UC Berkeley alumna Theresa Kwong talks intersection of jewelry making, architecture

Illustration of metal artist Theresa Kwong surrounded by a floating halo of her jewelry over a warm orange and red gradient background
Angela Bi/Staff

Related Posts

Although moving far from home can often be isolating, Theresa Kwong knows how art can bridge the distance.

Originally from Hong Kong, the local jewelry maker and artist settled in the San Francisco Bay, attending the City College of San Francisco before transferring to UC Berkeley.

“I sorta felt like an adopted child at the time,” Kwong shared candidly in an interview with The Daily Californian. “So many people established friendships with others, and here I am, the newcomer.”

Kwong’s experience in Berkeley, especially within the College of Environmental Design, would eventually serve as the foundation of her unique approach to making earrings, brooches, necklaces and more.

With a primary interest in becoming an architect, Kwong pursued a Bachelor of Arts in architecture, rather than a traditional Bachelor of Architecture degree. She credits the late Roger Montgomery, former dean of the College of Environmental Design, with encouraging her to earn that distinction.

“At the time, I was all gung-ho about architecture, and oh ‘I’m going to change the world,’ ” Kwong mentioned with a chuckle. “But I totally get it now.” 

Earning an arts degree instead of a traditional technical degree in architecture enabled Kwong to encounter a broader scope of concepts that she would later apply to her jewelry designs. Her connection to architecture allows her to view jewelry not as a mechanical process, but as a thoughtful art practice.

Kwong’s intuitive knack for making unique pieces is evident in how she incorporates precious stones in her work. In jewelry, the stone traditionally takes center stage, but Kwong approaches this convention alternatively.

“I always ask myself, ‘If I were to take the stone pieces out, would I still have a strong design?’ ” she said.

Kwong navigates this crossroads with grace. Her Gemma collection celebrates all gemstones, including sustainable upcycled stones that appreciate these materials “salvaged for their beauty.” Comparatively, her Glasglow collection utilizes stones to emphasize the swirling, 3D metalwork that nestles them into place.

Kwong values this versatility of jewelry making, which is what inspired her to shift away from a career in architecture.

“It wasn’t a creation with my own two hands,” she shared. “There’s a lot of rules and regulations in architecture, designing buildings and all that. So it’s a bit limiting.”

Kwong makes her creative process look easy, but initially learning the technicalities of jewelry making came with its fair share of challenges.

“At the beginning years of jewelry making, I was more focused in learning the technical challenges, technical skills,” she recalled.

After attending the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts, Kwong found that learning the niche of jewelry making offered a different creative experience from the one she had in Berkeley’s architecture program.

“That was pretty magical,” Kwong said, the nostalgia in her voice compelling. “Within that school, there’s so much creative energy, it’s just buzzing.”

While she mentioned how being an artist can sometimes be lonely, Kwong has found encouragement within a community with fellow jewelry makers. She often collaborates with groups to assist her with design concepts and competitions, although the pandemic made connecting with other artists more difficult.

“I definitely had a creative block during those years,” she said, relatably attributing it to “reading too much news.” 

Eventually deciding to use the pandemic as a point of inspiration, Kwong created “A Moment in Time,” featuring detailed handwritten inscriptions onto the surface of a sterling silver disc. Designing the disc served as a creative outlet for Kwong at the time, acting as a harrowing timestamp for the pandemic’s high toll.

Kwong’s favorite pieces to make, however, are usually less heavy. She finds what she loves to make most is constantly changing, from pendants to brooches to bracelets.

“It keeps changing,” Kwong said, “which is kind of fun.”

Ultimately, fluidity is key for Kwong. Combining her architecture background with championing the technicalities of jewelry making, she’s able to use her knowledge of designing a building, for instance, in the creation of her jewelry.

With her profession allowing such versatility and creative freedom, the compromise of a more intimate career in jewelry making allows Kwong’s work to be more personalized. Kwong fosters a wholehearted love for jewelry design, the beauty in its challenges and curves — and the joy it brings her and others shines in her work.

Contact Kaitlin Clapinski at [email protected].