Skip to content

Diaspora Narratives; Stories of a Jewerly Collection

( S2 Talks )
Yilin Ma / Aleksandra Lemke

S2 talks – in conversation with jewelry designer Ildar Wafin 

It’s May in Helsinki, and I meet Ildar at the Contemporary Art Museum Kiasma’s cafe for a quick meet-up; it’s a pleasure, really, the way I am quickly drawn into Ildar’s way of talking— I notice a beat in his words, how eagerly he’s ready to share his world with me, and it’s sweet and sincere and compassionately in the resonance of his practice as a jewelry designer. 

We continued the conversation via email in the following weeks, where he told me more about his latest collection and the process of it, as well as the importance of music, literature, and diaspora in his work and life. 

The first time I saw your works, it was through Instagram. I’m not so much of a jewelry wearer. I mostly wear two silver rings and have a bunch of piercings on my ears, but something in your craft draws me in and makes me want to spend time with the pieces, to get to know them. Can you tell me what’s your process like, and more about your latest collection?

With the latest collection I really wanted to have a dialogue between my two cultural identities; Tatar and Finnish. My process begins within the immaterial, finding a narrative that interests me, and through research in literature, and different art forms (in this case music, poetry, folklore) I start to broaden the topic and form a concept around my thoughts. The next stage is working with the intangible concepts and thoughts and bringing them into a tangible form, material. This stage often involves visiting different scenery that I feel is important for me at that moment. In my latest collection, it was the rural landscape of Finland. In the forest, I could feel a variety of different forms and haptic stimuli in many different textures. Usually, the process of creating pieces for a collection happens simultaneously with the research stage. Creating forms and finding an aesthetic point of view is quite an intuitive process for me and I let the research I have made guide me on the right path. Traditional goldsmithing skills that I have obtained through years of training are a vital part of bringing the narrative to life and into actual pieces of wearable jewelry. 

For me, identity has been quite an ambiguous concept for as long as I can remember as I come from a multicultural background. Growing up I always felt that identity was something I could not properly grasp, because of the mixture of different aspects from both Finnish and Tatar culture overlapping. That’s why I wanted to create a body of work that pays homage to both of my cultural identities and also creates a dialogue between the two. An entry point in my research was re-discovering the folklore stories of the Tatar people. I love the way how these stories are not involved with religion as I define my cultural identity with factors outside of religion. I faintly remembered the folklore stories from my childhood but had forgotten them in the process of becoming an adult. It was magical and somehow healing and fulfilling to discover all these stories again, written in an old dialogue. Being a part of the 4th generation of Tatar people living in Finland the old Tatar dialogue was slightly challenging to comprehend in the beginning, but once I got the hang of it I decided this was it, I’m going to do my collection around this topic. 

I feel very blessed in being able to fulfill myself with different aspects of my culture as it hasn’t always been an easy feat for me. I had some struggles with my identity while growing up, and I was very hesitant in finding my own true identity. It is nice to reflect on the past and see where I’ve arrived at this moment. The realization that I can pick the parts of culture that I feel close or important with has been very healing, I get to define which things are close to my heart and through that aspect, I have been able to establish a connection with my roots. 

Your craft is definitely showing from your words and from your final designs. Your pieces remind me of liquid but at the same time they seem to be in flames. Like they are in the middle of a movement. How did the process come to you? Did it feel like an organic thing that took its place?

 I wanted to bring an element of mysticism and magical powers of nature described in the Tatar folklore stories and poetry to the pieces in the collection. That brings a feeling of liquidity or movement into the pieces; as if organic elements of nature possess magical powers and thus come to life, not staying in a static state but being in a dynamic flux. I love how the pieces come alive creating reflections and shadows when the wearer is in movement. I took a lot of inspiration from Finnish nature for the pieces as well, finding oddly shaped tree barks, plants, and rocks out in the rural areas of Finland, so the pieces are a hybrid between the folklore and the nature that surrounds us in Finland. One of the most harrowing yet comical stories in Tatar folklore is about these trolls that live in the forest that are called the Shüräleh. According to the tale if you encounter a cunning Shüräleh in the forest and they are able to catch you or verbally persuade you to stay they will tickle you with their long branch-like fingers till death. The Shüräleh disguise themselves in the forest as they are part magical creatures, part trees, so they look like trees with their bark-like skin and long fingers that look like branches. The only way to escape a Shüräleh is to escape or outsmart them depending on your odds at the moment. I guess because it’s more of a children’s tale the teaching of the story is not to trust everyone out there and to tread the world with caution. 

Your artistic process intrigues me. I like how your process starts from the immaterial and the outcome is something wearable. Your pieces speak of intuitiveness and appear quite effective. A body of work, as you say, and I couldn’t agree more. I’m wondering what’s your relationship with traditional goldsmithing? 

For me, traditional goldsmithing represents a mindful approach to crafting jewelry. By knowing how the material reacts and works and how to make it malleable I am able to bring jewelry into this world that really lasts time and can be passed through generations. I also really like that metal can always be melted and created into a new piece so it has an endless life cycle if processed right. It is very important to me that I create pieces that are durable both in the temporal and aesthetic sense as I stand behind the work that I create and the pieces carry my name in them in the form of a hallmark. In that sense, I want to create the best possible outcomes in my pieces so I can be proud of what I create. 

I’m interested in the materiality of your works. They seem alive, part of a continuum with their own personalities. Do you think about the jewelry wearer – your audience when you work? 

I do think about the audience in a way that I want people to be comfortable in wearing my pieces & that the pieces have their own lives after I hand a piece to a customer. I feel it’s important that people interact with my creations in the process of wearing them and that the pieces also resonate with the surrounding world creating new narratives within the lives of each unique wearer. It’s always nice to hear what people think of my pieces and what kind of thoughts and ideas my pieces evoke in them.

The realization that I can pick the parts of culture that I feel close or important with has been very healing, I get to define which things are close to my heart and through that aspect I have been able to establish a connection with my roots. 

I adore the way you said: ”the pieces also resonate with the surrounding world creating a new narrative within the lives of each unique wearer”. The relationship between the pieces is not limited to the wearer but also to its surroundings. 

Yes I think by that I also mean that I am proud to be able to leave my own small mark in people’s narratives through my practice. Often times my pieces are also a conversation opener. I was recently on a work trip in Paris and met many interesting new people and my first contact with strangers was through them being interested in my creations that I was wearing. From there on the conversations took their own nuances, but without this fascination for my pieces I would have missed meeting many interesting people, so in a way, I like to feel that my work speaks for me. 

I find it interesting how people living in the diaspora kind of go back to their childhood to find something that they have forgotten in the process of becoming an adult, as you mentioned with the folklore. How do you keep Tatar culture visible for yourself in your daily life?

For me, the most visible sign of Tatar culture in my daily life is speaking in the Tatar dialogue with my family. It’s sort of a mix of Tatar and Finnish together, but depending on the situation it’s just easier to communicate some things in Tatar dialogue and vice versa with Finnish. I am also a huge fan of cooking and it’s a way of showing appreciation for the people close to me. I feel like it’s a way of communicating that I care about someone when I share a traditional Tatar dish with my friends. I learned the recipes and the distinct ways to prepare the different dishes from my grandmothers, and coming from a close family community it also carries a social value ( something that connects people together). Another way of seeing Tatar culture in my life is through music. I really love traditional Tatar music, which has a different feeling to it as it has been composed on a pentatonic scale. There are a lot of riffs and runs in the music that I find intriguing. Old songs are also something that have been present in my childhood as we have a lot of musicians in my family and I am trying to learn how to sing some of the songs by going to a vocal coach to learn the right singing technique. 

I can relate to the ways you have Tatar culture in your life. Coming from East-Asian diaspora myself, I find it soothing to share, for example, dishes and music with people I care, about who are not familiar with the culture. You also talked about identity, which left me thinking about how have you found your own identity within the fashion industry? You also mentioned your internship at Louis Vuitton. Can you tell me more about that, and has that experience influenced your way of working? 

I feel like I’ve found more freedom within the fashion community to pursue the different nuances of my identity. I like to watch how the world of fashion is in constant flux with new pioneering ideas, the use of materials, and ethicality. In my own approach/entry to the realm of fashion, I do not live up to the standards of creating multiple collections a year. For me, the process of creating is about mindfulness and really taking my time in doing things the way I need them to be in the vision that I have in my mind. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and let some ideas breathe so I can get back to them with new insight. I feel the need to resonate with everything I create and sometimes it just takes more time to arrive at the moment where I have the finalized tangible piece in front of me.

My time at Louis Vuitton was very interesting and I really loved the experience. Working with the three-member (me included) Men’s Fashion Accessory Jewelry department was a game changer for me. I learned to focus more on the essential tasks and my designing process was drastically improved as well. I feel like I internalized many good tools and protocols into the designing process that I can still count on if I am having a rough time going forward with a concept. Mentally it also solidified that I belong in the creative industry and that this is something I can make a living of if I wanted to. Being creative has always been my way of living life, so going to work in one of the most influential fashion houses in the world was a big step for me in believing in what I do and that it can also be a way of earning a living. 

I think being a creative person and possessing a creative/artist’s state of mind, for me at least can be filled with a lot of ups and downs. Even though it is very rewarding, it’s hard to just shut the brain down when you have so many good ideas and concepts on your mind and random occurrences can trigger new creative ideas that have been dormant in your mind and now you just need to start realizing this new concept. Sometimes it’s easier to just say to myself that the new ideas are not going anywhere and I can do it later, but other times I’m less successful. This is why I like to have a lot of hobbies, and my friends call me ”the hobbyist”. I started playing the piano a year ago and I really love learning about music theory and just practicing new songs, it’s very soothing and it’s also a moment for myself in which I can just completely forget about everything else. At the moment I’m practicing a composition by Sibelius, so the music I’m learning is more in the spectrum of classical music. I also signed up for a choir this spring and I really love how communal the act of singing in a choir is and how you can hear everyone’s voices resonating together in harmony. Music has been a very healing investment of my free time as I’ve gotten to experience a new dimension in creativity which is a more meditational process for me.

I feel like I’ve found more freedom within the fashion community to pursue the different nuances in my identity. I like to watch how the world of fashion is in constant flux with new pioneering ideas, the use of materials, and ethicality.

I can see how your creativity is not limited to one format of outcome, and your family has creative roots as well. How did the creative pursuit come to you?

The first push in becoming a professional jeweler came from my parents when they really motivated me into applying to the Lahti Institute Of Design. I was really hesitant about where to apply for my bachelor’s degree. I was contemplating applying to a bachelor’s in Art History, but somehow I just didn’t feel the passion and a deep connection for it, so with the support from my parents I applied to the Lahti Institute Of Design. I carried on my studies in the Jewelry Design department, where I mainly learned all the basics for working with metal as my medium through the support from our highly skilled teachers. During my studies in Lahti, I got chosen for the finals for the Hyères Festival of Fashion 2018 with a jewelry collection I had handcrafted for the occasion. This had a very big impact on my career as it was the first collection I had ever made and presented in public, so there were a lot of new things that I learned from the process.   

After I graduated from the Lahti Institute Of Design I applied to the Royal College Of Art in London for a two years master’s degree in the department of  Jewellery & Metal. This is where I really learned to analyze and dissect what’s going on in my mind when I create and how I create. I was immersed in academic thinking and writing during my studies at the RCA, and even though it was sometimes challenging to push myself into a new regime that consists of a more academic in-depth approach it was really good for me, and I am thankful to be RCA alumni. Previous to the RCA I didn’t have the readiness to verbally speak and enunciate my work and others in such detail that I feel I’m currently at. 

I’m still trying to find a balance in my life in terms of creativity, work & rest. I used to stay a lot at home with my mom when I was a child because I developed this super rare kidney disease when I was around 5 years old. So when I say I was home a lot I really mean it. Both of my parents are teachers and my mom Tinet had her minors in the crafts. My fluctuating condition persevered till around high school, so I spent a good amount of time at home with my mother and sometimes more rarely visited the hospital for treatment and tests. I really think this had a huge influence on me, as my mom was always there for me to help and motivate me with my creative whims of painting, sculpting, making jewelry, and growing flowers. I have to admit that some days I would cheekily pretend that I’m more ill than I actually was just to be able to stay home from school and focus on my creative projects during elementary school. Thankfully the autoimmune kidney disease went into remission when I grew up and now I am able to live a healthy life which I don’t take for granted. 

Thank you for sharing this. It’s always a pleasure to hear how the creative pursuit for each person has started. I really enjoyed hearing about the tale of Shüräleh, that you mentioned earlier. When we met, our conversation shifted naturally to music, fashion, and literature, and I can see how these elements are a necessary part of your artistic process. Do you have any recommendations for any books, films, or songs that you have been enjoying lately? 

I really enjoy reading novels whenever I have the time and I’ve been quite focused on the topics of queer classics, some feminist literature, and diaspora. I would say my reading list is on a novice level but let’s give it a try. 

This list consists of literature that

I feel resonated with me throughout the years

in no specific order: 

James Baldwin – Giovanni’s Room 

Tove Ditlevsen – The Copenhagen Trilogy

Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Eve Babitz – Slow Days Fast Company

Sumi Hahn – The Mermaid From Jeju

Jung Chang – Wild Swans

Patti Smith – Just Kids

Sayaka Murata – Convenience Store Woman

Michael Cunningham – The Hours

Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life

Lastly, I want to say it’s clear how much I adore your pieces and the way you talk about your practice and process. I feel it’s truly unique to the connection you have with your design, and I feel privileged to get to know you through this dialogue. For the ending, I want to ask, what the future is bringing to you?

For the future, I want to collaborate, keep on doing the things that make me happy, move abroad (preferably Paris), continue making jewelry and develop my skills in the craft, stay true to myself, and know where I stand (a cliche but not always that easy to execute) and find a way of helping others through my work. 

Thank you, you have been so helpful in providing and guiding me with the right questions and it has been a pleasure working with you as well!

YILIN MA (they/them)
is a Helsinki based model and writer/curator, working in the intersections of literature, visual culture, and live performance with a focus on queer diaspora narratives and queer-feminist ways of understanding the spaces between lyrical and material. Currently they are attending The Praxis Program in Exhibition Studies at the University of Arts in Helsinki.



Interview / Yilin Ma
Photography / Aleksandra Lemke
Ildar Wafing wearing his own jewelry