Thursday 19 September 2019

People: The Joy Luck Club for jewellery designer

When Aine Breen embarked on a new adventure in China she unexpectedly found a new career, discovers Sophie White

Out of the East: Aine Breen's designs have been influenced by her time in the Orient. Photo: Tony Gavin
Out of the East: Aine Breen's designs have been influenced by her time in the Orient. Photo: Tony Gavin

Sophie White

Luck and superstition play a huge part in Chinese culture. For example, in some parts of China it is considered 'lucky' to call a baby an insulting pet name to fool evil spirits into thinking it is not a baby, thereby keeping the baby safe.

Designer and entrepreneur Aine Breen has spent a lot of time decoding Chinese culture and has a slightly more circumspect view on luck. "Some people are lucky and some people aren't, but in other ways you make your own luck."

Undoubtedly, Breen is a woman who does just that. Having grown up in Wexford and lived in Dublin, she was refreshingly undaunted when a move to China came up in 2011 through her husband's work - they both worked as accountants at the time, a background that has served her well since setting up her own business.

"Things in Dublin were a little bit flat so we saw it as a good opportunity and I had always wanted to live abroad".

Breen seems ever-ready to put a positive spin on what others would probably approach with trepidation. "I always had an interest in Asian culture so I really wanted to see what it would be like. Beijing is crazy and you can suffer a bit of culture shock". Breen fondly remembers her time in a city which has undergone rapid change and development in the last decade since hosting the Olympics. Few people walk in Beijing, due to the scale of the city - there is no particular city centre, but rather lots of pockets of activity- Breen, however. preferred a more immersive approach to the city and did a lot of her exploring on foot.

"You need to seek out the culture when you are there" she says. A favourite haunt was the picturesque Ritan park, an oasis among the high rise blocks, where she soaked up the atmosphere, watching the locals doing their exercises and enjoying the serenity amidst the frenetic vibe of the city.

Along with moving jobs and moving city, Breen was also expecting her first child while living in Beijing, but far from the agonising that plagues many expectant mothers, Breen seemed ready to roll with whatever adventure was coming her way.

Grinning, she recalls early thwarted attempts to tap into Chinese culture through speaking the language. "I took some classes - learning Chinese is hard, I'm not very good," she chuckles explaining how there are three different but very similar sounding words, meaning mother, horse or else a profanity, depending on subtle differences in pronunciation. Undeterred, Breen still practised at every available opportunity - she later understood why taxi -drivers always responded to her greeting with a laugh; instead of 'Hello, driver!" she was in fact saying "Hello, are you comfortable?"!

Chinese calligraphy classes were another way for Breen to connect with the language and culture. Far from the image of a calligrapher toiling over painstaking work, Breen found the process restorative. "It wasn't about being precise and really focusing, it was more about letting your body be free and loose. It was really quite meditative which was good. Having worked in accountancy, which is quite straight and can be a little bit stressful at times, even just being in Beijing can be stressful, so calligraphy was a really good outlet for me while I was there."

Calligraphy led the designer to creating her first collection of jewellery (presented last week at Showcase). She began to toy with the idea of creating beautifully crafted silver and gold plated pendants, earrings and bracelets which bear Chinese calligraphy characters, each with a significant meaning such as 'love' or 'united forever'.

"I love the meaning and the beauty of the characters. It's art. I saw the character for love and realised that it meant 'life for the heart and grace to the body' and I had always worn a necklace that said 'love' in English and I thought rather than being so obvious with the message, I liked the character because it has a hidden meaning"

The brand's name, Liwu means 'gift' and is perfectly apt for a line of jewellery that, like Breen herself, celebrates life's gifts, such as love and happiness. Breen had worked in jewellery shops when she was younger and it is easy to imagine her in the retail world with her bubbly personality and gorgeous personal style, but when it came to actually producing the Liwu collection she was starting from scratch.

On her return from China, with sketches in hand, she commuted weekly from Wexford to south Dublin for a course in jewellery making with Cormac Cuffe. "Through the course I learned techniques but I also learned so much about getting things made in Ireland which was so important to me".

Whatever Breen believes about luck, the saying "fortune favours the bold" could well be this designer's credo.

Sunday Independent

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