In just 15 years, Cindy Chao has created masterpieces that would come to exist within a rarefied space often reserved exclusively for centuries-old European jewellery maisons. Yet as we write, the already esteemed jewellery artist is just getting started.
Cindy Chao calls from her showroom in Taipei, where she’s been “stuck” for the last six months, unable to travel due to Covid-19. “Wow, I don’t remember ever being in one place for this long,” she says. Chao is upbeat, a touch restless but also contemplative. “It can get a little bit discouraging but I remind myself that this pandemic has changed the entire world – not just me, not just my company, but everyone. I have to say, this time has given me a chance to reflect, focus and trust my team more, and I welcome it.”
Under normal circumstances, Chao would be travelling constantly to attend events across Europe and to visit her showroom in Hong Kong, if not shuttling between her workshops in Geneva and Paris. But just before the world quite literally changed overnight in all manner of living and working, an event was held in Chao’s honour, as a piece from her most venerated Annual Butterflies collection was inducted into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) in Paris in January. That Ruby Butterfly brooch is now displayed alongside notable pieces by heritage jewellery houses such as Cartier, Boucheron and Van Cleef & Arpels, and to date the only piece by an Asian designer.
Two months later, Chao made her highly anticipated debut at The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) in Maastricht, touted as the world’s most prestigious marketplace for fine art, antiques and design. She would be one of only six jewellery brands invited to participate.
“Tefaf was a dream come true,” Chao reflects. “The people who attend this fair have seen and possibly bought everything else, and they go to Tefaf to see not only the very best but, perhaps more importantly, the yet to be seen. So being there was, on its own, a huge recognition for the brand. I was thrilled to be there, and get instant and genuine feedback from this highly discerning audience who are talking freely, and probably don’t know who I am! And these are people who’ve seen tons of beautiful things their entire life, so definitely I had to know what they thought of my pieces.” Tefaf and the MAD induction would be extraordinary accomplishments that punctuated an important milestone for Chao: her 15th year in the business.
In a way, she’s trained and worked her entire life towards this moment. She was raised in a household of artists – her grandfather was a renowned architect who’s built monumental temples across Taiwan, from whom she learned to approach designs in a multi-dimensional and brilliantly dynamic manner, while her father, an accomplished sculptor, would pass on to her the skills and talent to bring these sketches to life. Through them, Chao developed a profound appreciation and understanding of the creative process, allowing her to make jewels that are anything but ordinary.
“The success I’ve had in recent years has now afforded me some luxuries. If in the last 15 years I created to survive, in the next 15 years, I’ll create for creation’s sake. The recognition I’ve had from museum inductions, the invitations to prestigious exhibitions and the awards I’ve received from established institutions will allow me to do so.”
When Chao started creating art jewels, she did so in an industry that was unfamiliar, and not necessarily acquiescent, with the concept. But such was her belief that collectors and connoisseurs were ready – in fact craved for – something different and truly rare. She then worked relentlessly to carve a niche for sculptural, artistic jewellery, which essentially were miniature pieces of art.
“Even nowadays, particularly in Asia, a big portion of the jewellery market is still very conservative and tends to look only at the stones – the size, quality, value and pricing. But slowly, collectors are starting to look beyond just the stone – its intrinsic value – and more at the design, creative aspect and the craftsmanship, all of which contribute to the value of a piece. And yes, I do see the market starting to recognise this type of jewels. I mean if the emergence of new designers following this path is any indication, I say we’re doing something right,” she says. Indeed, over the last five years the industry has seen a rise in designers whose approach is more design-oriented rather than focussed solely on the intrinsic value of the stones.
What’s seldom discussed about Chao but warrants more praise is the fact that she’s not only the company’s creative lead, but also its CEO. By no means an easy feat, it’s a duality she seems to have mastered.
“It requires a very different mindset to leading a team. When I’m wearing my CEO hat, managing several teams, I need to be a professional and effective leader.” While she admits this is not her natural inclination, it’s a role she takes on out of necessity because it provides her with a broader and global mindset.
“When I’m creating, it’s the complete opposite and I’m focused solely on the process. It’s almost like putting yourself in a bubble – you’re in your own world unaware of your surroundings. But running a company requires you to be informed – educated in the market you operate in and familiar with its landscape. Knowing all this is very crucial to establishing a strong foundation for the brand, which I’m determined will stay for many years to come,” she says.
Being an effective CEO, a major player in the market and a woman? Now that’s a whole new level of accomplishment. “I want to share a story with you,” Chao starts, as I ask about the challenges of being a woman operating in the business world. She goes on to tell me of an incident early in her career, when she was just starting her jewellery business. “It was difficult to get good gemstone suppliers and, of course, because my pieces required the best stones, I only wanted to work with the best ones. And because I didn’t have a name then, and didn’t have that much capital, it posed many problems for me.
“So, on one of my quests to find the best suppliers, I walk into a roomful of diamond suppliers – in this industry, as you know, most of the players are Orthodox Jews, who are very conservative and aren’t allowed even to shake a woman’s hand – and I remember I was the only female there. The discussion got heated, there was a lot of back and forth and they were very tough on me. Mind you, I was a lot younger then but, boy, was I tough, too – I never gave in. At the end of the conversation, one of them stood and said: ‘This lady has more guts than anyone else in this room,” Chao says, laughing, pretty damn proud of herself, and rightly so.
Bravado would not be the only quality Chao mastered as she navigated this still male-dominated industry. “Through this journey, I learned that people start to respect you when you’re serious and crystal-clear about what you want to achieve, and when you don’t compromise on your values. You need to be true to yourself – people over time will see through your character and your reputation. And these relationships will be built and strengthened on that faith, or falter for the lack of it. But really, you need grit, guts and determination; show everyone you’re not going to back down, nor are you afraid – that’s what it takes to succeed and thrive as a female entrepreneur.”
In the years that followed, Chao, her brand and most importantly her work would get the recognition, and admiration it deserved not only in Asia, but internationally. In 2010, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History would add Chao’s Royal Butterfly Brooch to its permanent collection, while other esteemed institutions, including the Tokyo Mori Art and Beijing Today Art Museum, would invite her to display her creations. Before this year’s Tefaf debut, Chao has been asked to take part in other highly prestigious exhibitions including the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris and Masterpiece London. But Chao is far from done.
In between running a company, creating jewels and raising the company’s profile to new heights, Chao is establishing the brand’s presence in key cities around the world. In November, she’s set to open her third (and biggest to date) showroom in Shanghai – the other two are in Taipei and Hong Kong – along the prestigious Rockbund strip right next to Christie’s Shanghai. At 3,200 square feet, it will stand as the brand’s flagship showroom in Asia.
“This is one of the biggest projects we’re working on at the moment and as the opening of the Shanghai showroom approached, we’ve been meeting, planning non-stop. It’s especially complicated to get this going during the pandemic but we’re determined to make it happen. It’s like mission impossible, made possible!”
By the end of 2021, Chao will have opened her fourth showroom, this time in London. “This is an especially important move for us, because being physically and permanently present in Europe sends a very strong message: that we’re indeed an international brand, where East meets West. We also saw this as a strategic move, because we have a growing number of clients in Europe, and for practical reasons it makes perfect sense since my craftsmen are in Geneva and Paris,” she says.
Does she sleep, I ask in jest. She bursts into laughter and admits, “Not much! In the day time I’m the CEO and attend tons of meetings, look after day to day operations but when the day is done I go to my studio and that’s my time to create. I find sketching very therapeutic – it’s my form of meditation. It’s really when I’m stooped down on my work bench and designing, where I can enter into my own world, that I am happiest. When I’m within my creative space, I can be myself or even whomever I want to be – I don’t need to play tough.”
So what drives such a brilliant, accomplished and fiercely ambitious woman? “It’s different for every period of my career,” she says. “The first 10 years that I’ve spent establishing the foundation of the brand was particularly tough, and being female made it even harder. At the time I was a single mom and had a young son, who was then my single biggest motivation. Those years were not easy, there were many obstacles, including financial ones, but I never gave up. Because when you have a young child looking up to you, holding on to every word you say – and you know that to him you’re everything – how can I possibly give up?
“After the induction ceremonies at MAD, my son, Jasper, was the first person I called. I told him, ‘Thanks to you, I was so inspired to do all this in spite the difficulties, because I knew I had fight for you and to show you that all our sacrifices weren’t made in vein. And now all this recognition and being able to bring the brand to another level is what motivates me. It’s ironic how we’ve worked so hard to get where we are, to find that we need to work even harder to stay there. So I think the next 15 years will be even more challenging.”
While Chao wields such power within her organisation, she looks forward to the time she could go back to just doing what she loves most: creating art jewels. But to allow her to do this, Chao is aware that she needs a succession plan.
“The company is still very young, and while it’s starting to gain traction in the high-jewellery industry, I’d like it to be even greater. Of course, it won’t be easy, especially since the company operates under a different business model – we don’t do the retail mass market, instead we have showrooms and see clients by appointment only and with a very limited number of pieces. But I recognise that the only way to move forward is for the company to acquire the best talent. While there’s an advantage of me being both the CEO and the creator, in that I’m able to maintain a consistent design aesthetic and brand identity, I recognise the need to have a ‘professional CEO’ in place, who can do the job better than I can, and to be able to run the company – to run me! When the time is right, I’d want to be able to return to my studio and design.”
Chao’s ultimate dream for her brand is that it remains in existence even long after she’s gone. “I want to create century-old brand. My role in the first 15 years was to build and cement its foundation, and the next 15 years will be spent ensuring that I’ll have a strong company with talented people who’ll carry on with the task – on the creative side that there’ll be a new generation of inspired and talented artists that will preserve the craft, and on the management side, a team passionate about articulating the uniqueness of our Asian influences while recognising the importance of preserving age-old European crafts and techniques.”
Witnessing the story of Cindy Chao The Art Jewel unfold as it happens is pretty incredible, but getting to know the fascinating and passionately driven person behind its success is a great honour and downright inspiring.
Cindy Chao is the philosophy that all pieces coming out of her ateliers in Paris and Geneva aren’t just jewellery but veritable pieces of art. Here are a few of her masterpieces.
(All images of Cindy Chao: Prestige Hong Kong; all images of jewellery: Cindy Chao The Art of Jewel)
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.