Chi Huynh decided to test out his latest invention on his niece. The jeweler, who helms San Dimas-based company Galatea, had been working on a pearl that uses near field communication (NFC) technology to hold voice messages inside jewelry. Without his niece's knowledge, he recorded the vows at her wedding. Later on, he invited the couple to his home for dinner and presented his niece with a pearl. She thanked him before realizing the secret that the piece of jewelry held. During the meal, Huynh took his phone and tapped it to the pearl. The recording of the wedding vows played. Huynh saw the couple's emotional reaction to the gift and knew that he had created something special.

The Momento Pearl is the latest in a string of innovations from an artist who, initially, didn't want to be a jeweler. Huynh comes from a family of jewelers, but when he spent his summer vacations hanging around his dad's Arcadia shop, the thought of sizing rings didn't excite him. After high school, he took classes at various different colleges with the intention of becoming an artist. A few years later, he traveled to a jewelry show in Las Vegas. Out of the scores of jewelers at the event, only a few piqued his interest. “I thought, maybe, it's missing something,” says Huynh. “I could be the person to bring something unique into this industry.”

In 1994, Huynh ventured out on his own. He started with little business knowledge and no budget for gold, but used his expert carving skills to gain work. Eventually, Galatea, named for a statue that came to life in Greek mythology, grew. Today, Huynh's jewelry is available at shops across the country.

Galatea's Momento Pearls uses an app to reveal voice messages.; Credit: Courtesy of Galatea

Galatea's Momento Pearls uses an app to reveal voice messages.; Credit: Courtesy of Galatea

Huynh's company is driven not only by innovation but also by a desire to evoke emotional responses from customers. One of Galatea's signatures is the Diamond in a Pearl, which the jeweler created when he fell in love. Using his finely tuned carving skills, Huynh was able set a diamond inside a pearl. He gave the jewel to his then-fiancee. He started to think about other ways he could insert gems inside pearls, which led to the development of the Galatea Pearl, for which he holds both U.S. and international patents. The Galatea Pearl is created by inserting the stone inside an oyster and allowing the pearl to grow around it. Once the pearl is ready, it is carved to reveal the colored nucleus. While this process can be applied to diamonds as well, that's reserved for special projects.

Once, a friend mentioned that Huynh could probably get a barcode inside a pearl. The jeweler recalls his response: “I am an artist and if it doesn't have anything to do with love and emotion, you can forget it.” But, Huynh did have an interest in merging technology with fine jewelry. He explored  NFC technology, primarily because it's not battery-operated. Also, the idea that a piece of jewelry could carry the voice of a loved one intrigued him. 

Momento Pearls are usually created in a similar way to the Diamond in a Pearl — a chip is placed inside a pearl that is already formed. They have also been made using the lengthy Galatea Pearl growth process — yes, by putting the chip in an oyster and having the pearl form around it — but that is less common right now, since it's more expensive. Huynh describes NFC as a fairly stable technology, using the same system as radio, but the apps that reveal the voice will change over time. Huynh says that may add more to the message years from now, like if holographic technology develops to the point where it can be activated by a smart phone. 

Credit: Courtesy of Galatea

Credit: Courtesy of Galatea

Huynh mentions a watch that his late father gave him. “It doesn't work anymore,” he says, “but I hold it in my hand and whenever I see that watch, it reminds me so much about who he is.” Huynh's Momento Pearl takes the notion of jewelry as a keepsake to the next level. Huynh's hope is that these pearls will allow people to hand down a voice from one generation to the next. These high-tech mementos range in suggested retail price from $350 to $5565, depending on how elaborate the piece is and how rare the pearls are.

For Huynh, the Momento Pearl is also a way to pare down the glut of moments we have stored on technological devices. While working on the project, he thought about all the photos of his children that stored on a computer. It's easy to lose track of the documented memories that fill up hard drives. Huynh says that this kind of jewelry will allow people to keep the most precious pieces of loved ones close at hand. He notes that this can be important during life's more difficult periods, when people need a reminder of the good times. He says, “I think that can help us keep track of the positive, beautiful moments in your life.”

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