Musician turned jewellery designer Anna Hu creates pitch-perfect pieces

Cellist-turned-designer Anna Hu proves a virtuoso in crafting a symphony of jewellery, writes Divia Harilela

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 1:12pm

Anna Hu made history last year when she became the first Asian jeweller to be featured in a solo exhibition at the Louvre's Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Yet the 36-year-old has set her sights on even more ambitious goals.

"I feel I did pretty good for the first five years [of my career], but there's still much more to achieve," Hu says on a recent visit to Hong Kong. "I want 10 more proud moments in my career. I want to compose 10 exhibitions, each one presenting 100 new pieces."

A glance at her short yet fruitful career indicates that she is well on her way to achieving those targets. Since she launched her eponymous brand in 2007, Hu has made a name for herself with innovative jewellery that combines Eastern and Western influences.

The international director of jewellery at Christie's London, David Warren, has described her as one of the top 10 contemporary jewellery designers in the world (one of her designs will also go on sale at the auction house).

She has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Vogue China, and counts Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman and Madonna among her loyal customers. She even designed many of the pieces featured in W.E., Madonna's film on Wallis Simpson.

Having opened boutiques in New York and Shanghai, Hong Kong is her next target. On Monday, she will host her first trunk show featuring the Masterpieces collection, which references Impressionism and art nouveau.

It is only a matter of time before her name is mentioned in the same breath as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.

If you look at the fashion world, you have so many powerful women. But in jewellery, there are very few
Anna Hu

"If you look at the fashion world, you have so many powerful women. But in jewellery, there are very few. From Tiffany's and Cartier to Van Cleef, Harry Winston and Graff [Diamonds], it's a Western-male-dominated empire. This makes me feel that I can offer something interesting. I would not even limit myself as an Asian brand - I want to be the first female jewellery house that is equally respected," she says.

While Hu is clearly passionate about her craft, it was not her first career choice. Born in Taiwan, she trained to be a professional cellist from the age of eight. At 14, she emigrated to the United States, where she attended arts school before joining the New England Conservatory of Music. But a shoulder injury in 1997 changed her path.

"In your life, you have these moments. All I ever wanted was to be a competitive cellist like Yo Yo Ma so I worked hard for it. I practised for eight hours [a day] and injured myself. I was told by my [physical] therapist that I could only practise 30 minutes a day, so the chances of me becoming a soloist was almost zero. It was like thunder striking my heart," she recalls.

On the advice of her father, a diamond merchant, she took a course at the Gemological Institute of America. It was not her first exposure to precious gems, having assisted her father's business during school breaks.

"From a very young age, I thought of each stone as a musical note ... Creating jewellery is similar to creating a melody, but instead of a bunch of notes, it's stones. [Both disciplines] are intuitive for me. Once I started studying jewellery design, I felt enlightened. Maybe God gave me a destiny not to be a player, but a composer. I can never tell whether I started my jewellery or music career first," she says.

Not one to do things half-heartedly, Hu poured the same passion and tenacity into her new career as she did for music. She took jewellery courses at New York's Columbia University and worked with famed jewellers such as Harry Winston. It was her mentor, Maurice Galli, often dubbed "the Picasso of jewellery", who suggested she launch her own collection. Thus, Anna Hu Haute Joallerie was born.

"I wanted to be a sponge, to learn everything. Just like when I trained as a musician, I wanted to have the most comprehensive repertoire in my hand. Then on my 30th birthday, Maurice suggested I create a new concept of jewellery that combines European craftsmanship with an Oriental aesthetic. He said to me, 'Don't be a caged bird'. It was a transitional career moment. At that time I was pregnant, but I had nothing to lose. I was crazy enough to do it," she says.

Wanting to work with the best, Hu used Galli's connections to find master craftsmen in Paris and New York to help bring her designs to life.

"They don't give a damn who they work for, but you have to give them crazy things to stimulate their desires. So the challenge is when they tell me it's not possible. They always have this attitude. I tell them, well, make it possible," she says.

Classical music is a major inspiration for her work. "For example, when I think of Beethoven's Symphony No 5, there is a motif of four notes, so I start out with four diamonds. And then out of four notes I develop the first movement, second movement, maybe add allegro. That's how I feel my jewellery. Jewellery is a dream job because I can do anything I want."

The New York-based designer draws Asian inspiration from museums in the Big Apple and Paris, which she then combines with a Western aesthetic.

Hu's Chinese Four Gentleman collection, for example, uses ancient Chinese motifs including spring orchids, summer bamboo and winter plums. The summer bamboo earrings (Gwyneth Paltrow wore them to last year's Met gala) are inspired by the bamboo forest scene in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as the decorative circle motif used during the Wei and Song dynasties. The result is a pair of hoop earrings (a typical Western style) decorated with bamboo motifs embellished with diamonds and precious stones.

It isn't just her blend of East and West aesthetics that sets Hu apart. Her use of French craftsmanship and cutting-edge techniques has garnered her plenty of respect and admiration. For example, her Monet Water Lillies necklaces are constructed to be as supple as a scarf. Her winter plum cuff features an abstract tree motif that is modernist and surreal.

"I would say my style is poetic. Its origin always goes back to two elements: music and art. I also never have set rules. I design ... from my heart. Sometimes, I start with a conceptual idea, stone or a story. Recently, my daughter loves butterflies, so I use butterflies.

"I never really focus on one project. Going back to Beethoven, a musician cannot survive doing one thing. So I do special orders, from commission work to unique projects. Anything that's big, I call it the symphony level. The difficulty is making something so original that has never been done before … So when I make an artistic piece, I feel like I am going for a gold medal. For me, less is more. It is about creating an artwork rather than getting attention," she says.

Hu has two major lines: one featuring her artistic creations (about 30 pieces a year) and the other devoted to classic pieces. Most are one-of-a-kind or limited editions. She also has a line of bridal jewellery and is looking to create a range of more affordable pieces.

Instead of seasons, Hu categorises her work by periods, much like an artist. And last year she launched her first book Symphony of Jewels, Anna Hu Opus 1, featuring her first 100 works. Her goal is to produce an opus every five years until she has completed 10, for a total of 999 pieces.

"I never think of a legacy. That's the beauty of life, I expect the unexpected. That said, I will work for the rest of my life to build my empire. I am not shy about that," she says.

"And when I go to heaven, I will say hello to Beethoven, and say, 'I didn't do bad, huh?' I hope I will be respected as the Beethoven of the jewellery world."