It is the first public-access day at Europe’s most prestigious fine art and antiques fair, TEFAF Maastricht in southern Netherlands, when I finally get face time with Cindy Chao. I have never met her before, but I’ve heard about her fame and seen her creations at a presentation in Singapore earlier this year. For a brand that was established in 2004, its meteoric rise is beyond stunning.
Already, exhibiting at the by-invitation-only TEFAF, which is the annual playground for Europe’s wealthiest art collectors and powerful international curators, is a feat that only few Asian brands have achieved. And this is the second year Cindy Chao – The Art Jewel is showing.
Occupying one of just six La Haute Joaillerie booths, Chao’s sits alongside Hong Kong jeweller Wallace Chan, German jeweller Hemmerle, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Surrounding them are nearly 300 pre-eminent galleries selling ancient antiquities, rare books, bespoke furniture, modern art and paintings by old masters the likes of Vincent van Gogh.
Seduction of the senses
The Cindy Chao booth is a showcase one at the fair. It is designed in collaboration with world-renowned Dutch architect Tom Postma, who is known for his monumental sculptures and has served as the show’s in- house architect and designer for 17 years.
Cloaked in darkness, it presents a movable art installation with sculptural, organic steel branches plated with bronze and patina, holding up six display cases that seem to float within the void. It evokes an atmosphere of mystique and ingeniously draws your attention right onto the Cindy Chao masterpieces strung up by transparent filaments, taking the ultimate spotlight like museum artefacts. And that’s where the talent of the jeweller, who rightly calls herself an artist, shines.
On display are nine pieces: Black Label Masterpieces from her 2016 to 2018 collections, and five items from her 2020 Black Label Masterpiece collection – some of which are already sold but on loan from her clients. Chao’s black-clad team, all from Taiwan and Hong Kong, patiently describes the materials and techniques, as a steady stream of well-heeled visitors purposefully heads right in.
To say the jewels are spectacular is an understatement. They are sensuous, bold yet nuanced, organic and sculptural in form, inexplicably magnetic. Even the backs of the pieces are immaculately finished and
bejewelled. They catch the light and dazzle at every angle, allowing you to take in their splendour as you circle each display in silent awe.
The savoir faire of Chao, who grew up in the studios of her prominent architect maternal grandfather and sculptor father, is palpable. She is highly regarded for her 19th-century cire perdue wax-sculpting technique, which is a nearly lost craft but a very precise process by which metals are cast from an artist’s sculpture.
During my brief experience discovering her jewels at the Singapore showcase, I was most bowled over by how light, articulated and wearable they were – thanks to the use of the incredibly difficult-to-manipulate titanium and featherweight aluminium, in addition to precious metals.
They are jewellery designed by a woman for a woman – realised by the stupendous craftsmanship of master artisans from France and Switzerland. Connoisseurs would also recognise a JAResque quality – of course, she has already been described as “the Asian JAR (cult jeweller Joel Arthur Rosenthal)” by the Western press.
Rise of the phoenix
While Paris-based JAR is considered the father of contemporary 21st- century jewellery, critics have lauded Chao as one of the most important jewellers of “Nouveau New”, which is a term being proposed to describe this century’s contemporary high jewellery movement.
“Some people say I started this Nouveau New chapter,” says a beaming Chao when I sat down with her. Sporting a ponytail and dressed in a black power suit, as she mostly does in public appearances, she is warm and charismatic but emphatic and no-nonsense at the same time.
“I see myself as a cultural cross; a bridge between the East and West. I am a global citizen and I don’t see the need to incorporate Oriental influences into my works. They are the result of my extraordinary life experiences and travels, and speak an international language,” says the 45-year-old Taiwanese, who was trained at the New York Fashion Institute of Technology and the Gemological Institute of America. “Not everyone will necessarily love what I do, but it is authentically Cindy Chao. If you are good enough, you are not afraid of competition.”
How good are we talking about? She is the poster girl of both commercial and critical success. Within three years of launching her brand, she became the first Taiwanese jeweller to be part of the Christie’s New York fine jewellery auction in 2007. In 2012 at Christie’s Geneva, her Transcendence Butterfly brooch achieved four times its estimate at US$954,201, while her collaboration with actress Sarah Jessica Parker for the Butterfly Ballerina Brooch in 2014 raised US$1.21 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in aid of the New York City Ballet. Right now, her signature Annual Butterfly brooch has been booked up until 2024.
Hot on the heels of financial solvency, an issue in her early years, were the industry accolades. In 2010, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History inducted her 2009 Masterpiece 1 Royal Butterfly into its gem collection. She debuted a capsule diamond collection at the Masterpiece London art fair in 2012 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. In 2016, she was invited to participate in the 28th Paris Biennale des Antiquaires and in 2019, TEFAF Maastricht.
Her 2018 Black Label Masterpiece XVIII Peony Brooch won the highly coveted “Outstanding Object” award at Masterpiece London 2018. And just this January, the first Annual Butterfly brooch she ever made, in 2008, was the first 21st-century jewel and the first piece by a Taiwanese inducted into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) in Paris, where it is on permanent display next to the most important jewellers of the 20th century.
It also doesn’t hurt that Julia Roberts chose Cindy Chao earrings and bangle to wear onstage at last year’s Oscars. Other luminaries who have worn her creations on the red carpet include Amy Adams, Salma Hayek, Li Bingbing and even US First Daughter Ivanka Trump.
Her raison d’etre
You don’t choose Cindy Chao; Cindy Chao chooses you. Like the elusive and eccentric JAR, she is particular about who she sells to. “I’m very good at saying no to clients. We don’t go for quantity, we don’t serve many clients, but we have the best clients.”
There are three tiers of clients, according to Chao. “The first tier buys local, and every kind of jewellery and gemstones. The second moves on to the big maisons. The Cindy Chao collector is the third tier: they have substantial experience in art and are looking for one-of-a-kind, bespoke jewels. My clients span jewellery lovers and investors. A Cindy Chao piece is a good future investment,” she says matter-of-factly, noting that a family fund commissioned her to design a creation for an extremely valuable diamond it had acquired.
Why she needs the right person to respect, appreciate and wear her works is a key theme that kept popping up during the interview: Asian pride. Bringing Asian talent, creativity and quality to the world stage is very dear to her. She is all too aware that even in this day and age, she is still constantly told that she is the first Asian, and female, artist to achieve the same level of recognition as her Western peers.
“High jewellery has been a Western cultural concept and industry for the past century. You know the French are the most difficult people on the planet and yet, MAD is displaying the work of a living Asian artist next to all these 100-year-old European brands. It is a tremendous honour, being seen as a pioneer of the industry and as the Asian brand that is bringing something special to the West.”
She does not blush when she mentions that she is regarded as a Chinese cultural treasure. In fact, this faith in her is what drives her to achieve something bigger beyond her own glory. She adds: “I believe Asians will achieve much more. At this point of time, passing on skill, knowledge and a creative sensibility is crucial. That’s why I am so focused on cultivating the young generation of Asians. We had to try hard to arrive at this position, but we have to try harder to stay there.
“It has been difficult trying to find and train people, and my design team of 12 is predominantly Taiwanese. However, there’s hope in recruiting more, and I’d prefer to put Asians first.”
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Chao says, “I have always admired Tom’s work, and I was thrilled he accepted. I also appreciated that he took the time to know me—my work, my motivations, and my vision for the brand. And I think it was because of this he was able to create a design that melds exquisitely with my jewels.” #CINDYCHAO #CINDYCHAO_ArtJewel #tefaf #tefaf2020
No mercy, just magic
Surely, the secret to such success is the combination of talent, timing, artistry, quality and the right personality, which is especially the case for an independent jeweller. When asked how she’s managed to achieve so much so quickly, Chao says: “I started my company in my living room 15 years ago, when I had a little kid and was a single mum since forever! But I was a believer and dreamer. There’s one key essence: I never compromise. My father was very talented but he didn’t have such a strong character. I saw his sadness and so I never give up. I’m very dedicated and persistent. I give 1,000 per cent.”
She relates how her staff told the press that over the past 15 years, she has lived each day like there are 72 hours. She also adds that her European craftsmen, whom she sees every few weeks, hate her: “They say I am never satisfied, and that I’m always pushing and demanding. But they also say they love me for my vision and sense of adventure.”
Recalling an example of how technically rigorous she expects her pieces to be, she continues: “My craftsman in Geneva told me I have no mercy. He said the way I set the Colombian emeralds on my 2020 Black Label Masterpiece II Green Plumule Brooch, I treat the stones like peanuts. There are almost 200 carats of emeralds, with the biggest stone at 30 carats. For a lot of designs, a 30-carat is the centre stone on a ring or pendant, but for me, the emerald is just part of my design.”
“This piece really sets the future Cindy Chao. It is fearless, which is my nickname for it. The word, at this moment, describes me. It exhibits such confidence, is still very sculptural, but is created with a less-is-more approach. I try to take off unnecessary stuff to bring out the true beauty of jewellery art,” she says, referring to how the brooch has been stripped of a clunkier supporting frame and replaced with 14 barbs linking to each branching “stalk” of the feather bearing flexible joints.
She also attributes her desire to innovate and outdo herself at every turn to what Smithsonian curator Jeffrey Post said at a 2013 press conference announcing the public display of her Royal Butterfly brooch, made when she was just 36. “The Smithsonian is known for preserving vintage pieces, but he was asked why a living Asian artist was being featured. His answer was that as a museum and cultural institution, it has a responsibility and privilege to preserve future vintage. That made a big impact on my mindset. My piece will be there to be viewed for the next few generations and I will use my future vision to create current pieces.”
Living for the future
“Nothing can stop me. I believe I am now reaching the beginning of my pinnacle period, this ‘Nouveau New’ chapter, that will last the next 10 to 15 years. I know exactly what I want to do,” she declares, sharing the news of her upcoming London showroom followed by a Shanghai one, and maybe in a few years’ time, in New York and Paris.
As long as the brand is under her control, says Chao, it will not enter a retail store or go into mass production. She intends to grow the quantity of her Black Label Masterpiece collection (she has a more affordable, entry-level White Label collection), which so far only sees an annual production of a maximum of around 15 pieces, because her “clients are fighting for them”.
While she says the future Cindy Chao will not just be jewellery, she declines to reveal more. She also talks about the importance of succession when she retires at 60, laughing when you remind her that is not old in the grand scheme of things.
Turning back to one of the best advice she’s ever received from her architect grandfather, she says: “When talking about his buildings, he used to say that while our life is so short, our worth and legacy will live on forever. That’s why I want to cultivate a young and talented team, and push them hard to continue what I do. Now I will be someone’s sculptor and architect; the one to inspire them.”