Makeover jade

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 November, 2004, 12:00am

HONG KONG JEWELLERY designer Edward Chiu is making history with a one-off lavender jade collection carved out of one stone to make a set of three brooches (each equivalent to the length of a palm), chunky earrings and an over-the-top bangle.

The literally priceless collection (Mr Chiu has not set a price on the set as he has no intention of selling it within a year) is on show as the only Hong Kong designed item among other unique exhibits in Shanghai's 'Awakening: La France Mandarine Exhibition', organised to commemorate French influence on Chinese art in the France Year in China.

'I was gob-smacked when I got my staff to open the rock,' Mr Chiu recalls. 'It is a miracle to have a lavender jade stone in that size and in such even natural lavender tone. At that time I already got the La France Mandarine project but had no idea what to do. As soon as I saw this rock, I knew what to make.'

Mr Chiu was chosen as the jewellery designer to represent China in the exhibition probably due to his novel ideas with jade. 'I was destined to be in the exhibition [when I opened up the lavender jade stone].'

Now in the process of building his label after changing it from La Creation to his own name a year ago, Mr Chiu thinks the stone is a 'god-send' to help in the process. The collection will be taken on tour, first in Shanghai, then to Beijing, Hong Kong and France. Only then will he consider auctioning the collection.

'It is my best design ever because there won't be another piece [of lavender jade] like it. It's totally by luck that the jade was in my possession. It is hard to come by again,' he said.

Mr Chiu has inherited an enviable stock of jade and knowledge about the precious gem from his father, who was a master craftsman in jade bangles and later launched his own jade business more than 50 years ago.

His artistically inclined son initially wanted to become a designer and was not interested in jade - a gem he thought was 'traditional and old-fashioned'. Under the pressure of filial piety, he combined his interests and the jade business by studying jewellery design at Parson's School of Design in New York.

'I entered jade because I wanted to make my father happy, not because I was crazy about it,' he reveals.

To make it fun, he began modernising jade design. He started with smaller pieces to appeal to younger women in 1995 when jade sales were stagnating due to the perception of jade as being too traditional.

As he gained experience in the industry, he moved towards designing pieces with more artistic value and therefore higher collectible value. After changing his label to Edward Chiu, his design became even more exclusive.

'Prior to that, my design was simple and easy to wear. Now I gear more towards something that's bold and iconic. I do simple designs only by request now because simple can become common,' he said.

His designs are marked by fluid lines and a combination of top materials often in solid 'OTT [over-the-top]' proportions.

'Not a lot of people understood what I was doing or why I cut jade in certain ways. I spend a lot of time on a piece of jewellery, sometimes six months to a year because jade is not like metal, which can be easily shaped. As jade depends very much on the colour of the stone, cutting is most time-consuming.'

How he cuts the stone perhaps goes against the instinct of traditional jade jewellers who make sure a stone is used to the maximum. Mr Chiu uses the best jade in flamboyant designs that may cause more material wastage than traditional designs.

'In the old days, jade was worn for the quality of the stone. Those who go for jade quality won't be looking at designs. Now we are design led. Is it a waste to use the best stones for design? Yes. In theory I can use average grade products but I won't do that. I need to balance it. After what we spend on labour costs, we can't use poor quality,' he said.

He recalls that his designs were often copied in the early days, but not since he launched his own style.

'I have deviated further and further from the traditional jade market. In the past, many people copied my design and I couldn't stop them. Now they may be able to copy the style but they can never copy the essence of my pieces.'

Customers are usually led through word of mouth to Edward Chiu's only outlet in the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Despite having an eye on the international market, Mr Chiu prefers travelling to meet customers overseas than opening international outlets. He is about to break into Miami through a tour in the United States to introduce Chinese jewellery designs.

'I enjoy my work because everything I do I put a lot of effort into it. It's like my baby. The end result will be around forever because it's not commercial and it will be carried through generations,' he said.

One regret, though, is that his father, who died 20 years ago, has not witnessed his achievements.

'I wish he was and he would have been very proud of me. Now I use the name that he gave me to commemorate what he taught me about jade.'