Jewellery for the Digital Age: How Xinyi Chen is Turning E-Waste into Bodily Adornment

Posted by Rae Gellel on

The digital world and the physical world collide with Maze, Xinyi Chen’s collection of bold, futuristic choker necklaces in show-stopping colours. Inspired by her mother’s background in computer science, the former Masters student at Central Saint Martin’s combines e-waste sourced from Chinese Recycling Centres with precious stones, and traditional jewellery-making techniques with CAD technology, in hopes of capturing what she describes as “digital spirituality”. Xinyi’s unique design style has recently earned her recognition at Shine 2023, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s showcase of the most talented emerging makers.

What first attracted you to a career as a maker and how did you get started in the industry?

After working in the industry in multiple roles like model, buyer, photographer and senior jewellery consultant, I found I had a new perspective on design and a passion for jewellery design in particular.

I started to make conceptual pieces as I studied for a bachelor's degree at the Gemmological Institute in China. After creating my artistic collection New Era of Crown, I decided to continue pursuing contemporary jewellery and design and launch my brand EÈ CHAN by completing a masters degree at Central Saint Martins in 2022.

Jeweller Xinyin Chen working her jewellery workbench

Within one year, the collection had been exhibited both in the industry and contemporary jewellery field, selected for Talented Masters of the Future, Cheongju International Craft Competition and the Friedrich Becker Prize, and was the winner of the Bright Young Gems, Retail Jeweller's Rising Stars 30 Under 30. This means a lot to me, because the sense of encouragement and support from the field enhanced my confidence, and boosted my energy and motivation to explore my career further.

Can you tell us a little bit about the collection you'll be debuting at Shine 2023?

Electronic components have a special place in my heart: I call them ’Artificial Intelligems’. Since I was a kid, my mother has worked as a computer practitioner, and the precision structure of computers has always impressed me very much. Since 2016,I have been experimenting with and redefining the use of electronic components through my artistic practice, using them as gemstones to make wearable jewellery. I'm fascinated with their shapes, textures, colours and digital spirituality.

My collection for Shine is called Maze, and it's a series of bracelets, choker necklaces and earrings made using recycled metal and e-waste. It explores the relationship between the digital world versus the physical world, and the age of digital awe and pleasure. My practice focuses on the younger generation's awareness of E-waste, because I think my generation is the first to be born into a time with technology such as smartphones, computers, televisions and apps. China’s WEEE Recycling Centre formed part of the supply chain for the collection. Working with recycled materials is important because I think we designer-makers can also be change makers.

I would say the Maze collection is a milestone collection for my 30th birthday. As an emerging maker, I devote myself full time to exploring new materials, making pieces, finding aesthetic language, and injecting emotion and energy into design pieces. For me, it is exciting to work on commission, it has been lovely to talk with my clients and meet their requests. It’s not only a source of financial support, but it also provides me with encouragement to continue creating. I am also happy to make different versions of pieces, in different colours, as per my client's preference.

Have you explored any new techniques or any new materials for this collection?

This collection was created using 3D scanning and 3D printing to create accurate shapes for the settings. As you know, electronic components don’t have common shapes like gemstones. I had to design and print a mounter for a prong setting. It was a kind of innovation, because it's combining new technology with traditional jewellery-making methods. In order to achieve vibrant colours on silver, I developed electroplating techniques like PVD coating for my earrings and  rack plating for the necklace. Rack plating is the process of coating one metal on the surface of any conductive metal by applying a direct electric current. The final colour is determined by the current and the duration that its applied. Several layers of plating are usually required to achieve a good quality.

I have been experimenting with e-waste for nearly eight years, but in this collection I'm trying to combine wearable art with a more commercial area. I gained knowledge and inspiration from my still-growing network. My past collections have usually consisted of quite large art pieces, but for Maze I worked with different disciplines such as recycled material specialists, fine jewellery craftsmen and 3D technicians to create ready-to-wear jewellery. I thought a lot more carefully about my clients and how the work would be worn comfortably.

What kind of person do you think is attracted to my work?

In my mind, I think it should be the younger generation, the technically literate generation. I also found that when people ask me about my pieces, they tend to be artists or photographers or have some kind of creative occupation. They’re people who like to express themselves and their personalities through how they dress in daily life. 

Interestingly, although I expected my customers to be from the generations that are more familiar with technology, when selling my pieces at a gallery, I found that a lot of older ladies were drawn to my work. I’m not sure if they knew much about the materials, but they were attracted by the colours and sustainable concept.

How would you describe your design style?

I would say it evokes joy though my design language. I wouldn’t like to limit my style to just a few words, I’m still exploring, I’m still on a design journey. My latest collection features a lot of choker necklaces, but for my next collection, I may do more art pieces and commercial pieces. So while I’m still evolving, I think it’s more up to my audience to describe what my design style is.

What’s next for you - what are your goals professionally and creatively for the next two years?

In the next two years, I think I’ll just keep going with new work, creating the art pieces and commercial pieces. Growing your brand is a long journey that’s not limited to two years, but I’d like to improve my skills on social media and work with different retailers and galleries. Shine has helped a lot, because I learned skills like making videos for social media, and it’s generally just a great platform for emerging makers.


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