Representing the creative future

Philip Sajet and Hau Wen: The insightful relationship between Master and Apprentice

Producing a piece of work in under two weeks that successfully occupies the vast space of CSM’s Street is a daunting set of conditions for any artist. Striving towards this goal as cross-pathway, collaborative collectives, while responding to specific themes set out by the course’s Critical Studies seminars (as Stage Two BA Fine Art students have been doing for the last few weeks) adds another dimension that offers both opportunities and challenges of its own. While there were inevitable clashes of ideas and personalities throughout the process, the resulting show was testament to what can be achieved when many artists work towards a common outcome- something more conceptually and technically ambitious than any one artist could have achieved alone in the same time frame. Given Assemble’s Turner Prize win, and with Chisenhale Gallery, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire presenting their shared program of collaborative works and events, ‘How to Work Together‘, over the next few years, collaboration is a force that is clearly gaining momentum in contemporary art practice.

While there is no placement year at Central Saint Martins’ BA Jewellery Design, some of the students travel during their spare time to meet alternative mentors. Today, we learn the lessons that Philip Sajet taught Hau Wen. Taking advantage of the ‘off-duty month’ at CSM, Hau traveled to the south of France to work with the legendary master, of what people nowadays call “contemporary jewellery“. Resisting that term, Philip, however, simply tells us that he makes “Joyaux” — the old french word for jewels: the most precious and rare kind of jewellery.  

We wondered if that sacred relationship between master and apprentice, which has existed for a millennia, can still be modern and beneficial, taking into account all the evolutions of the ways of creating art. It’s specifically an interesting conversation to have in the jewellery field, where ancient techniques are meant to be passed on. Is it time for a renewal of craftsmanship? If your goal is to touch the insensible and not perceptive aspect of jewels, then trying to learn outside of the academic boundary might where to find aspects that are not teachable in a class of 50 students.  We learn from Philip and Hau Wen that truly believing in the magic of transformation is the key to touching souls, and more importantly: how to make it happen.

Colombe D’Humieres: What is daily life like in Philip Sajet’s workshop?

Hau Wen: The workshop is divided into different floors, and there is all sort of machinery that you can find in a jewellery workshop: stone cutting, drilling, and materials everywhere on the floor. The third floor is where the jewellery benches are, and the other tools we use. Pliers are neatly placed on small tables, and everything is ready to be used. When he is working, there are only the relevant tools and materials needed at each stage present. The workshop’s display is highly disciplined and organised, which was so impressive.

I was living in a room opposite Philip’s, and the ceilings were painted with clouds everywhere, it was such a dramatic and fantastic set to live in. Our daily life was pretty simple: we had a morning conversation over coffee and honey to discuss the day’s plans; what we will create. After the working day, we would usually make dinner, sometimes with another artist who lives in the area.

What is the relationship you have between Artist and Apprentice?  

Philip Sajet: We are talking about a common passion and interest. We thought and imagined how things could be made. With Hau Wen, I wanted to work on a project that both of us could be interested in, like wrought iron Arabesques. I liked the swirls, and the word as well, it has something so exotic. The association with dance, music and writing is abundant. In this village, many houses have these Arabesques in front of their windows or doors. We found a way to more or less remake them smaller, and made gold jewels of this. First, I had the impression that Hau Wen thought I jested with him, asking him to take pictures in the village. After all, he had come to work and to make jewellery, and not shoot pictures.

Hau Wen: He has been my big boss, mentor and friend. I usually followed his directions and the mission he was giving, but he trusted my imagination. I mostly listened to him speaking, and tried to understand and feel his emotions.

What was your starting point with jewellery, Philip? You studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, right?

Philip: When I started in 1977, I first looked at how people were making jewellery. I was looking at what the limits, styles and expected tastes were. This was the very beginning for me. In 1981, I graduated in BA Edelsmeden (Jewellery). At the time, the general consensus was to find consistency, one idea, or form, in many variations. I found myself being very bored by making the next piece almost similar to the previous one. So, I did something completely different. I was trying to create with faith and passion, but I was not completely convinced. I felt I did not belong in this environment. I started to fake old Dutch and Roman coins, so I went to a bank and presented them my pieces, and asked them their opinion. The first piece I sold was to the Numismatic department of that Bank. I did my first show at the Louise Smit gallery in 1986, which marked the end of the numismatic project, and a period in itself. I wanted my first private show to look like a group show. The non-consistency was actually really powerful, like a weapon. There really was an enthusiastic reaction from the audience, and I was surprised, but it was exactly what I wanted to do at that time.

Hau Wen, what was your starting point?

Hau Wen: The time I filed the first ring I made, the light appeared and really grasped me. A pearl earring is something so small, but becomes so powerful. When it is worn by a man, for instance, it suddenly gives a queer feeling. The impact it has keeps me doing what I do.

How have you seen the industry change since you started?

Philip: All the processes evolved. For example, casting and forging used to be the way of achieving larger production scales. Since then, we have had the digital influence, like Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing. It is great, but it excludes the movement of hands, the handwriting, which in my opinion can never be replaced. I think the “old-fashioned” manufacturing procedure should remain. The specific weight and the magic of a handmade piece is higher than a machine-made work.

So you consider there’s a loss of authenticity in the digital process of making jewellery ?

Philip: Yes, I believe that the magic is gone. Magic is present when you look at a piece: you can admire it, but somehow, one is not able to understand it.

Hau Wen: It is different for me, because when I got into Jewellery Design, digital processes already existed. I did not have to judge. Machine-made pieces are legit, but I think it is just a different way of crafting jewellery.

Philip, do you consider yourself to be a contemporary jewellery artist?

Philip: I consider that modernity is only temporary. It is not the artist’s desire to be contemporary, but that of curators, dealers and collectors. I don’t consider modernity necessary. The industry is almost the opposite of passion for me. The will and the aim are not the same. The union between a sensible, complex human being and a piece of rough and angular metal is what intrigues me. I see the possibility of modernity in that fusion. Authenticity is a personal necessity, but losing yourself is one as well. It comes as a need to be disconnected from the period of time and the place that drives you. An artist is supposed to escape modernity in order to create an heterotopia. The only thing that is not replaceable, is time. And those are things that aren’t teachable by any tutors in any school. It is about a generosity to give the ‘infinite’, whatever that may be.

How would you describe the artistic process of Sajet compared to what you learned so far?

Hau Wen: He works with his intuition and passion. Perhaps the experience of 40 years in the industry makes his mind clearer. He is always convinced. He makes things (with fine materials) right away, and he is incredibly fast. Making jewellery is like painting and playing to him. I felt it is an extremely incisive, impulsive and distinctive way of working.

Did your motivation and vocation evolve and change with time?

Philip: Yes, of course. At the beginning, I was looking for striking appearances, but now I aim for essential and meaningful jewellery. Designing has a primary goal, but Art is meant to offer something else. Life has a signification. I never wonder if a piece is going to be successful. I now believe in the necessity of a piece, and not being slavelike to design. I respect my public, but I can’t care about their desires and needs. I do about 40 pieces a year: the pieces I want to make. It is enough to live comfortably and keep working.

How would you describe your motivation and vocation, Hau Wen?

Hau Wen: I just try to express my sensibilities by using jewelry as a medium.

What remains the main challenge, after all these years of practice and recognition?

Philip: To reach a moment of absolute perfection. It needs dedication and constant concentration, but also a sense of generosity. I keep looking for that connection with nature and non-artificial life. I consider that everything can be found with meditation in the silence. I keep doing the same thing: creating jewels, which are of the highest value on the smallest scale. Basically, the reduction of a metal molecule.

Hau Wen where do you see your main challenge?

To avoid being misunderstood by other people.

Philip, how does one reach that moment of perfection?

Like I said before, you need to start from your inner self, then take some distance and get higher. If you can’t achieve it, then tension arises, as well as a need to understand. You look at something which is unclear, so you hold your breath. You simply end up without oxygen. A piece should give an answer to an unasked question, otherwise people just walk away. When you start to feel that moment of perfection, you feel that energy. But of course, my standards of satisfaction evolve with the experience, in a way the job gets easier to make and harder to be satisfied.

Hau Wen, what does perfection means to you?

To reach my ultimate standards, but we know it is a process, not a result.

Works by Hau Wen

Did you both benefit from each other, and the fact of working in a workshop ?

Philip: Hau Wen’s devoted and linear concentration made me realise that it is the foremost important “ingredient” to obtain a successful piece. It truly made me realise that I have to keep working on that too. I consider him to have the absolute potential of becoming a major artist.

Hau Wen: Yes, of course. We did not work on jewels only, but on everyday life products as well. We made three different versions of pipes, for instance, in plastic and copper, with and without tubes. They were beautiful sculptures in themselves. We made countless wood frames for his paintings, tools, shelves, and stone candlesticks for brightening the atmosphere.

Have you ever considered moving away from Jewellery to another medium?

Philip: Once, I really wanted to stop doing Jewellery and study medicine, but I was told I was far too old for that. By the time that I would be a full grown doctor, I would have reached my pension age.

Hau Wen: Taxi driver, because my mother said so.

Any advices?

Philip: Always believe in yourself, and the more insecure or unsure you are, the nearer you are to the important and essential truth.

Words by Colomb D’Humieres