"I remember shopping for jewellery and gemstones with my mother since my early teens," a 56-year-old New York-based jewellery designer Joon Han recounts her childhood years. "But I used to rummage through her jewellery collection even earlier than that."
Han was born in Seoul but grew up across several countries, including "Korea, Western Samoa, and the Philippines." Her mother was a traditional homemaker with some intriguing hobbies. She was "a gifted painter of traditional Chinese art, a talented singer," Han recalls. Most of all, "she had a great eye and love for beautiful gemstones."
Like any child, she was enraptured by the glitz and bling and would play with her mother's jewellery pieces. In particular, the "diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, jade, and pearls. I loved the sparkle and brilliance of all the pieces, and the intensity of the large, coloured, precious gemstones."
When her mother jetted around the globe in search of more gemstones, Han followed. "We went gem shopping all over the world and my mother taught me, among other things, about Burmese pigeon blood rubies, emeralds from Colombia's Muzo mines, translucent Imperial jade, natural pearls, and the importance of quality over size," Han told metal & smith in an interview, the New York-based incubators for emerging jewellery designers. These travel encounters and lessons stayed with her for life. They opened her eyes to "the beauty of the imperfections in nature that reveal the history of creation, and by the magnificent gemstones that are created through this process of nature, each with its own unique character."
Joon Han Jewellery
On the left, a pair of carved white jade earrings embellished with South Sea pearls, spinel and diamonds. On the right, a pair of earrings with pink-green watermelon tourmalines, sapphires, and carved rose quartz.
Han never pursued a career in the jewellery industry. She eventually studied economics in the Wellesley College in Massachusetts. When she graduated, she embarked on a career in corporate banking in New York. Eventually, Han moved back to South Korea, where she taught English, launched her own "cashmere and pashmina line", and directed an art gallery.
All these while, she was making jewellery pieces for herself in her own time. They were bold, statement jewellery pieces punctuated with colourful gemstones — a far cry from the reigning minimal trend of the Korean jewellery industry back then in the '90s. "The Korean jewellery landscape back then consisted of understated conservative designs," Han recounts. Be it diamonds, pearls, or gemstones, they were "set into simple designs."
Han, however, felt that jewellery could be much more. "I think what was missing from the industry back then was the lack of variety in terms of gemstones and colours." Like a painter stuck with a blank canvas and no paint, Han felt that it "limited the design creativity you see today that comes with access to the abundant variety of semi-precious gemstones in the current market — with so many colours, shapes, and cuts that can be designed into luxury jewellery."
"Jewellery is a way to express one's aesthetics and individuality, so I designed interesting yet elegant and unique statement jewellery pieces that I felt expressed my authentic self," says Han.
She would source "gemstones from all over the world" for these jewellery pieces. Following in her mother's footsteps, Han stands by "exceptional gemstones and pearls [with] beautiful natural hues, outstanding brilliance, unusual cuts, and interesting shapes."
Joon Han Jewellery
A red and green bicoloured 25.63 carat tourmaline ring punctuated with diamonds and set in 18k yellow gold.
Her eye for precious stones drew praises and admiration from the people around her. "I take it as a huge compliment when people tell me they can feel my passion for gemstones through my jewellery."
Eventually, friends started noticing and asking if they could buy her designs. That marked the birth of her eponymous label, Joon Han Jewellery.
Today, Han produces and retails both ready-to-wear and custom pieces for her clients.
The love for nature and its beautiful imperfections that she shares with her mother is captured in her every design — be it a pair of pink and green tourmaline earrings, or a pair of blue beryl, aquamarine and sapphire earrings with visible bubbles formations.
In every necklace, earring, or ring, Han seeks out proportion and colours. "Their colours and proportions have to harmonise well together in order for the jewellery to be a piece of beauty," says Han.
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