Art and jewellery meet in Cindy Chao's designs, now in Hong Kong
Taiwanese jeweller opens showroom in Central
Decorated with dark leather furniture, bronze tiled walls and richly lacquered cabinets, the dimly lit showroom exudes sophistication. But the decor by acclaimed interior designer Johannes Hartfuss isn't the main attraction here. It is the works of Cindy Chao, the Taiwanese jeweller who this month made her long-awaited debut in Hong Kong with the opening of a 1,350 sq ft showroom in Central.
Chao has set up base in the city as she widens her reach to an ever-growing audience for her one-off pieces, the brand already building a strong following among celebrities, including actresses Li Bingbing, Shu Qi and Katie Holmes.
"Being based in Hong Kong now gives me a chance to better attract more collectors from around the world," she says.
Location is vital for any business, so it's not surprising Chao chose uber-cool address 50 Connaught Road as the site for her headquarters. The 28-floor tower designed by Robert A.M. Stern is home to some of the city's major art galleries (Galerie Perrotin and White Cube) - just the setting for her intricate and gem-crusted creations that tread the thin line between art and jewellery.
"I consider myself a sculptor who uses precious stones and metals as primary materials," Chao says. "They are one-off pieces and I hope collectors can really feel the unique vitality of every piece … Through my hands, I can turn every piece of jewellery into a piece of art."
Classically dressed in a black trouser suit and black stilettos, hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail, Chao - like the decor - oozes understated elegance as she proudly walks around the showroom, the stunning harbour views slightly obscured by low-hanging mist.
"The Hong Kong showroom represents my vision of the brand, creating a space where collectors can truly experience the meaning of Cindy Chao The Art Jewel. The space has taken more than two years to complete as I have been working closely with the interior designer to capture the essence of the brand, as well as my aesthetics as an artist.
"Like all my art jewels, the interior of the Hong Kong showroom is adorned with meticulous details, including handcrafted furnishings and innovative contemporary art, complementing my works in a way that creates a connection and gives a glimpse into my sources of inspiration."
Chao is also a wonderful billboard for her designs and today she wears sparkling constellations of yellow diamond and sapphire earrings from her Four Seasons collection, Masterpiece No 10 series.
Taking pride of place in the showroom, though, is the White Label and Black Label Masterpieces series of art jewels, the latter an annual set featuring 36 pieces that can take up to two years to create - working from an original sketch and a wax mould and using rare, fine gemstones.
The three-dimensional works seem just as suited adorning a body as they do being on show in a museum. A case in point is her 2014 Masterpiece Royal Butterfly Brooch, which was added to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History's celebrated gem collection.
Created with titanium, it boasts an 18-carat gold body, featuring a cushion-cut brown diamond weighing 26.27 carats, three rough brown diamond slices weighing 47.71 carats in total, three pieces of conch pearls weighing 7.25 carats in total, surrounded by 4,698 diamonds and coloured diamonds weighing 98.09 carats in total. The centrepieces of the butterfly's wings contain four large faceted diamond slices stacked atop a pavé layer of faceted diamonds, creating a pattern resembling a living butterfly's wings. It is estimated to be worth US$680,000.
And her favourite piece?
"It's difficult for me to select a favourite, often saying my next creation as I know I will surpass myself in design and craftsmanship," she says.
"This said, I would have to say my current favourite is the 2015 Black Label Masterpiece Rose Earrings due to the balance of gemstones selected to perfect the tone and colouration of the piece, capturing a fleeting moment in time. In terms of technique and craftsmanship, these earrings are a true work of art, fusing lacquer, gold and silver to build the setting for the gemstones. The use of silver was a deliberate request to emphasise the greyish matte effect, further highlighting the coloured gemstones to intensify the colour and create a sense of mystery."
Last year, she collaborated with Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker (the actress is also a fan) on a piece that was auctioned at Sotheby's in Hong Kong to raise funds for the New York City Ballet. It fetched more than HK$9.4 million.
"I have given life to a singular butterfly each year since 2008. While each butterfly evolved with my journey as an artist, coincidentally every one of the six butterflies so far also has its own unique legacy," she explains, and the 2014 Black Label Masterpiece I, Ballerina Butterfly that she created with Parker is part of this series.
"Working with Sarah Jessica was a singular experience where I was able to explore my creative vision with a very dear friend, someone who has understood me and my works since we met. She fully comprehended and appreciated the emotions and the stories, in forms of structure and colouration, embodied in my works. Throughout the years that we've known each other, she has always been very supportive, and has been there for me through the ups and downs."
Creativity is in her genes. Her grandfather Xie Zinan is famous for the temples he designed in Taiwan, and her father a sculptor. "Ever since I was a child, my father and grandfather imprinted an idea in me - true art has to be able to stand the trial of time, and only true art can transcend time and be passed on from generation to generation.
"It is these moments with my grandfather and father, teaching and guiding the way I look at the world that I look back upon with great fondness. Coming from an artistic family - with my grandfather an architect and my father a sculptor - I was trained, from a young age, to see the world in a three-dimensional way; taking into account each angle, form and expression of what I observe.
"My grandfather used to take me to the temples he was working on, and I would stay with him while he explained the blueprints and constructions to the craftsmen. Recently, I found some of his old design drafts. It was amazing, back in the days when there was no computer technology, how he was able to draft out the temple designs in three-dimensional layers.
"I had the opportunity to see some of his projects from conception to completion. Because of my grandfather, I developed a love and passion for architecture. He taught me to see things outside the box, to view every side of a building as a front, to be meticulous with every detail.
"My father would often comment on my projects, and share with me his words of wisdom: 'Regardless of the subject, the final piece must be as vibrant as it is in real life. Spend time observing the object. Pay close attention to the minutest detail. And then, with your heart and soul, put into form what you've perceived.'
"These words, spoken to me by my father while he helped develop my craft, remain with me in each and every art jewel I bring to life."