Madame Chirac’s a fan: Hong Kong jeweller Diana Zhang on her custom creations

Each piece can take up to two years to make, says jeweller who learned her craft from scratch and only accepts commissions through her social network

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, 1:09pm

On her wedding day, Diana Zhang wore a show-stopping necklace given to her by her husband. The piece represents one of the jewellery designer’s happiest moments.

Many years later, she makes an observation.

“The necklace itself was very beautiful. But you can only wear it a few times – it’s hard to find many occasions where it can be used,” she says. This impression has become the driving force for one of her latest pieces: the Orchid King necklace.

A one-off piece featuring three no-oil Colombian emeralds, more than 5,550 diamonds and 2,700 tsavorites, it is a creative tour de force that can turn into a brooch, choker or hairpiece.

“I wanted the piece to be suitable for all social occasions: formal functions, cocktail parties and more casual gatherings. There are many ways to use the piece,” she says.

Originally from northeastern China, her family didn’t have a background in jewellery design; they made their living in media production and licensing. After taking a fashion course with a friend in Paris she was inspired and went on to study jewellery at the Gemological Institute of America.

“In the beginning, learning was very difficult. But I started to get the hang of it. My designs are really about dreaming of some grand idea, and slowly working with craftsmen to realise them,” she says.

The sheer amount of effort and attention to detail in the Orchid King necklace is hidden in its seemingly effortless stems and flower petals.

“This piece took two years to make. If we used just titanium to make the necklace, it would have felt too light. It needed the right weight to feel valuable. We were picky with the stones that were used in the necklace,” she says.

“For example, the three main emeralds were bought from three separate shops. Sometimes we will spend a good three or four full days just looking before we buy one stone.”

This diligence and attention has not gone unnoticed. Just last year, Zhang was the only Chinese woman designer to present at Paris’ Biennale des Antiquaires. Her collection, “One year in China”, focused on seasonal themes.

“When I first showed the collection to Francois Curiel [chairman at Christie’s] I was very nervous. He had seen my work previously, but never really said very much. This time he gave me his seal of approval. I felt like I had passed an important test,” she says.

Even former French president Jacques Chirac’s wife was a fan of the collection. Zhang showed her a few pieces, let her try them on, and explained the ideas of Chinese culture, symbolism and poetry that inform her work.

“Madame Chirac joked, ‘if my husband was rich enough, I would buy it’,” she says with a laugh.

Zhang tries to make sure her jewellery matches the personality of her clients. All are one-off custom creations, and clients are introduced to the designer through her existing social network. Requests from strangers or through Zhang’s website are not accepted.

“When I talk to clients, I will have lunch with them to understand their story. This is not the kind of art you put in a museum. It is something that a woman wears to represent who she is, so they need to match,” she says.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where a customer hands over a lump sum of money to buy a piece. A lot of time is spent to make each and every piece unique, so I want a person who will really love it when it is done. You need to fall in love with it so that 10 or 20 years down the line, you take it out and still love it.”

Zhang’s time in jewellery has taught her the importance of being honest– to her industry, her pieces, her work, her staff, and even her partners.

“One of my earliest teachers told me that the jewellery industry can use the nose to kill people,” she says. “I didn’t understand, so I asked why. He explained that since this industry is so small, your reputation is even more important than your life. So if people inquire about your reputation with their colleagues and they wrinkle their nose in disapproval, they will have killed you.”