Jewellery as art

Jewellery as art

For designer Cindy Chao, creating jewellery is an art that she practises much like a traditional sculptor. Her designs, with their sharp eye for proportion and volume, are much-valued in the world of contemporary art and fashion, writes Nazanin Lankarani.

The labour of a sculptor — before the age of staff-assisted artistes like Jeff Koons — traditionally involved the artiste’s working with his or her own hands, drawing an idea on paper, figuring out a workable design and handcrafting the piece.

For the Taiwan-born designer Cindy Chao, creating jewellery is an art that she practises much like a traditional sculptor, drafting the concept, hand-shaping the wax prototype and lost-wax casting the model. 

“I consider myself a sculptor who uses precious stones as primary materials,” Chao said in an interview in Paris. With a sculptor as a father and an architect as a grandfather, she developed early an eye for proportion and volume: “I grew up in a family of designers working with three-dimensional creations,” she said. “I was trained to see jewellery as an art piece to be perfected from all angles.”

The Black and White Labels

In September, Chao previewed some of her new pieces in Paris, together with a few from past collections on loan from collectors, during the Haute Couture fashion week.

She designs two collections a year. Her signature Four Seasons collection consists of a set of Black Label Masterpieces, limited to 36 per year, and a more accessible White Label line.

“Each piece in the Black Label is handcrafted over at least two years,” she said. “I make the first sketch and hand-sculpt the wax mould, and oversee all the finishing touches, all done by hand.” “It is difficult to make two identical pieces because exceptional stones like this Colombian emerald are impossible to find today,” she said, pointing to a 60-carat pear-shaped stone set in one of her signature pieces, a convertible necklace that could be disassembled with the pendant worn as a brooch. 

The Black Label collection is sold in Taipei and Beijing by appointment and through invitation-only viewings in New York, London and Paris. Prices for the individual pieces range from $5,00,000 to $10 million. Pieces in the White Label ‘entry level’ line are priced from $10,000 to $1,00,000.

In nearly a decade, Chao, 39, has become one of the world’s most remarkable independent jewellery designers. She started designing in 2004, when she founded her company, Cindy Chao: The Art Jewel, after returning to Taipei from New York, where she studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Gemological Institute of America. “School did not help me much with the work I am doing now,” she said. “We were not taught hand-sculpting there — it was mostly my family’s influence.” 

An eastern touch

Today, she lives and works between Taipei and Hong Kong while traveling often to Geneva to oversee the final stages of the manufacturing of her pieces, which is done in Switzerland. Something about her designs retains an eastern feel — perhaps the naturalistic, detailed rendition of her organic shapes, with a penchant for the asymmetrical, rooted in a tradition of Asian landscape painting.

While Chao’s themes — the butterfly, the ribbon or floral motifs — remain largely traditional, the modernity of her jewellery comes from their settings and the surprisingly light weight of her pieces. “We do extensive testing to reduce metal weight,” she said. “We use titanium for the larger pieces but in smaller jewellery, if the piece is too light, you lose something in the perception of its value.” Perception is one thing and value is another: Losing value is not something Chao’s jewellery does. In 2007, a coloured diamond necklace by her was sold at Christie’s New York for $91,000, against an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000.

A hinged band of black diamond branches with circular and marquise-cut diamond leaves, mounted in oxidised gold, the piece was put into the sale by the artiste herself — a rare occurrence since auctions are typically reserved for secondary market goods.

“I have sold a few pieces through Christie’s and Sotheby’s,” Chao said. “The auction houses approached me to put pieces in their sale.” “Although Christie’s is renowned for selling exceptional estate jewels, we do also auction newly manufactured pieces of top quality,” David Warren, Christie’s international director for jewellery said in an email. “The important factor is finding the finest quality jewels in both terms of gemstones and artistic design.”

To celebrate its 40th anniversary in Asia, Sotheby’s held a sale in October in Hong Kong that included a ruby and diamond ring by Chao. A ribbon and floral motif, set with an oval ‘pigeon’s blood red’ natural Burmese ruby weighing 8.03 carats and mounted in 18-carat white and blackened gold, it sold for more than $3.8 million. One of her iconic pieces is the Masterpiece Butterfly brooch. 

She has made one every year since 2004, all different in shape and colour. At a Christie’s Geneva jewellery sale in November last year, her 2012 butterfly brooch sold for $9,54,102, nearly five times its estimate.

Gemstone donation

In 2010, Chao gave a Royal Butterfly brooch to the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. It is now part of a collection that includes historic and contemporary jewellery pieces by the likes of Cartier, Tiffany, Harry Winston and Bernd Munsteiner. Composed of 2,328 gemstones weighing a total 77 carats, the brooch was set with fancy-coloured and colour-changing sapphires, rubies, white and fancy coloured diamonds — both rough and emerald-cut — and tsavorite garnets.The butterfly’s wings, made of stacks of faceted diamonds cut in slices, resembled the nuanced structure and colour of a real butterfly.

“The Royal Butterfly represents a creative and beautiful use of diamonds and other gems, and is different than other jewellery pieces in our collection,” said Jeffrey E Post, curator of the museum’s national gem and mineral collection. “Under ultraviolet light, many of the gems in the butterfly glow — fluoresce — with brilliant colours, and this additional hidden beauty makes the piece even more intriguing and fun,” he added.

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