For Agatha Tam, it was love at first sight. "I first discovered Wallace Chan's work eight years ago at a Hong Kong jewellery fair. I was there to buy vintage Cartier and Chanel fine jewellery," recalls the former CEO of an American architectural firm.
"We stopped to watch a fashion show and were captivated by the design, colours and movement of the butterfly jewellery on the models. It was a magical moment. These butterflies looked alive in the glassy space of the convention centre, as if they were spending a sunny afternoon in a fancy solarium."
The jewels sold out before Tam had a chance to buy any, but she became friends with Chan and started collecting. Her first purchase was a single earring that told a story about a bumblebee in love. She has amassed nine jewellery pieces, including her diamond wedding ring, and three objets d'art.
"I just love the poetry, mastery and movement of Wallace's work," she says. "You can feel his happiness [in the pieces]."
Tam is such a believer that she became CEO of Chan's jewellery business so he could immerse himself totally in his craft.
Chan is one of three gifted artistic jewellers to emerge from Asia over the past decade or so, with designs sought by collectors around the world. There is also Taiwan-born and New York-based Cindy Chao, who launched her business in Taiwan in 2004, while Michelle Ong of Carnet has been designing and making high jewellery since the late 1980s.
Their pieces are viewed by collectors and designers as works of art worthy of display, rather than mere bejewelled adornments to an outfit, making the creation process more complex.
Chao's designs are celebrated for their exquisite craftsmanship and quality. In 2008, she launched her iconic line of annual butterfly-themed masterpieces. Her 2009 creation, the Royal Butterfly brooch, was inducted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in the United States for its use of gemstones and breakthrough in craftsmanship.
And her pieces sell for extraordinary prices at auctions - the 2012 Transcendence Butterfly brooch sold for nearly US$1 million, five times its estimate.
Chao's Black Label Masterpieces have amassed a group of 20 serious collectors, many of whom are art collectors and "therefore have the appreciation and mindset of seeing jewellery as a form of art", she says. More than two-thirds of her clients are Asia-based.
Whether it's an exquisite pavé diamond bangle with golden maple leaves resting on its surface, or the ribbon collection of earrings and a Burmese ruby ring, which recently sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong, the quality of detail is intricate.
Chao describes her creations as "full of vitality that elicits emotions; 3D, curvaceous and with sculptural structure; detailed at every angle, just as miniature architecture".
Ong's designs, which contrast and blend fantasy with reality, have been displayed in London's Natural History Museum. She has also attracted a large fan base, including American opera star Renée Fleming, who says: "I love Michelle's design sense and unlimited imagination. Her aesthetic has grandeur, but is also beautifully refined."
The colours, the manipulation of the stones, the beauty conveyed, and the presentation seem to speak to Ong's clients. "From bejewelled flowers to rose cut diamond earrings, necklaces and glamorous earrings, I can often predict what my clients will make their own," she says. "It is wonderful to work with collectors at this level." Another of Ong's clients, Pansy Ho Chiu-king, a daughter of Stanley Ho Hung-sun, says the designer's pieces are immediately recognisable. "The design, the beauty, the workmanship makes it collectable. The essence of the jewels is unique to Michelle and Carnet."
At the core of these designers' work is the concept of fine jewellery as sculpture, blurring the line between accessories and art. Chao comes from a family of architects and sculptors. Chan began as a carver and is self-taught as a jeweller, taking on huge technological challenges within his craft. His sculptural designs merge realism with Zen-like wisdom.
"The difference between jewellery art and fine jewellery," Chan says, is that "most fine jewellery today still emphasises the value of the stones, rather than the jewellery piece's artistic value".
Gemstones, however, are a major part of Chao's work. "The Chinese love the perfect jadeite," she says. "The Europeans seem to have a higher acceptance and appreciation of creativity and design, as well as being more adventurous in terms of colourations."
While the artistic aesthetic invested into each piece of jewellery or objet d'art attracts curators and collectors, not all of these works can be easily worn. This led Chao to develop her White Label series of pieces that are "mobile artworks" - they are every bit as detailed as her masterpieces, but are more wearable.
And Chan admits his early pieces were too heavy to be worn with ease until he discovered titanium. It took many years to master his technique with the metal, but his pave-set sculpted pieces are now light enough to wear comfortably. His Entrancing Love brooch, created to celebrate the Year of the Horse, weighs 80g - accessorising with it "is always a test of the wearer's styling skills", he says.
Such adjustments have allowed these designers to expand exhibitions of their artworks to elite social events. Ong's earrings are popular accessories for a glamorous evening ensemble. "I think there is a wonderful appeal for women to have beautiful light reflecting jewels so close to the face," she says. "I also have collectors who love my bejewelled watches - I find it difficult to keep up with demand." But not all of the jewels are saved for after dark. Tam naturally wears her Chan-designed wedding ring every day, while Wendy Kwok - wife of Walter Kwok Ping-sheung, the former Sun Hung Kai Properties chairman, - wears Ong's jewellery day and night because she finds the pieces to be memorable, playful and feminine.
"I always think of her pieces as ultimately beautiful and wearable - to me, this is the key to collecting," she says.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
The boundaries between jewellery and art continue to blur. Hong Kong-based jeweller Van Eyck, named after a renowned Flemish painter, embraces the same ideology with the release of its inaugural collection, Birds of Paradise, during its brand launch this month.
London-based creative designer Ivonna Poplanska, who won the British Jubilee prize in 2012 for a brooch exclusively designed for Queen Elizabeth II, took inspiration from the exotic birds from Papua New Guinea. She created 25 stunning rings for this debut collection, each of the pieces features rare diamonds of a wide variety of colours, in addition to a pink sapphire set inside each ring, visible only to the wearer.
As part of its truly exclusive experience, the brand's jewellery is not available at retail outlets or even international jewellery fairs. Instead, carefully selected clients are invited to Van Eyck's private showroom in Hong Kong, where they can enjoy the collections and also spend time with the artisans in a private, intimate setting. On choosing a piece, the owners are also given the original sketch by Poplanska, and information about the exotic bird that inspired her to design the piece.