32-year-old Wing Yau was a sculptor and performance artist before channeling her energies into creating WWAKE, her ethically sourced jewelry company. We’re glad she did. Wing Yau grew up in Vancouver, Canada, adoring the Pacific views before moving to the East Coast of the US, and studying design at the Rhode Island School of Design. She launched her first jewelry collection in September 2013 and currently works out of her Greenpoint, Brooklyn studio (which also boasts harbor views).
Where did the name WWAKE come from? WWAKE is a reminder of how I like to work. I think of each design as an individual gesture that comes together with other designs, like waves in the ocean (yes, there is a water theme), hopefully with ease and poetry. The name also marked my decision to move away from the art world and into design so the play on words “wake” and “awake” was fitting of my life changes at the time.
Is there a piece of jewelry that best represents your mission with WWAKE? Yes, our Monolith rings! They’re weighted and sculptural, but understated in detail. They incorporate one-of-a-kind stones from some of my favorite places. I hand pick each stone with the miners themselves, so they’re all very special to me. I love their play between the masculine band and feminine stones. I also love the fact that we often make them with Fairmined gold, which benefits the communities at the source of our designs.
What was the first piece you created under the WWAKE name? It was a sculptural statement necklace made of hand-dyed rope. Back then, I was interested in using subversive materials for my jewelry. A lot has changed since then, to say the least!
Do you wear your own jewelry? What are your current favorite pieces? Absolutely! I love the Rhodes and the pearl weaving necklaces we’ve just launched. And I’m a fan of opals (earrings, rings and pendants) which speak for themselves.
Tell us about your design/sourcing process. Since I have a background in sculpture, my process starts with the materials. I look at the shapes, colors, and story behind a stone and work to enhance its natural beauty. Sometimes it takes several iterations before I find the right design: Some are over-elaborate, and gaudy. Everything I design for WWAKE appears to be very simple, but it’s actually not: The secret is that it’s been edited and distilled from elaborate ideas and processes.
Where do you source the recycled gold and stones? Our materials are sourced with our best practices possible. Our gold is provided to us by our refinery, and it’s certified recycled by SCS Global Services to be ethically and environmentally sustainable. Our stones come from a variety of specialized vendors, many whom focus on stones that have been recycled from old jewelry, or on cutting gem rough that was mined in the 90’s. All of these sources are valuable for their low environmental impact, as they don’t contribute to current mining practices today.
One of my passions is sourcing stones that make a positive impact which involves other vendors. Also interesting to me is fine jewelry because the materials are always sourced from different parts of the world that link us to experiences and communities beyond our own.
What’s the ultimate goal? One of my biggest interests lies in how my jewelry can go beyond zero impact, actually supporting the livelihood of others in a responsible, long-term way. If I can design using sources with transparent supply chains and development projects for communities at the mines, the simple purchase of a ring can really change lives.
Beyond the materials how else do you instill goodness and intimacy into your jewelry? Our stones are sourced from around the world, but entirely handmade in New York, with the intention of contributing back to our local economy. We work with jewelers in the historic Diamond District of Manhattan, and we also have a 100% female jeweler team in our Brooklyn studio — this is especially noteworthy in a trade and industry still dominated by men.
Talk to us about the WWAKE X TRR collaboration. This is one of the most exciting collaborations we’ve done. While WWAKE is well-known for our delicate pieces, this collection is an evolution for the brand — focused on heavy gold pieces and large scale stones to be seen as future heirlooms.
How do you describe these rings, necklaces and earrings? Each piece is classic and modern, with considered details hidden in plain sight.
Why are they especially relevant today? I think jewelry is always relevant! We find meaning in the pieces we wear everyday — it wears in with us rather than wears down, and most importantly, it’s one of the few things that becomes part of your identity over time. These pieces have a touch of familiarity to them (cue: traditional cigar bands, charm necklaces, etc.) but feel at once new and exciting due to my signature asymmetry and ethereal touches. The idea is to strike a balance between nostalgia for your family’s jewels, and a future of something new, exciting, and unexplained.
Who do you imagine wearing them? Someone who is thoughtful and wants to build meaning in the world they live in. Someone who makes considered purchases and understands how impactful it can be to support sustainably minded brands like ours.
Where would you like to see them worn? I’d like to see these pieces worn conscientiously every day and build history with our customers over time.
Do you notice jewelry on women you see on the street? What changes have you noted recently? I’m always spying on everyone’s jewelry. The biggest change I’ve seen lately is a shift to heavier gold pieces. What used to be exclusively “men’s” jewelry is now everyone’s.
Is there something new in your materials or process that you’ve stumbled upon lately? I’m very excited about engraving lately and would like to experiment more with that. I love the idea of leaving your mark on an object, and would like to offer this further to our followers.
In photos it looks like your studio has plants, is airy and even features an office dog—basically designed to inspire creativity. Was that your intent? Always!!
What it is about Greenpoint? Greenpoint is right beside the water, and it reminds me of my home in Vancouver, Canada where WWAKE was born. I like spending my time by the waterfront watching the water move and passing the time.
It looks like you love to travel. What are some of your favorite places in the world? Yes I do!! As a child I grew up traveling the world because of my dad’s work. I spent my teens living in and traveling all over South America, so it’s hard to pick one place! Peru is probably one of my favorites, though, because its landscape is so varied (think: the amazon, the mountains, the desert), and there is such a rich history of craft there. I love learning how things are made. One of the greatest privileges of WWAKE’s ethos is that I get to travel around the world to do site visits, with the intention of getting closer to the source of our jewelry. These trips deepen my understanding of how I can design with other countries in mind.
And where are you excited to visit next? Next year I hope to finally make it Oaxaca. There are so many incredible artisans who I would love to meet and be inspired by.
How does travel feed your creativity? Traveling is the greatest gift — there’s truly nothing like stepping out of your own comfort zone and learning about a world outside of your own. I love being uncomfortable and immersing myself in other cultures, and seeing my own world anew. It’s humbling and has me rethink my own life — from my design process, to my approach to cooking, to my everyday comforts.
We’ve read that you like a good joke. Give us your best shot. Women earn 74 cents to every dollar their male counterparts make — that counts as a joke, right?!!