LIMA, Peru - Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio has created what is arguably the most luxurious mahjong set ever made, each tile being fashioned from a solid block of Tanzanian ruby, backed by black obsidian, enshrouded by gold vermeil, and the entire set encrusted with three hundred diamonds and a thousand precious gemstones.
Ruby is considered one of the four precious stones, together with sapphire, emerald and diamond
His entire set was crafted entirely by hand, which is no small feat when working with ruby, the second hardest stone in the universe second only to diamond. One hundred and fourty four tiles crafted over the course of eight months, along with ninety-eight coins, and two die, all nestled in a custom handcrafted mahogony box with ebony veneer.
Mahjong News talks with the artist, Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio, about his creation, its inspiration, and his craft.
MN: How did you learn about mahjong, and what got you interested in it?
Luis: I learned about Mahjong about two years ago while a visiting a friend/collector in Hong Kong. He introduced me to the game at that time and with a brief explanation I was suddenly playing Mahjong for the first time, since then I was completely attracted to the game.
MN: What was your inspiration to make such an exquisite and valuable mahjong set?
Luis:I have been creating unique Art objects using gemstones for the past years. One of the biggest challenges was to connect with people and make them understand everything that is involved in this art, from the sourcing to the carving techniques and design. After playing Mahjong for a short time, I definitely considered it would be a great way to connect with people and to communicate my art. I feel that many Mahjong collectors/players share the same passion I have for gemstone carving art, and I thought it´s just a perfect match.
MN: Why ruby? Were there other materials that you considered?
Luis: I really desired this set to be something challenging and different, something never attempted before, so I chose, Ruby (from Tanzania) as a primary element of the tiles. This gemstone represents the fiery energy of the sun and of nobility and royalty. From a technical point of view, ruby is the second hardest gemstone known to man after diamond; hence, carving it represents a challenging endeavour which requires strength of body and mind in order to achieve success.
Ruby is foretold to bring protection, and was often encrusted on armor and weapons for battle. Some soldiers would even embed ruby into their skin for protection against harm.
MN: Tell us about the fabrication process.
Luis: The fabrication process is a mix of techniques from gemstone carving and metalsmith.
The first step is sorting and cleaning the rough ruby which comes with a zoisite matrix (green stone covering the gem red/purplish material). For this process we use diamond sintered blades and cut by hand in order to remove all the undesirable material, leaving the clean ruby ready to be sliced. After that we have to prepare the machine to cut uniform slices of ruby which are fitted into the metal box. As everything is done by hand you can imagine how time consuming each process is. We have developed our own technique in order to polish ruby, we make our own diamond paste and it takes 6 steps to completely polish each piece.
Some cultures believe ruby in zoisite stone activates the heart’s chakra, facilitates access to the soul-memory & promotes spiritual learning
All the metal work was done by hand; engraving, lost wax technique (for the symbols), hand hammering, and gemstone setting of more than 1000 rubies and diamonds in total.
MN: What unique challenges did this mahjong project pose for you?
Luis: I thought I would like this set to be 100% playable, it was complicated since I knew the ruby tiles would chip if they were not protected and it wouldn’t make any sense to me if I couldn’t take it for a spin every once in a while. This is why I decided to build a metal armor to protect the ruby tiles. They were each hand engraved and hand hammered in gold vermeil, the symbolic color of the five legendary emperors of ancient China and signifies neutrality and good luck.
Another great challenge was to carve the bottom of the tile with two sparrows sitting on a branch. The stone I selected for this part was Russian obsidian, this is a volcanic stone that tends to break and chip very easily if worked in thin slices which was precisely what I was doing. So I lost many pieces in the process which were re-carved step by step.
With a project like this, you have to be very patient and understand it evolves as you progress, it took a period of time of over 8 months to be finished.
MN: Is this your first mahjong set?
Luis: Yes, this is the first design and Mahjong set I made.
MN: Is there another mahjong set in the future?
Luis: I am considering making a series with gemstones from the World, but haven’t decided yet.
MN: Have you made any other unique items as eclectic as this mahjong set?
Luis: Today I am dedicating my life to create unique art objects; all of them represent a challenge and look to connect with people. For example, for the past two years I have been working on a Formula 1 Ferrari Scale model made in ruby and gold. This piece represented one of the greatest challenges of my life. I am also working on a collection of hand bag clutches made out of gemstones and carved by hand, bottle decanters, humidors, chess sets, and silverware to name a few. All of these objects are unique and were created to inspire people, to really make people dream and promote the almost lost art of gemstone carving.
MN: How did you get started in your craft?
Luis: My father brought this art to Peru around 40 years ago, so I am second generation now. I was very lucky because since I was a child, I constantly visited my father´s workshop, so I grew up in an environment surrounded by artists, gemstone carvers, jewellers and precious stones. In addition to that, I travelling with my family around the World, for exhibitions and sourcing for new gemstones, so I learned about the secrets of the trade since I was a child.
Luis: I am an industrial engineer by profession but an artist by heart and everything came into my life in a very organic way. Because of all these trips I got to know many gemstone artists from around the world—USA, Germany, China and Russia—which helped me to develop my techniques and define my style. In 2011, I moved to Paris and this was one of the moments in my life that really made a difference in my work. I returned to Lima after a couple of years with an entirely new vision for my creations.
The art of carving precious gemstones is called glyptography
MN: What drives Luis Alberto?
Luis: It may sound as a cliché, but this is something I have very clear in my mind; my work is my passion, this is what generates an internal energy that inspires me to get involved in creating this crazy and challenging projects. I love gemstones and I feel very fortunate to have learned the art of carving gemstones (also known as glyptography) with my family. Every day I have the opportunity to transform something unique (a gemstone) that was created by nature in hundreds or thousands of years, a gemstone that could come from a country such as Tanzania, Brasil, Madagascar, Russia to name a few, bring it to Peru, transform it and then exhibit it in the US, Europe or Asia. Most people don’t realize how much work and time is involved in these art objects, this is one of the reason why I began documenting most of my work on film, as you can see in the Making of the Ruby Mahjong video below.