The swift rise of contemporary Taiwanese artist Cindy Chao within the rarefied world of high jewellery has been nothing short of astounding.
“Success isn’t a final place or destination, but an ongoing process, something you [continuously] pursue,” responds Cindy Chao, after I ask if she considers herself successful. “I think I am more confident now in my process, in my journey, and I feel I am headed in the right direction. But if you ask me to define success, I don’t think I have that answer yet.”
It’s ironic that this artist, whose work has garnered prestigious accolades, set record-high auction prices, and has been inducted into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s gem collection, seems hesitant to admit her success. Seated at her plush boutique in downtown Taipei, dressed in her signature all-black power suit, the 44-year-old shakes her head in contemplation and admits that despite garnering these milestones, she still struggles internally. “I wish I could have more time to concentrate on my work and on my creations. But right now we are still building the brand, and we need to share our story, and our philosophies behind it, with everyone. I will be really happy when I’ve built the foundation well, and then I can return to the road that I really enjoy, that I am good at, which is being a creator.”
A descendent of four generations of Taiwanese artists, Cindy credits her artistic vocations to her architect great grandfather and grandfather, as well as her sculptor father. “My grandfather did not get a chance to see much of my work, but my father did. We had the opportunity to actually create a piece together, and during this process I really saw his spirit, his professionalism, dedication to the craft, and his eye for detail,” Cindy fondly recalls.
While closely examining her 2019 Aurora Butterfly brooch, I can see the continuation of this inherited artistry, in the undulating curves of the wings and the organic placement of diamonds which make it seem as though drops of water are resting on the wings of this new creation. Since 2008, Cindy Chao – The Art Jewel has produced one limited edition annual Butterfly every year. It’s a series that embodies Cindy’s own journey, as well as the creativity and technical feats her brand achieves each year. With each Butterfly, Cindy and her team push the boundaries of inspiration and innovation. Clutching her latest flight of fancy, the artist remarks how she sees the butterfly as a reminder that life should be lived to the fullest, even if it’s a brief one.
Over the years, her eponymous brand has reached new heights; from setting a record at Sotheby’s Hong Kong by raising US$1.21million for the New York City Ballet through the 2014 Butterfly Ballerina Brooch designed in collaboration with Sarah Jessica Parker, to the recent historic induction of her 2008 Ruby Butterfly brooch into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. In both cases, Cindy was the first Taiwanese designer to receive such honours.
In addition to her annual Butterfly, the artist produces pieces through two primary collections: the museum-calibre Black Label Masterpieces, and the White Label Collection, which are highly sought after by connoisseurs and collectors. The first of the two, the Black label Masterpieces, are arguably the most prestigious of her conceptions to bear the creator’s mark. Dated and limited to a few numbers per year, these exceptional jewels are unveiled once a year through invitation-only exhibitions around the world. Inspired by nature, these conceptual creations speak volumes on the artist’s unique aesthetics and creativity, which boldly redefine the boundaries of high jewellery.
However, as strikingly contemporary her design sensibilities may seem, the artist is in fact resolutely traditional in her techniques and method. Cindy uses Cire Perdue, an 18th century lost-wax sculpting technique, when she first starts moulding. “This technique helps to bring a lot of adulation and three-dimensionality to the pieces”, she explains.
“There are so many houses and maisons that make flowers, but the voice in each one is different. I think a lot of maisons work on pieces with a team, or several designers, who then provide the sketch to the craftsman, who might find it very hard to understand the vision of the designer from a three-dimensional perspective. What makes our process different is that we start from wax sculpting, and sometimes spend two years perfecting just one leaf. As a female designer and artist, its also important for my pieces to be wearable, so we use materials like titanium to reduce the weight, making it comfortable for the wearer.”
Be it the sculptural Emerald bangle, the twisted Winter Leaves necklace, or the delicate Damask Rose brooch, Cindy’s extraordinary pieces of wearable art are a remarkable expression of the artist’s savoir faire. Whimsically colourful and encrusted from the front to the back in precious gems, these masterful creations shimmer under the focus lights, often beguiling their observers.
I first met Cindy in 2018, when she and her team were breaking ground in Bangkok. Now, a mere two years later, the brand has found favour among Thai high jewellery aficionados and collectors, many of whom Cindy now shares a personal friendship with. Just a few short weeks after my interview in Taipei, the artist brought her highly acclaimed pieces to Thailand for a private viewing at Waldorf Astoria Bangkok. Here she divulges that it was fate that brought her to the city. “I live between two worlds, the east and west. We got an invitation through a friend to come to Thailand, and we had an event here right after Masterpiece London. As a creator, I’ve had a tough time in the past making people understand my work. But I feel Thai people understood my work immediately. The welcome I felt in Thailand was so warm, and I just feel so connected. So, I told my team that I really want to put in a lot of effort into the Thai market. Artists tend to have this extra sense of spiritually. I have that too and I feel that spiritual connection to Thailand.”
As Cindy Chao – The Art Jewel embraces its 15th anniversary in the industry, the artist reflects on her remarkable journey. “In the beginning, I didn’t mean to build a brand,” she says. “But as a creator you need to have a platform to showcase your work. The first 10 years were so difficult, but I am a determined person, with a never-give-up attitude. I always say, in my first 15 years I created to survive, but in my next 15 years I will create for creation.”
Having grown the brand from nothing, Cindy credits her success to her collectors and partners within the industry. “In order for you to financially grow your business, you need good collectors to come and buy your pieces, and I’m grateful for them. In the last 15 years I’ve met so many collectors who believed in my products when I was no one. I think in life you need to be lucky enough to have a lot of great friends, good opportunities, and you take these as great encouragements. When I receive these recognitions now, I don’t think they are the result – they are the process, the pathway to something bigger.”
As my interview draws to a close, it is apparent that Cindy is in a pensive state of mind, most likely going through the last 15 years as if turning the pages of a book. In a final bid to understand the creative complexities of this formidable artist, I ask her on what the future holds. “Not many people ask me what my real life has been for the past 15 years, what has been going through my head, what I want in life”, the artist responds. “Even nowadays I still face different types of challenges; to grow my brand, gain more international recognition, etc. But going back to your success question, I remember the last conversation I had with my father three months before he passed away. At the time my brand was struggling, and I was very depressed. I remember he said to me, ‘I am very proud of you now and will be in the future’. So, if you ask me what is it that I want, I want to make my father’s dream come true. He was a great artist but was not successful at all. I think he lacked the opportunity. I try so hard to build this foundation for my work, and I just wish he could see what I have built, although I know he can.”
To find out more about Cindy Chao the Art Jewel, visit cindychao.com.