There’s something slightly clandestine about meeting Jacques An Lanh at Harry’s Bar, a storied watering hole situated a stone’s throw from Paris’s Place Vendôme. Once settled into a dark corner of the wood-paneled room, the jewelry designer begins to meticulously empty the contents of a black leather case. He reveals a palm-size pendant: a smooth slab of a mushroom-colored mammoth tusk. On it, ivory pegs hang from leather cords, clattering against one another like wind chimes. He then snakes a faceted onyx necklace, with a shimmering planetlike obsidian stone at its end, across the table.
“I like to work with rare materials not typically used in jewelry,” says An Lanh, who notes that all the ivory in his designs is antique, sourced from licensed suppliers and merchants. Today, An Lanh is dressed in a black Prada suit, his coy demeanor offering a stark contrast to his bold, look-at-me creations. He currently has a particular penchant for fossils. “I find the transformation of matter, and the textures, fascinating,” he says, sliding his hand over a petrified dinosaur-bone pendant nestled among a cluster of Botswanan carnelian beads.
“Jacques is madly talented,” says Dauphine de Jerphanion, an accessories and perfume stylist for the tony Paris department store Le Bon Marché. “He has a very unusual way of mixing materials, producing bold ethnic-chic pieces that have a modern allure. They’re collector’s items.”
With awesome combinations of unwonted stones, wood and bone, An Lanh’s jewelry ranges in price from about $500 for a stingray skin bangle to $40,000 for more exceptional creations such as a necklace made from a ragged plaque of Tanzanian ruby and green tourmaline beads. “I never think about the prices of stones, as I know I will always find a collector who admires them as much as I do,” he reasons.
Indeed, the designs have caught the eye of the fashion crowd during An Lanh’s 19-year career. In 2000 Hanae Mori made a suit for Princess Masako of Japan and commissioned An Lanh to craft its pebble-shaped, polished jet buttons. The next year Jean Paul Gaultier recruited him to design accessories for his couture show, a collaboration that continued through spring 2005. Pièces de résistance included bold turquoise stingray skin cuffs for Gaultier’s tribal-chic spring 2004 couture collection and drop earrings in petalesque ebony clusters for the designer’s African-inspired spring 2005 couture show.
Born in Saigon, An Lanh, 53, grew up under the influence of such Asian traditional heirlooms as his family’s “ancestors’ altar,” an ornate ritual stand decorated with engraved mother-of-pearl that dates back to the early 19th century. Yet aside from a two-year stint in the Eighties working for jeweler Christian Astuguevieille, who at the time supplied costume designs for both Lanvin and Claude Montana, An Lanh is completely self-taught. “I was intrigued by Astuguevieille’s work, but it wasn’t my sensibility,” says An Lanh, who was eager to create a timeless line rather than ephemeral looks for the fashion set. “I wanted to design pure ethnic-inspired pieces with a modern allure.”