on its wealthy buyers, to a contemporary vehicle of political expression. Although Ada does not define her work as “purely political”, she recognises how jewellery has a long way to go “because it’s not really an art form that is accessible to many people. Anyone can go to the store, buy paints and start making paintings, but to buy metals and gems and to then start soldering or setting stones is not something that anyone can just pick up,” she says. “Contemporary jewellers who’ve had the privilege of learning the craft usually sit in the shadow of Tiffany’s or Cartier because people often see jewellery as just luxury items. However, jewellery is a medium that can express more than one’s economic status”.
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