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Plaiting Threads of Gold and Platinum Into Contemporary Jewellery

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

“Contemporary jewellery is a wearable ‘art’,” Kazumi Nagano begins. Though wearable, contemporary is a genre separate from the one-size-fits-all approach of costume, fine, and high jewellery – otherwise altogether accessories. “Contemporary jewellery is not made like accessories..[it] selects the person to wear it.” 

The 70 year-old was born in Nagona, Japan, and is highly respected in this niche genre of jewellers. She has been recognised in salient art museums, amongst many – the Victoria & Albert, Cooper Hewitt, and Smithsonian.

Felicia Yap

If art-like jewellery pieces are selective of its wearers, their personalities must be so overwhelming, eclipsing that of the wearer’s. Nagano takes me on a detour, noting that “contemporary jewellery should facilitate the personality of the [wearer].” 

She explains, “Contemporary jewellery is not made like [accessories]. The personality of a contemporary artist is transferred into the pieces. The personality contained in the pieces needs to sympathise with the personality of [its wearer].” Personality to personality, Nagano adds that not everyone is therefore suited to carry her pieces. It has to be a kindred creative spirit. 

The chosen ones however, will find themselves reaching into Nagano’s serene soul. “People who wear my pieces [will] feel a calm tranquility.” It’s the fruit of her delicate balance between conceptual Western art sensibilities and a laborious Japanese sensitivity. 

Felicia Yap

It comes through in her choice of materials. Nagano visits the ancient capital of Kyoto to source for the finest Washi paper threads. The art of traditional paper-making was founded in China, but precipitated to Japan in 610AD for the sake of Buddhist monks’ sutras. A millennium later, the art of paper remains a source of pride for Japanese, used commonly in origami, flower arrangement, and for traditional windows and doors. She then looks to the waterfront quarter of Koto, in Tokyo to buy gold threads. 

When she has her ribbons of precious elements on hand, she turns her hand on creation. “I do not design…[When] I make it, I try many shapes,” Nagano first handlooms the threads into a sheet of gold. She then draws from the 1,400-year-old technique of Origami, and folds the sheet in elaborate ways. 

Nagano doesn’t speak English. Her partner replies in smatterings of English. And it’s okay, for her answers are not found in words, but fluent in her jewellery pieces. 

Her process is a magical metamorphosis of a 2-dimensional sheet into a 3-dimensional object quavering with life. “A ‘shape’ means 3D…2D jewellery is not suitable for wearing on the body. So I [had] to transfer 2D to 3D.”

And the 3-dimensional shape of a jewellery piece has to harmonise with the human body – the uneven ridges of the décolletage, slenderness of a wrist, or rapid movements of a finger. “The shape of a piece is [of] high priority.”

Felicia Yap

“My pieces are very intuitive,” Nagano’s jewellery responds to the body’s motions when worn. “[They] are the result, at times, of a mere feeling.” A light touch, her gold bracelet mimics. Her delicate weaving births jewellery that are nimble and light. 

“The suppleness of the pieces facilitates interrelation with the human body, and makes them all the more, appealing to touch.” It’s a graceful relationship with the human body. 

“This feeling of mine is something based on experience I have gained from [doing] Japanese painting for a long time.” Nagano spent 26 years immersed in the art of Nihonga – a traditional form of Japanese painting that stretches back to 800 AD. The style makes use of Iwaenogu, powder paint derived from mineral pigments, like mercury sulfide, azurite, malachite, oyster shell, carbon, and gold powder. 

But in 1996 she took to enrol herself in a jewellery course, under another contemporary jeweller, Minato Nakamura. “I did not intend to learn jewellery at first. I happened to go to jewellery class in Tokyo, [and] when I visited Europe and USA, I found fine contemporary jewellery – that contemporary jewellery is art [as well],” she then sounded out her painterly sensibility in jewellery. 

Nagano said that she is a person grounded in the district of hope – she meant it literally, geographically. Apart from painting and jewellery, she preoccupies herself with classical music by Franz Schubert, particularly "Ave Maria" and "Serenade"; the 1995 film "East of Eden", adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel. Her favourite painting, "Impression Soleil Levant" by the impressionist Claude Monet; the colour white; and gardenia. 

Before she wrapped, Nagano carefully said, “the purpose of my life is realisation of hope, and I do not give up hope.”

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