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February 16, 2011

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Jewelry designer fuses cultures

GOLD and silver, gems from Brazil, bead work from Africa and jade from China are used by French jewelry designer Helene Dumenil to forge dramatic, one-of-a kind works. Nie Xin reports.

French jewelry designer Helene Dumenil draws on her travels around the world to create striking, finely crafted ornaments that combine world cultures.

Many creations are bold, dramatic and chunky, while others are more delicate. She uses gold, silver, precious stones, glass beads, wood and jade and motifs from around the world. Her latest work is a necklace combining precious stones from Brazil, wood from Africa and jade from China.

Dumenil arrived in Shanghai two and a half years ago after completing a 10-month trip to Atlantic coastal nations in Africa and South America. She first visited China five years ago when she toured Shanghai, Beijing and Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Speaking French, Italian and English, Dumenil lived for many years in Africa, including Mali, the Ivory Coast and Madagascar.

Her works are free-form, combining workmanship, themes and materials from places as distinctive as West Africa, Turkey and Italy.

Dumenil opened her jewelry studio in an old neighborhood on Changshu Road. She forges the works herself.

"The two most important things in my life are travel and creativity," says Dumenil, who wears her own dramatic jewelry. "When I travel, I am good at finding the exciting sides of places I visit and I get inspirations for my creations from my trips."

Beginning almost 20 years ago, Dumenil forged her own style by combining modern professional techniques and metal working skills with materials such as traditional African bead work.

She tirelessly explores markets, crafts shops, gold and silver smiths studios and traditional jewelers.

Dumenil is particularly fond of Chinese jade.

"Jade is one of the most important materials I get from China - it's beautiful, shining, comes in different colors and also represents the traditions of the country," she says.

Color represents different personalities and jade comes in many colors, she notes.

"Chinese people love jade of shining green and Europeans prefer brown and dark colors," Dumenil observes, adding that most Westerners don't know much about jade and don't see much high-quality jade.

"I myself have difficulty distinguishing the quality of jade," admits Dumenil, who asks a knowledgeable friend to help her find excellent jade pieces for her work. She is a regular customer at jade markets, such as Yuyuan Garden.

Dumenil lives in the former French concession with her 13-year-old daughter who is studying in Shanghai. Another daughter is in France.

Life is peaceful. She enjoys walking in her neighborhood, riding her bicycle around or just hanging out.

"I prefer places with small houses and big phoenix trees to those with tall buildings," she says. "I really enjoy walking around to get inspirations for my creations."

Dumenil says her neighbors are very friendly but since her Chinese is limited, they don't communicate much.

Her brand, "Yol," is the Turkish word for road, route or path. Some works are custom-made, mostly for friends who want jewelry for a special event, such as an engagement.

"When people come to buy jewelry, I make sure it really suits them or that they really like it," Dumenil says.

Some Chinese are also interested in her design.

"Young Chinese people with better taste are not satisfied with the old style of jewelry which is made of gold and jade. They need more fashionable elements which can represent their own personality," says Dumenil.

Prices start at around 800 yuan (US$120) and range up to around 16,000 yuan. She generally spends a week on a piece of jewelry but some pieces are the result of a couple of years of experimentation.

Every week she holds design classes in her studio.

"I am happy to teach and glad to have more communication with local people," says the designer.

Helene Dumenil

Nationality: French

Age: 43

Profession: Jewelry designer


Self-description: Travel and creativity.

Favorite place: Little lanes in the former French concession.

Strangest sight: It's difficult to say. Maybe the funniest thing is babies' open trousers!

Worst experience: It hasn't happened yet and I hope it never will.

Motto for life: Go to the horizon and see what is beyond ... Help yourself and God will help you.

How to improve Shanghai: More respect for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Advice to newcomers: Don't wait until tomorrow. Things may change before you realize it.


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