Months before the Biennale des Antiquaires, Cartier dropped a bombshell when it announced it would not be participating this year. The Biennale is renowned as the ultimate stage for high jewellery, and the French jeweller is arguably the most famous in the world. The two have fed off each other’s prestige in every edition of the fair’s 54-year history. Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari and Chanel soon followed suit, until it became clear that none of the last edition’s high-jewellery exhibitors were coming back.

The reason for this mass exodus originated from a desire by the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, which runs the Biennale, to return the fair to its original focus – antiques, as suggested by its name. Over the years, it had been taken over by contemporary jewellery design. So this year, space restrictions for jewellers were imposed and production charges were raised. And, while previous exhibitors may have been unhappy with the changes, others were glad to comply. It’s common knowledge that the fair isn’t open to everyone – one had to be invited; deemed worthy of the privilege by the organising committee. The world of haute joaillerie is an elitist one, and just the chance to exhibit was an opportunity any jeweller would die for.

This September, just four jewellers appeared – Geneva-based De Grisogono, Middle Eastern inlay masters Boghossian, Taiwanese sculptural jeweller Cindy Chao and Nirav Modi – the eponymous label of one of India’s richest men. De Grisogono had participated in the Biennale before, but for the rest, it was their first time. Nirav Modi’s showing was the first for an Indian jeweller, and Cindy Chao was the first Taiwanese and second Chinese jeweller after Hong Kong’s Wallace Chan.

That half of the new group was from Asia is worthy of note. “Europe, and more specifically France, has been the centre of fine jewellery for centuries,” Chao says. “At the Paris Biennale, where artists, collectors, critics and curators partake, they all thought the art jewels we presented were ‘new’, ‘refreshing’ and ‘revolutionary’. Being in a culture of fine jewellery, they know how difficult it is to be new, and hence appreciate it even more. It surprised many visitors to see that an Asian brand could have such authentic and creative design and master the craftsmanship at the same time.”

One look at Chao’s jewels and it is clear that the praise is entirely deserved. Her creations are mind-bogglingly intricate, complex and lifelike; carpeted with gems of all sizes yet unbelievably light and delicate. Modi’s gems have a strong European, East-meets-West sensibility, but the real mastery is in diamond cutting and setting. He boasts a host of innovative patents developed in-house such as the Endless cut, Enigma setting and Ainra cut – all of which are designed to minimise or do away with metal settings and allow unprecedented amounts of light to enter the diamond unblocked; and the Embrace mechanism which enables jewels like bangles or rings to be delightfully stretched and sprung like rubber bands, eliminating the use of clasps.

At the Paris Biennale, where artists, collectors, critics and curators partake, they all thought the art jewels we presented were ‘new’, ‘refreshing’ and ‘revolutionary’
Cindy Chao, sculptural jeweller

Despite the way in which the jewellers came to be invited this year, their jewellery has been acknowledged as just as stunning as those from the fair’s usual list of suspects. Chao’s pieces are museum-quality – her Royal Butterfly brooch rests in the Smithsonian – and Modi’s jewels have gone under the hammer at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

But what the Biennale truly provides is the entry into a new echelon of prestige, on the world stage. If one aspires to be one of the world’s top jewellery makers, presenting at the Biennale is an indisputable step in the legitimacy of that claim. Long hailed as the most important jewellery event in the world, no other platform affords the level of esteem and authenticity it bestows upon its exhibitors.

This year’s Biennale was particularly important, especially for independent and non-European jewellers, as it marked a break in the well-established mould of high jewellery’s elite. In terms of design, craftsmanship and innovation, independent jewellers can and do produce pieces that are on par with those from the Biennale’s regulars. However, it is events like these which have traditionally been exclusive to all but a select few that inhibit their rise to the highest strata of the jewellery world. Indeed, if Cartier and the rest had not demurred, who knows if the doors to the Biennale might have ever been opened to them?

For Asian jewellers, it is a definitive step in a long-awaited direction. Wallace Chan, the Biennale’s first Asian jeweller, was invited in 2012, despite having promoted Asian philosophy and art through his jewellery for decades. This year’s strong Asian showing and positive reception to them suggests that jewels from this part of the world do have what it takes to be world-class, but lack the exposure.

“There is immense potential in Asia,” Modi says. “Diamonds and jewellery are part of our heritage, and when we marry this with our unparalleled diamond cutting and setting skills, the result is exceptional and fit for a global audience. The presence of Cindy Chao and Nirav Modi at the Biennale des Antiquaires is a step in this process and we have a long way to go.”

Before the Biennale, Modi and Chao had only presented their pieces in private events; it was the first time their creations were on public display. With the right opportunity and adequate publicity, a new elite could take shape – one that is more diverse, inclusive and meritocratic. Given similar shake-ups in the areas of beauty, entertainment, sport and technology, the notoriously conservative world of jewellery might just be ready for a change.

Chao concurs. “I believe that a piece of art could transcend time and geological difference. There is a collective, creative energy forming and I am very proud to be part of this movement for Asians in the fine jewellery world. I hope that more talents would be encouraged to walk their own creative paths.”