A diamond ring has become synonymous with love and commitment, but it’s not very personal gift and often comes with ethical complications. Wouldn’t it be more romantic to receive a gemstone that expresses something unique about your betrothed?
Since he was a child, artist and vocalist Harry Yeff has been obsessed with the human voice. Over the past decade, he’s been working to turn the unique qualities of someone’s voice into a physical object. In 2019, he perfected a system, which he calls Voice Gems, that takes a person’s voice data and translates it into colors and forms that take the shape of a striking gemstone. He partnered with curator and artist Kenny Schachter to create large-scale versions of these gem sculptures, which debuted at Art Basel Miami Beach earlier this month, and will also be exhibited at The World Economic Forum in Davos in January.
Yeff’s fascination with voice began when he was growing up in a rough part of East London, where he felt powerless to make a difference. But he discovered that music was a way for him to offer something to the world. He began beatboxing, eventually becoming a champion beatboxer in the UK. “Everything around me suggested that I would never have a voice,” he says. “It was becoming a musician—pushing my own voice—that allowed me to transcend what was expected of me.”
Yeff believes our voices are one of our most precious tools, and when people see the beauty and significance of their own voice, it empowers them to use it. “There is a unique phenomenon in voice in which we use it to connect with the outside world, but it simultaneously amplifies our sense of self internally,” he says. “But for many people, it takes courage and a sense of privilege to feel like they can use their voice.”
For more than a decade, he’s been collaborating with scientists, including some at the University of College, London, and Harvard University, to break down the human voice into its various components. “Every time we speak, there are hidden metrics in our voice,” he explains. “There are hidden values—like vibrations, tonal structures, and frequencies—that are very established in the world of engineering and physics, but most of us don’t appreciate. So I became obsessed with acknowledging the nuances of voice through visual expression.”
With all of this research, Yeff developed a bespoke system of tracking voice data. Now, he can record a person speaking for a few minutes and come up with their unique “voice fingerprint.” This helped inform the concept of Voice Gems, which really took shape in 2019. He collaborated with the artist Trung Bao to translate this data into voice-generated sculptures, where features of the voice influence the color and shape. They also found a way to create gems that feature two people’s voice data, when speaking to one another. The sculptures are created by a 3D printer, which can sculpt more than 200,000 mineral particles into a one-of-a-kind shape.
To create their first voice-generated sculpture, they worked with two lovers, translating their voices into the very first Voice Gem. The couple gave the gems to one another as an engagement present, replacing the traditional diamond. Yeff imagines all the ways these gems could be used in important life events. So far, they’ve been commissioned to create gems from a newborn’s first sounds the voice of a loved one who has passed away, and parents and children talking to each other. “I think there’s an opportunity for new ceremonies, new traditions, new methods of connection with these gems,” he says. “We’ve been thinking about all these deeply intimate moments that we can record and translate into physical objects.”
For now, Yeff is being selective about creating these gems, choosing to work with people who understand what they represent. But over time, he believes creating gems for ceremonial moments could become a viable business.
For Yeff, the point of all of this art is to show people that their voice is beautiful and one-of-a-kind—and encourage them to use it. The most meaningful moments for him are when audience members actually start to get the message. He remembers a shy girl who came with her father to an exhibit in New York and didn’t want to talk to anyone. But she lit up when she encountered an installation that turned her voice data into an image. “She was a koala bear, clinging to her dad’s leg at first,” Yeff recalls. “Then she started to make tiny sounds and saw her voice projected into a piece of art, so she started to laugh and shout and express herself. I saw a person flower and open up through the visualization of her voice.”