Pathways to understanding: How revisiting old skills, can bring unexpected new meaning

In 2008 Jeweller Hélène Thomas spent time in China learning traditional craft skills from a local Master. But as she would later learn, some skills are just pathways for a deeper understanding of life.

Hélène is sitting by the banks of a slow-flowing tributary of the Yangtze river in China, looking west toward the fading light of a late spring day, and enjoying one of those regional dishes that is probably too hot for a European palate. She is sat in a triangle with Master Li and another fellow student for company. Not many words are said, but there’s a shared admiration for the moment that doesn’t need to be voiced. Sometimes you don’t need a common language to learn a new skill or make a new friendship, you just need to experience it.


This philosophy of self-discovery is central to Hélène Thomas, a French-born jeweller now based in Johannesburg South Africa (and still moving about as an expatriate), who many people would describe as ‘well-travelled’, and if travel can broaden the mind, then Hélène is a case study for its benefits.

Since lockdown Hélène has had an opportunity to focus on rediscovering and mastering skills from the past, that she would not otherwise have had the time to explore. “The current situation represents an opportunity,” says Hélène, “I can take time to experiment and practice, as there’s less pressure,” she tells me during a video-call from her studio in Johannesburg.

For Hélène, it’s not just about skills and techniques, as they are just the activities on the surface; what matters is the effect these acts can have on our capacity to re-visualise our world – and this is creativity.

Back in 2008, Hélène moved to Shanghai where she would live for three years. It was here that she developed a desire to learn some of the traditional techniques of Chinese craft, particularly filigree. She asked one of her friends at Shanghai university to get in contact with a local expert in the field, Master Li Zheng Yun, who works in Kaili, Guizhou province and can sometimes be found teaching at Shanghai or Beijing.

i Master Li (centre right) with Hélène (far right)

Hélène remembers they were all nervous the first time they met him as “it’s fairly uncommon for him to take on tourists as students.” To see his average, unassuming, almost diffident character would belie Master LI’s artisan form, when he changes into his traditional ceremonial dress, replacing modesty with an assured tranquil confidence that echoes the age of the practice itself.

There’s something about watching and doing that transcends language – there’s a certain universality to creativity.

They quickly found communication could be a challenge, but it was made possible thanks to a fellow student. “Luckily we had Jasmine with us,” says Hélène as I could hardly speak the dialect and Master Li’s English was about as good as our Chinese! But it didn’t matter. There’s something about watching and doing that transcends language – there’s a certain universality to creativity.”

With Master LI, Hélène and her friends learned filigree – a delicate and intricate decorative metalwork. One of their first projects involved making a filigree flower from scratch using only homemade tools. “One of the biggest challenges was rolling wire, which is so difficult to get right. It involves the use of an old brush and the flat part of the handle, rolling the metal across a wooden plank until the right fineness is achieved.”

Hélène went on to make two gold pendants, incorporating the filigree technique. Master Li helped her shape the gold using special tools and creating the right alloy of gold. But it wasn’t just the making that made for such a memorable experience, it was the hospitality shown by Master Li and his family, taking them out into the city, sharing meals and welcoming them as part of the family.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that Hélène started to rediscover and practice some of these techniques from her time in China as she found herself with more time than usual. She is currently working on refining some of the filigree skills and trying to make the technique her own.

For better or worse it’s not often that life forces more time upon us, and we never know what experiences or relationships might influence our perception towards new situations.

When she was sitting on that riverbank with Master Li, Hélène realised that skills and creativity are just pathways to help understand the passing of time – “Never has this trip meant more to me than what it does now, when for a lot of people time is both something to be treasured and conquered.”


Author: Curtis McGlinchey | Photo Credit: Hélène Thomas

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