Taboo! My voice trembled even as the words rolled out. I have just asked the master jeweler Wallace Chan if a computer can equal him. Even though I placed it in the subtlest context, we all know what I just did.... Sciences Po’s Amphi Jacques Chapsal is dead quiet as he dictates his response in Chinese to his translator. If it is anything as poetic as his earlier responses, I am in for a treat. This is why I have come here tonight.
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I am not the only one wondering, in this room, in Paris, in Europe and across the world. Can artificial intelligence substitute craftsmanship? Can computers be artists? I have always leaned towards “No”. But I have shuffled towards the fence, after endless articles describing how deep machine learning would eventually make computers as sentient as humans. I feel a conviction to plant my feet and I came here in search of confirmation.
Through his keynote, Mr. Chan has already answered some of my questions. In describing the inspiration behind his creation, Secret Abyss, he traces the inception to watching Harry Houdini’s escapology in the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In Houdini’s daring style, Mr. Chan created Secret Abyss by feeding 1,111 emeralds, amethysts and a 10-carat yellow diamond into 211 carats of rutilated quartz, through a 6.5 mm hole.
Image credit: Wallace Chan. Image: Secret Abyss.
The execution, which took him 10 years, may someday come within the reach of robots. Maybe. In decades. Even the grand master had to modify existing cutting, drilling and setting tools several times to achieve every masterpiece. The economics of luxury demand suggests that robots capable of that level of detail would be prohibitive. Like IBM’s Deep blue and Watson, they would be designed more as statements projects than for commercial viability.
The more interesting discussion surrounds inspiration. I almost choked as I realized that in asking my question, I described Mr. Chan’s inspiration process as complex. To this simple, soft-spoken man, something inside me felt like the word “complex” might have as well been a slap. He was a monk for God’s sake. Indeed, in saying complex, I meant unique. The connection between his inspiration and creation is an intricate personal journey that computers would struggle to chart on their own. In binary, it would be absurd. Indeed, craftsmanship is absurd; years of conception and creation for no obvious utilitarian value? I am doubtful that computers, creatures of logic would ever understand art the way humans do, the complex necessity of it.
Mr. Chan clarifies this disconnect by distinguishing between design and creation; between function and craft. Where the former can be achieved via structure and process, creation is a more dynamic endeavor. Where design draws from the past, creation draws from the future. Where design conforms to a code, creation unseats the boundaries. There is a spirituality about art that computers or robots could never create. We see it in the tiniest of imperfections in luxury items, complementing the near-perfect structure attained at the ever-moving peak of human ability. The end is not perfection, it is excellence captured in the eternal millimeter between human endeavor and machine precision. This is best captured by the jadeite beads on the back of Wallace Chan’s stilled life Jadeite Cicada. This eternal millimeter is the fine line computers cannot toe. This is the essence of luxury.
Image credit: Wallace Chan. Image: Jadeite Cicada Stilled Life Brooch.
I have heard this conversation before. At the INSEAD Global Luxury Forum in November 2017, Dr. Franck Mueller of Bridge to Luxury highlighted the resilience and necessity of craft in luxury. Brands who have lost the focus on detail and original inspiration risk extinction. According to him, the excessive reliance on big data is driving convergence in the branding messages of luxury brands as they compete for the same small customer pool. More so, there is a rising tendency towards commoditization of luxury goods. Brands are trying to capture broader segments on the demand curve, leveraging customization-for-many technologies like 3D printing. But the democratization of information through digital technology is increasing customer resistance to commoditized marketing and product development.
Still, these experiments have been justified by the rapid evolution of the consumer class driven by the rise of the millennials. Here, Dr. Mueller cautions against hasty changes in business models in response to the millennial buzz. Bridge to Luxury’s research shows that German millennials hold similar values to older generations in luxury consumption. By percentage, millennials consume significantly more print media than older age groups, and consume digital content at par with older age groups. They also place greater premium on social differentiation and as such cherish the core values of luxury as much as generations past. The real threat, he highlights, is in the growing neglect of craft by luxury custodians. Crafts, honed over generations, capture the history of humanity. Wallace Chan represents that history, from his early years carving Buddha statues to his work on the Great Stupa in Taiwan.
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About the future of Luxury, Mr. Chan and Dr. Mueller agree on two things. Creation, true creation, is irreducible to numbers and data points. Much like the Magicicada genus of Cicadas, which avoid predators by living prime-numbered life cycles, inspiration is unpredictable. This affords a simplified perspective on the tensions between technology and creativity. Creative inspiration is hinged on volatility that all the data in the world may not sufficiently capture.
Secondly, craftsmanship is the essence of mysticism that forms the soul of luxury. Craft is spiritual, sacred almost. When asked how he keeps his stream of inspiration fresh, Mr. Chan said he forgets yesterday and starts every day anew. He likens the creation process to poetry, needing several redrafts and sculpting to achieve. And when it is done, it is done. According to him, if he ever goes back to make a finished piece again, he has failed. Craft is the discriminator, the differentiator from which the story and identity of every piece flows. That identity is the soul every serious brand must seek.
To close the night, Mr. Chan answered my question with a well-preambled “No”. I was clearly not the first to ask him this. He sees technology as a tool that would get more versatile in supporting creators, him included. The efficiency gains would only afford creators more time to develop their craft. Creators are innovators after all; Mr. Chan invented the Wallace Cut technique for carving designs inside gems. Only those who get carried away in the convenience afforded by innovation risk obsoletion. Only they could be replaced by artificial intelligence.
This is the truth I came to confirm.