There’s a youthful exuberance to Feng J. You see it in her agile movements, the inquisitiveness in her gaze and the relaxed but chic way she presents herself – crisp, white shirt with well-tended trousers. In many ways, she’s the epitome of that young, bold and hungry individual we hope our children will be one day, if not a reminder of that sprightly, ambitious and, yes, unjaded version of ourselves. And it’s rather astonishing that Feng, only in her mid-thirties and just five years after starting her own brand, has already accomplished so much.
In November 2020, her Jardin de Giverny necklace sold for an eye-watering US$2.6 million at a Phillips auction. And this she accomplished in her first international auction and in the midst of a pandemic. Feng would later learn that the piece was bought by a European collector and connoisseur. Graeme Thompson, worldwide head
of jewellery at Phillips, described Feng as “one of the world’s most sought-after contemporary designers who at 34, joins the rarefied world of high jewellery”.
Just last month, the Hangzhou-born artist has been among a handful of international designers chosen to take part at the Phillips Auction Flawless Private Sales, participating alongside renowned jewellers such as Suzanne Belperron, Jeanne Toussaint, Victoire de Castellane and Michelle Ong. Looking forwards, Feng is working on several exciting projects, including a collaboration with tech giant Apple. And from the looks of it, she’s just warming up.
Now for one who possesses such a natural flair for the craft, it’s interesting to find that, when it came to jewellery design, it wasn’t necessarily love at first sight. Feng studied product and furniture design at the China Academy of Art (CAA), where she was mentored by Wang Shu, a highly regarded architect and the only Chinese winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Feng’s passion has always been fast cars. “As a young girl, I was drawn to a car’s energy and speed. I’m fascinated by sports cars and it’s always been my dream to design another classic like the Porsche 911 – a real mobile art piece in my opinion,” she says.
Determined to school herself in car design, Feng applied to a school in the US but her student visa was rejected. As destiny would have it, that bump would lead her to jewellery design. “Not long after that, I received a letter from the University of the Arts London (UAL) informing me that they loved my portfolios and were keen to have me. As I was still disappointed with my visa rejection, I wasn’t receptive to the idea, but after a month and much thought, I decided to turn this frustration towards pursuing jewellery design, seeing it as another wonderful alternative to create.”
Indeed, she earned a master’s degree in jewellery design at UAL and went on to train at the Haute École de Joaillerie in Paris, where she learned traditional European jewellery crafts. Not long after she graduated, she started her own brand, Feng J. Much to her delight, she found parallels between car and jewellery design, and realised she didn’t necessarily have to give up one for the other. “In a matter of speaking, sports cars and jewellery are both mobile art pieces. Although the scale is different, both can deliver this level of energy. And this is precisely the momentum I strive to embody in my jewellery.”
“Creation for me always begins with a concept, with ‘painted’ as a strong code of my design, using gemstones as a medium”Feng J
Within the jewellery realm, Feng looks up to the incredibly talented Joe Arthur Rosenthel, or JAR as he’s more widely known. “I definitely look up to JAR; he’s no doubt a true master. I think he’s created so many possibilities in jewellery design through innovation.
In some ways, he can be considered the father of 20th-century contemporary jewellery design. Outside of the industry, I love the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She was a conflicted soul, but she’s made a world of her art. I appreciate her talent, passion and the ultimate courage to be herself.”
As for Feng herself, artistry and craftsmanship are in the blood. Her great grandfather was a painter in the courts of the late-Qing Dynasty. But Feng was determined to succeed on her own, establishing her own style and building a name earned on her own merit and reputation. Gifted with natural talent, inspired by her ancestors and driven by the passion for crafts and design, she’d come to develop her signature technique, which she refers to as “painting with gemstones”.
“Creation for me always begins with a concept,” Feng says, “with ‘painted’ as a strong code of my design, using gemstones as a medium. After coming up with the sketch of an idea, the next step is sourcing my favourite material to work with: double rose-cut gemstones. My piece is a blank canvas and I ‘paint’ it with double rose-cut gems, which are very thinly sliced stones of a mere one-to- 1.2mm width, but with rose-cut facets on either side, resulting in incredible reflection, emphasising the hues, lighting and shadows of a piece.”
While Feng’s design process is fascinating, it’s in the creation that we truly witness her genius. To make jewels where stones appear to be suspended, she’s formulated the floating-setting technique, a complex and meticulous process that involves the use of customised stone cuts and near-invisible mounts and settings that give her jewels
an ethereal lightness and sparkle. “Although the pieces can be sizeable, it gives it a sense of weightlessness, and it also allows for maximum light to reflect through the stones. This process takes a lot of time and patience; typically, it takes me half a year to complete an art jewel, but for masterpieces, it would be over a year.”
Pre-Covid, it would be typical of Feng to shuttle between Paris, where she has her atelier, and Shanghai, her current base from where she draws a lot of energy. “It’s such a vibrant city. Not only does Shanghai have such a rich history and beautiful architecture, it’s also one of the most dynamic metropolitan areas today, where Oriental and Western influences converge. The Shanghainese also have such discerning taste and it’s why there’s a burgeoning art jewels market.”
Well aware she was going into a cut-throat industry where she would have to “fight” for recognition, Feng was determined to forge a new path. “There’s definitely no shortage of high-jewellery brands. There are already so many big and established maisons out there and within the world of independent high-jewellery designers, it’s likewise competitive. I knew I had to choose a direction that no one’s gone down or done before. When you’re an independent jeweller, it’s so important to have a strong code and an edge. One must always question: what makes me unique? I had to be different. I then strive to create a piece for the 21st century and to also offer a glimpse into the future of jewellery-making and I believe that through my ‘painted’ art jewel with an innovative technique like the ‘floating set’ as well the imaginative and creative use of Chinese lacquer on jewels, I can achieve just that.”
And indeed, Feng J, with her vivacious creations that don’t quite take themselves awfully seriously – a trap that many highly accomplished jewellery designers tend to fall into – is speaking and capturing a new generation of high-jewellery consumers, and all while ushering in a refreshing newness to the jewellery world.
(Hero Imgage: Feng J and (left) her Jardin De Giverny Necklace, which sold at Phillips last November for US$2.6 Million)