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Joao Vaz

Joao Vaz

The Japanese use the word ‘high tension’ to mean upbeat. Though Portugese, there couldn’t be a more apt clash of descriptions for the bespectacled, articulate, Sydney-based designer, Joao Vaz

Like Truman Capote, Joao’s high energy is just on the right side of exhausting.  He’s candid, earnest and seems to be propelled by some kind of inner energy that lights up his eyes and, sometimes, lifts him off his chair mid-sentence.  And it’s not just when he’s talking about his work either, as you might expect.  This Portugese jewellery designer talks about Antiques Road Show, CERN, and the life-changing power of data entry with exactly the same intensity.

Joao is someone who builds his own machines and invents his own techniques in order to realise a collection.  As a result, he is the creator of some of the most intriguing, envelope-pushing jewellery in Australia.  His newest collection, Clarice, is the result of tension setting cubic zirconia in shining, laser-cut acrylic – a technique previously only used with metals and precious gems thought capable of withholding its pressure. His first ever collection involved painstaking, metalwork, and its meticulous artistry scored it a place in Bianca Spender’s runway show at Sydney Fashion Week last year.

But despite arguably leading the charge of contemporary jewellery in Australia, this man has complete disdain for it.  The contemporary jewellery scene, he argues, is littered with artists challenging the notion of ‘precious’ metals and stones, experimenting with new techniques, and asking the inevitable question ‘what is jewellery?’

Jewellery that is exhibited behind glass in galleries and tries to push a boundary between art and design alienates the wearer, Joao argues, because it doesn’t take durability, wearability, and functionality into consideration.

“The problem that I have with it,” he explains, “is what do you do with this jewellery?  It becomes a completely void, empty thing that to me is dead before it’s born.  Jewellery is only active once it’s being worn.”

These are strong convictions for a designer only two collections deep.  But, like everything else about Joao’s life, these are opinions that have been carefully consider

The St.Peter’s-based jewellery designer left his family in Lisbon at the age of 18 to study jewellery at Northbrook College Sussex in the UK.  He lived in Worthing with a handful of Portugese friends who were also studying the arts, and decided almost immediately that he’d take on a new persona. 

“I didn’t talk to anyone in my class because I didn’t want to be judged as someone that had broken English - because that was not the persona that I had decided I wanted.”

Joao also didn’t want to be known as the guy who would ‘only hang out with other immigrants’, so he didn’t speak to anyone other than the three Portuguese friends with whom he’d moved.  So what did he want to be known as?

“I like it when people think that I'm well read and intelligent and cultured and not having very good English plays against that,” says Joao. 

Pulling this off was more difficult than anticipated – especially due to Joao’s anxieties about meeting new people.   It’s hard to imagine the creator of such playful work as anything other than bright, effusive and full steam ahead, but Joao is adamant it has not always been so.

“Once you remove the context of who you are, you also change.  So once the context changes, you change as well,” he says.  

Overcoming his anxieties with the help of a casual administrative job, Joao eventually slipped into his new English-speaking persona – one who could handle social situations with relative ease, and happily talk to more than one person at a time.

A year later he moved to Australia for love, and once he arrived, he explains, yet another new persona blossomed.   He didn’t feel the pressure of having to rebel against the stereotypical immigrant, he says, because he was the first person he knew who had moved to Sydney.

"The more I behaved as I actually am, the more people responded positively," he says of discovering his new Australian self. “The more I said whatever I wanted to say, the more people liked it. It was a huge encouragement.”

This is the newest Joao and this could just be the real one. This Joao uses the words ‘incredible’ and ‘interesting’ like everyone else uses ‘like’ and ‘you know’, dresses impeccably, and has an energy surplus that may be due to the fact that he didn’t spend his early twenties partying.  (While he is glad he kept his brain in tact, he says he feels like he missed something. “Sometimes we’re in the car and we’re driving past Kings Cross and I think ‘Look at those tragic people! Why couldn’t I ever be like these tragic people?!’”)

This is also the Joao who believes that he has a responsibility as an artist to do great work because of the good fortune he’s had to live in Europe and Australia.

“It’s almost like, if you’re not in a wheelchair, you have a responsibility to walk,” he says. “We need to remind ourselves from time to time of what it is to have consciousness....  and a soul, and a heart, and feelings.  So we need to create work that really exacerbates [this idea] and makes us go, ‘wow’!’”

It’s sentences like these that lift him out of his chair, and make it hard to believe that the new, Australian Joao is anything but the true one.

The only thing that’s for certain is that, as those who know him had forewarned me, he’s not like anyone else you’ll ever meet.

And that’s the only way Joao would have it.

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Joao Vaz's radiant bangle, eternity bangle, tetrad bangle and double solitaire earrings are all available now.