Jeweller Cindy Chao’s museum-worthy creations
The Taiwanese master jeweller never ceases to surprise with
In January this year, in a suite at Paris’ Hotel Ritz, Cindy Chao weighed jewellery using French patisserie as her measure. “It’s a two-macaron weight!” she said, an iridescent brooch in the shape of a butterfly resting in her gloved hand.
The Taiwanese designer first launched her self-funded business – Cindy Chao The Art Jewel – in 2004; in 2007, she started the annual tradition of unveiling a single butterfly brooch. Her kaleidoscope has included butterfly specimens set with brilliant white diamonds and Delft blue sapphires (2012), cabochon- cut rubies and rough diamonds (2010), and rose-hued conch pearls (2013). Each brooch took more than 18 months to finish, and the waiting list of prospective buyers stretches to 2023. Chao’s latest four-winged creation, the blueish Aurora butterfly brooch, is cast from lightweight titanium and sparkles with a total of 6,023 gemstones, among them Burmese rubies, sapphires and yellow diamonds.
In addition to presenting Aurora, Chao, who oversees a team of 65 at her Hong Kong HQ and employs specialist makers in Geneva and Lyon, had travelled to Paris to celebrate a small selection of her recent triumphs. The designer’s output is tightly limited; it includes Chao’s revered – and named, numbered and dated – Black Label Masterpieces, of which she creates roughly 18 per year.
To the Ritz, Chao had brought the 2016 Winter Leaves necklace, her visually astounding take on a garland of frosted foliage, iced with more than 6,200 fancy-cut diamonds. Today, Chao estimates its weight as roughly “three macarons”; in the metric system, the titanium-based design comes in at just 78g. Chao’s team had spent more than 10,000 hours perfecting the piece; at last year’s Masterpiece fair in London, the design took home the award of Jewellery Highlight.
Floral inspirations have shaped new Chao designs: the creative first admired Damask roses – cultivated for their heady scent and vibrant pink buds – while travelling through Oman. The 2019 Damask Rose brooch, Chao’s precious evocation of the flower, has at its centre a large cushion-cut sapphire – its pink tone somewhere between taffy and bubblegum – framed by diamond-set petals dazzling with many more pink sapphires, their 18 colour gradients matched harmoniously. “The creative process, I think, is about the way you absorb things,” Chao says. “You accumulate, and then, when you sit down to design, it’s about processing everything.”
Chao’s Paris sojourn coincided with her brand’s 15th anniversary; another reason to celebrate came courtesy of the city’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs – the institution introduced her piece Black Label Masterpiece I, 2008 Ruby Butterfly Brooch into its permanent jewellery collection. As the premiere piece by a Taiwanese maker, the butterfly – Chao’s first, featuring two wings with a duo of baroque-shaped Burmese rubies at their centre – will sit alongside historic jewellery by Place Vendôme institutions (Cartier, Boucheron, Chaumet) and the work of creatives such as René Lalique, Alexander Calder and Ettore Sottsass. “To get such recognition is like being crowned,” Chao enthuses. “Paris is the mother country of high jewellery, the very area I specialise in. I think this is going to lift me to a different level.”
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is not the first to discover Chao’s work: in 2013, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History added the Royal Butterfly brooch to its gem collection, and her designs have displayed in galleries including Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. To Chao, such institutional recognition carries added personal meaning: “I grew up in such an artistic family. My grandfather was an architect and my father was a sculptor.”
While growing up, Chao spent many hours closely studying architectural blueprints of hundreds of temples dreamt up and realised by her grandfather, Hsieh Tzu Nan. Chao’s father, meanwhile, taught her a sculptor’s respect of his material, with artistic know-how imbuing inanimate objects with movement, light and sentiment. She went on to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Gemological Institute of America in New York.
In her approach to jewellery-making, Chao is both an artist and an engineer. “It’s inside my blood, my DNA: I never create pieces in a traditional way. For me, jewellery is miniature architecture, miniature sculpture.” Chao has mastered the art of la cire perdue (lost wax casting): when drafting new jewels, she moulds wax directly, like a sculptor working clay. The wax shape is then used to produce a mould, to be filled with precious metals (Chao prefers yellow gold, silver or titanium) to produce the gem’s base. In the meantime, Chao and her team outfit the wax shape with diamonds and gemstones, carefully calibrating each component’s placement. A Chao jewel must sparkle from all vantage points, so the brand’s team includes three stone examiners (here, only 10 per cent of gems make the cut) and European craftsmen spend many thousands of hours on complex pavé settings.
Attention to detail once netted her grandfather his many architectural commissions; today, it underscores Chao’s own sparkling creations and their growing repute. “I told my team, ‘OK, in the past 15 years I build a great foundation; now it’s time to grow,’” Chao recounts today. “I am ready for anything. I am ready to fly.”
Cindy Chao's precious Aurora brooch, the designer's 2020 unique winged masterpiece.
Taiwanese jewellery artist Cindy Chao, whose work features in the permanent collections of global institutions.