Gem emerges from the rough

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 April, 2011, 12:00am


Hard work and determination are prerequisites for success. For a certain class of designer who creates 'art jewellery', these are not enough. To shine as brightly as the jewels they work with, they must push artistic boundaries to tell a story through the selection and setting of gemstones into wearable art.

No one knows this better than Taiwanese designer Cindy Chao. The daughter of a sculptor and granddaughter of a renowned temple architect, it seems natural that she has been drawn to an expressive and three-dimensional art form.

After a traditional education in Taiwan, a short stint at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a degree from New York City's Gemological Institute of America, in 2004 she began designing conventional jewellery for family and friends. She was torn between the need for financial stability and the desire to explore art jewellery.

Art won out. She returned to Asia, bankrolled herself and, for 11/2 years, worked exclusively on her premiere jewellery collection. Inspired by nature and influenced by architecture, she named it the Four Seasons. In 2007, the Four Seasons Winter Branch choker and cuff debuted at Christie's auction house to acclaim. Chao was just 33 years old.

Fast forward to April 6 this year, her Solstice cuff, a one-off piece from what is now known as her signature Four Seasons collection, sold at Sotheby's jewellery auction for HK$3.62 million -double the estimated price. This transformation has taken just four years.

It is always gratifying, Chao says, to have pieces she has laboured over recognised by connoisseurs.

'As a jewellery artist, I constantly refine, elevate and challenge myself, and my works creatively and technically. The innovations are the result of endless efforts,' Chao says.

The auction house benefits too. Terry Chu, deputy head of jewellery for China and Southeast Asia at Sotheby's in Hong Kong, says Chao is a leading designer in contemporary jewellery design.

Chu believes art jewellery is as important as rare gemstones.

'As an auction house it is our mission to provide more perspective on jewellery to our audience. We are not only looking at the rarity of gemstones, but the way human beings contribute to the beauty of gemstones,' she says. 'Do I think Cindy Chao will be around for a long time? I think so.'

Well-known for her attention to detail, each piece takes up to two years to complete. Every design has a 360-degree, sculptural composition and, when it warrants it, glittering gemstones on all sides.

'I want vitality and emotions to radiate from the piece,' Chao says. This is true of the Solstice cuff. Inspired by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, the cuff is a mix of curved construction, twisted sculpture and organic forms. Because of the undulations and multilayers, she found the technology, not the artistic process the most challenging part of the creation.

The effort was worth it. The bedazzling bangle produced heated phone bidding at Chao's first Hong Kong auction.

'I did not know what to expect,' she says. 'I was extremely nervous during the auction. I was viewing the bidding through [an] online live stream. Bidding went on for five minutes and a million thoughts were flying through my mind. When the hammer slammed, I felt relief and joy. It was encouraging to have such a successful outcome.'

Her popularity is also due to her ability to transcend cultures. 'My living and travel experience abroad have broadened my vision, and supplied me with an understanding of the Western mind frame. I love Western art and heritage, they are more carefree and bolder in many aspects, and are not afraid of being innovative.'

The influence of her heritage is undeniable. Her grandfather was an architect who designed and built hundreds of temples across Taiwan, many of which are classified as historical monuments.

'He used to take me to the temples and I would stay with him while he explained the blueprints and construction to the craftsmen,' she says. 'It was he who taught me to see things outside the box, to view every side of a building as a front, to be meticulous about details.'

She would also accompany her father, a sculptor, to his work. He would explain techniques and styles of sculpting and give her a lump of clay to make her own creations, 'to keep me quiet', she jokes. Yet, he would talk with her and comment on her models. She still takes her father's wisdom to heart today. 'Spend time to observe the object,' she says. 'Pay close attention to the most minute detail. And then, with your heart and soul, put into forms what you've perceived.'

This heritage, passed down from grandfather to father and now daughter, has served as an informal training for Chao.

'This is an advantage for me because my mindset is not 'fixed' on the traditional way of jewellery making and design. It distinguishes my works and enables me to be able to truly express myself through my art jewels,' she says.

'Everybody is his or her own person and art should be a form of self-expression. Have fun mixing it up, be observant to the surroundings, and tell your own stories.'

Last year, Chao's jewel-encrusted Royal Butterfly brooch, the first jewellery piece to feature on the cover of Women's Wear Daily, was inducted to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Chao remains coy about her new collection ahead of the opening of her first global flagship store. 'I can't tell you much, but one of them will be the other half of the Solstice cuff, as I originally wanted them to be a pair.'