Monday, January 3, 2011

The Alchemist

Meet Jewelry Designer Leila Tai
Referring to Beirut-born Leila Tai as a jewelry designer is an understatement. A magician would probably be a more fitting title as her work often invites wonderment. An accomplished artisan and metal-smith, her intricate pieces reflect years of experience acquired in the fabled ateliers of Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris.

Yet you won’t find Tai’s name tripping off the tongues of celebrities at red carpet events or being advertised in the pages of glossy magazines. Her mere existence has been a carefully guarded secret amongst a certain group of well heeled patrons and jewelry collectors. This is partly due to the fact that the New York-based Tai produces each one of her intricate made-to-order, one-of-a-kind pieces; making them all the more rarer.

Although her designs range from the minimalist to the baroque, Tai is known as a master of one of the most difficult jewelry-making crafts: plique à jour, a demanding 15th-century enameling technique. In her hands this rare craft is taken to new levels. She creates gossamer necklaces and lace-like cuffs with metal filigree, whose gaps she then meticulously fills in with lush shades of vitreous enamel. After backing in a kiln the enameled pieces emerge transformed into transparent panes; resembling tiny stained glass windows in brilliant colors.

“The alchemy of metal, glass, and fire has always fascinated me,” Tai explained one day in her New York studio. “Designing for plique à jour is a real challenge. Each piece becomes a hands-on operation and is very time consuming.”

Although the technique of plique à jour is a traditional craft, associated with the work of Art Nouveau jewelers such as Rene Lalique, Tai is not shy about combining new technologies with painstaking handicraft to conceive her designs. For her new collection, “Spring,” she uses Rhino CAD-CAM technology to create some of the piercings to hold the enamel, which must be applied painstakingly by hand before firing.

"Enamel is essentially powdered glass," Tai continued. "Colors must be mixed through a layering process, which involves multiple firings in a kiln ranging up to 1,550 degrees F. That's where the difficulties and challenges lie. And should I repeat a design, there will be a small change in color. After all, I'm painting with glass; no two pieces can ever be the same."

The result is a series kinetic pieces inspired by nature. A brooch for example, of gold, tsavorite and blue sapphires has been fashioned into a praying mantis; its transparent green enamel wings poised for flight. More mesmerizing perhaps is an 18k-gold “Foliage” bracelet of opalescent white, transparent green and red enamels, which boasts a handmade clasp set with cabochon rubies.

"I like to be a magician," says Tai. "Each piece offers built-in movement and flexibility," she continued. "Aside from the fact that I enjoy the long and focused creation process, this technique gives a realistic edge to my pieces. Creating jewelry as art objects that can be worn is my way of paying tribute to life and all creation."

Like her work, Tai’s career has been a long creative journey with many twists and turns. Leila Tai was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon during what she calls “its golden years.” After studying art education at the American University of Beirut, she transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she received her master of fine arts degree in metal work. It was there, while taking a course in architecture that her interests in design developed.

As Tai herself recalls, that particular class also instilled in her a love for the city she calls home today. “The title of the coarse was The Three Giants: Mies Van der Rowe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. New York, with its skyscrapers, was enough to convince me that I could not have been in a better place.”

After moving to New York, Tai went on to study under the legendary jewelry designer Donald Clafflin, (who worked with both Tiffany and Bulgari), as well Robert Kulicke and Jean Stark, from whom she learned much of her plique à jour techniques. Not long afterwards she snagged a coveted position at Van Cleef and Arpels’ design atelier in Paris, where she remained for over a decade before establishing her own business.

Her first show in 1970 was entitled “Things from the Sea,” with pieces that incorporated precious stones and non-precious materials found on the beach. “Much of the imagery found in my jewelry comes from memories of growing up on the Mediterranean; the sun setting in serene waves, the lush scents of pine, jasmine, wild thyme, and from the sight of butterfly wings with their rich patterns." explained Tai.

Today in addition to creating her much coveted designs, Leila Tai is also a professor of jewelry design and rendering at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and the Pratt Institute.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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