i Blueprints from Cindy's grandfather

Modern Masters by Melanie Grant: Cindy Chao on the creative journey

Read time: 18 minutes, 51 seconds

Following on from her first book Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry, Melanie Grant examines the evolution of jewellery as art with a five-part series focused on some of jewellery’s modern masters. This is the fifth and final instalment in the series.

Two masters, one apprentice

I spent most of my childhood with two masters – my father and my grandfather. My grandfather was the noted architect Hsieh Tzu-Nan who built hundreds of stylised temples across Taiwan, his works now considered heritage sites and historical monuments. My playground, where I formed my three-dimensional perspective of the world was the construction site of each new project he was involved in. We would pore over blueprints together as he explained architectural concepts and spatial relationships, many of which I didn’t understand fully at the time but they opened my mind to the greatest of possibilities. I now create wax sculptures from a huge desk, much like the one he used in his study.

i 2020 Black Label Masterpiece V Cameron Falls Earrings dynamics by Cindy Chao

Back then technology was limited so he and his team would hand-mix as many as 30 colours just to create the right pigment for one specific pillar. This was a transformative experience for me and now my taste for colour is incredibly diverse as a result, allowing me to identify the royal blues and Kashmiri’s in a bundle of sapphires effortlessly. I’m learning to paint with oils at the moment and I’m enjoying mixing the paints and the way the colours sit or transform as I layer them. This ability to understand tonal shade and light, the idea and concept of colour psychology has really affected my work, probably as much as my family heritage making beautiful things.

My father was a sculptor who taught me how to think with my hands and I was his first apprentice. He was a very keen observer and I remember him leaving home for days once just to ride around on buses in order to observe the facial expressions of elderly people. He said that the essence of a sculptor was to inject life into the work and that being observant in one’s surroundings was at the heart of it. Whenever I entered his workshop and to keep me quiet he would give me a piece of clay and a ‘special project’ to work on – sometimes to make small animals, sometimes a flower and we would sit side by side and focus on our creations for hours. It was a beautiful time. He would school me on how to improve my creations and in this I learnt the skills and techniques of sculpture. My jewels now come from the mind of an architect and the hands of a sculptor with my own organic style that is a fusion of the two.

i 2019 Black Label Masterpiece No.I Aurora Butterfly Brooch by Cindy Chao

So much more than black and white

I create two categories of art jewels, the Black Label Masterpiece and the White Label Collection. It can take me a couple of years to adjust a design, sometimes ten or twenty times until I’m happy with it. Now and again I completely withdraw the idea and start again. I like to give each piece space to breathe; a pause so that it can fulfil its potential and become something more. The Black Label creations are where I express my creative philosophy to the maximum and look to challenge boundaries. I create fewer than fifteen per year infused with my spirit as a creator. One of my most recent Black Label challenges is the Gentlewoman Ribbon Cuff, a mix of white, yellow and pink diamonds with sapphires, Rhodolites and purple garnets set in undulating gold sculpted like fabric. It is my first cuff, took more than seven years to create and debuted at Masterpiece in London in July 2022. Craftsmanship for me is the execution of human genius, transforming the world’s toughest materials into wearable art with the softest silhouette.

My 2020 Black Label Masterpiece II Green Plume Brooch is also a good example. I choose titanium as the skeleton to create a feathery lightness but titanium is one of the hardest metals on earth. To cast, forge and gem-set such a metal is extremely time consuming and one careless mistake can derail the entire piece. In this case I insisted on assembling all 494 elements like a precious jigsaw puzzle housing 173ct of emeralds. That is why all our European craftspeople must have at least 15 years of working with titanium before tackling something this complex.

Brooch in the shape of a leaf made of precious green stones
i 2020 Black Label Masterpiece III Green Plumule Brooch by Cindy Chao

Each masterpiece takes on average 10,000 hours from conception to completion and art flows through the whole process. My jewels are a living, breathing example of someone’s experience, someone’s story. The artisans are able to bring these stories to life in a nuanced way, conveying layers from me to the collector and interpreting my vision. The White Label Collection, on the other hand, invites new clients to explore my world more democratically. The pieces are often an extension of Black Label but with more variety and accessibility despite still being handcrafted and limited in number.

I produce around two hundred of these per year. Our showrooms are by invitation only and we choose our patrons very carefully because I need my clients to understand and appreciate our values, the craftsmanship, the meaning and devotion that go into each one. I think Covid has actually enabled us to establish a deeper connection to them because although they haven’t been able to travel, they have more time to consider the finer details of what we create and our conversations are subsequently deeper now. Passion and curiosity have become heightened within all our lives.

Nature is at the root of many of my works. I am always fascinated by God’s creations – the coexistence of different forms of life and the perfect combination of spectacular mountain ranges, waterfalls, oceans…It is a never-ending fountain of inspiration for me. Many of my jewels such as The Annual Butterfly and signature Four Seasons collections are more direct and apparent interpretations of nature but for my recent 2020 Black Label Masterpiece V Cameron Falls Earrings and VI Reflection bangle I took a more abstract approach.

Highly decorated bangle made of precious stones
i 2020 Black Label Masterpiece VI Reflection Bangle dynamic by Cindy Chao

While hiking the Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada I became immersed in my environment and to remember the significance of that moment I reinterpreted the views with stones. In the bangle – deep blue sapphires depict a river shimmering under a clear sky; a yellow gold branch illustrates the flow of the current and clear rose-cut diamonds the water under sunlight. For the earrings – streams flushed pink with rocky minerals which became conch pearls and pink sapphires, rose-cut diamonds the splashes of water within a waterfall expressing a life force often invisible because it is all around us.

The battle for perfection

Just like building an environment through engineering as my grandfather did with his temples to the hundreds of calculations I have to make with my artisans when setting stones and combining colour configurations using layer upon layer of stones – the balance of each jewel must be right. I am a perfectionist and my favourite piece is always the next one. Every time I complete a jewel, I‘m content for about five minutes, then I start thinking “what can we do better next time?” I feel excitement by setting myself a series of new challenges –aesthetically, technically or even emotionally in order to bring my work even closer to perfection. The first titanium Black Label Masterpiece I felt was truly a diamond sculpture and a huge leap for me in terms of craftsmanship was the 2013 VIII Fish Brooch.

The 31.18ct centre emerald affected me deeply on first inspection and I knew I had to create something worthy of its beauty but I encountered numerous challenges. The skills needed to create it were beyond us at the time. I carved a three-dimensional wax model with layers of fishtails interspersed by streams of water. In order to make it wearable I choose titanium as the base metal but in 2010 I had to travel to Europe to see my best master setter in the hope that he could bring the complexity of my design to fruition.

Our collaboration produced more that I dreamed possible and even though he spoke French and I spoke English we communicated somehow through our shared passion to see it realised. 6000 diamonds and sapphires embedded into titanium as a free form flowing sculpture eventually came to pass but it wasn’t until 2017 that an art collector bought it. It can take years for the appreciation of high jewellery to catch up the culture and mood of the day.

i 2013 Black Label Masterpiece VII Fish Brooch by Cindy Chao

Poker face

We starting using CAD and 3D technology about five years ago but they have no bearing on my creative journey, they are purely tools. My workshops in Paris and Geneva still execute all my ideas using ancient techniques. I’d love to work with the artisans in Asia, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon because the experience that has to be built up with metals like titanium, just isn’t there yet. In the last decade so many luxury jewellery houses have been expanding their networks in China, establishing their roots locally to reach more clients and this is down to the blossoming of the Chinese economy.

A new younger generation of consumers have emerged in the 25 to 35 age-range who are well–travelled, well educated, on social media and they are the new jewellery connoisseurs. They have sophisticated appetites and are from the digital and financial sectors rather than the more traditional industrialists and their spending power tends to typically exceed the $250,000 category. They want something unique and exclusive and they want to experience that privately, hence our new Shanghai Maison.

Despite this evolution regarding age there are still relatively few women at the very top of the jewellery industry. I find society as a whole is still holding onto the expectation that a woman should stay at home. This combined with the high bar for entry with high jewellery and a glass ceiling appears for a lot of female designers and entrepreneurs. Jewellery has been a very male- dominated and westernized industry for centuries and when I started my brand in 2004 at the tender age of 30, I faced a lot of challenges especially from old-school gemstone suppliers. They questioned whether I should be, or could survive in this industry as a young Asian woman.

I remember visiting some of the most experienced craftsmen in Europe who created for renowned jewellery houses with my Black Label designs and wax models back then. I spent hours explaining my ideas and expressing my determination but when we did work together there was a lot of push back. Yet over the years they realised I’m here to stay and we have successfully fused East and West. My intention was to create a storm within the industry, lobbing a grenade at suffocating traditions so that a new mind-set could emerge embracing an Asian aesthetic combined with European craft and I hope I’ve done that.

About 10 years ago I was invited to collaborate with a host of significant diamantaires to create a piece. There were more than 2,000 diamonds comprised of different shapes weighting more than 300ct and during the pre-production meeting I looked up at the stony faces of a dozen gemstone suppliers, all of whom were elderly men. My design was clearly too bold and avant-garde to them and with their discomfort came criticism. They wanted me to change the design, to compromise but I persevered and the final jewel made its way into museums around the world. In the early days, when I had just started my brand I didn’t have the financial muscle to buy stones so the power was very much in their hands. Now many dealers are keen to cooperate and be part of my journey. Being a jeweller at this level is like playing poker. You have to go all in and you’ve got no idea if that gamble will pay off… until it does.

 

Highly decorate earrings made of large precious green stone
i 2020 Black Label Masterpiece III Green Plumule Earrings by Cindy Chao

No limits

Much of my journey can be symbolised by the metamorphosis of my annual butterfly. I have given life to a singular butterfly each year since 2008 and they represent in a way the advancement of my brand and of my commitment to craftsmanship. I have a butterfly brooch in the permanent exhibitions of The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. and also the Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris. Two others have been auctioned off at Christie’s and Sotheby’s greatly exceeding their respective estimates. I’m honoured to see them assume their own legacy.

I create one butterfly every year or every other year so this is my most limited creation. I currently have a waiting list stretching onto 2027 comprised of collectors who have all bought Black Label pieces and therefore truly understand my vision and aesthetic but most importantly, they must have patience. Just as art collectors bide their time for the right piece, so my butterflies too must find a very particular home.

The 2018 Red Diamond butterfly went to a long-time client who is also a major modern and contemporary art collector. She was interested in rare diamonds and it took me a year to find and secure a 10ct red at which point she joined the waiting list. During visits to her private art collection I discovered rare works by Franco-Chinese artists Zao Wou-Ki and Sanyu and was so inspired by Sanyu’s oriental wash painting technique and his palette, as well as the abstract lines and contours of Zao’s style that I paid homage to them in the piece.

Highly decorated brooch in yellow white and red precious stones
i 2018 Black Label Masterpiece I Red Diamond Butterfly Brooch by Cindy Chao

I feel these are part of my story as a jewellery artist and I refuse to commercialise them. It is very important to me that my collectors set no limitations in terms of cost or materials; they do not see a sketch and I demand absolute freedom. This is the expressive way I dive into a completely open space and speak about who I am. The Spirit is limitless. One of the things I have learnt during my journey is to do less, better.

I have a good friend from New York who is a very successful entrepreneur and in 2010 we were having a conversation about the nature of work. She told me she only worked four days a week and I thought she was crazy! I was 36 years old at the time, my brand was still in its infancy and I was laser focused, working round the clock to bring my vision to life. She stopped me in my tracks, literally. Leaders, she said need time to think, reflect, rest and set the right course. It was a revelation.

Then a few years ago, when my devotion had paid off, I found myself reflecting on her words. The conversation came rushing back but I had been too busy to hear what she was trying to tell me. Now I understand that thought is the next step to further breakthroughs. I look inwards, review my work and I discover the messages that I wish to convey through my creations. I’m still adjusting to fit that mentality.

The evolution of style

René Jules Lalique, the celebrated French glass artist and leading figure in the Parisian Art Nouveau jewellery movement, is my most admired historical figure. His naturalistic designs manipulating different natural gemstones to create original yet creative form are always fascinating to me and a great source of inspiration. As my works continue to evolve into a style that is more subtle, abstract and light, I feel I am part of a 21st century Art Nouveau movement.

I have recently worked on something called the Cindy Chao 15th Anniversary Capsule Collection where I revisit and re-interpret my existing motifs with an entirely new mind-set, materials and concept approach, offering a glimpse into the philosophy of what I think of as my next era. Here I used ebony for the first time within the Dragonfly brooch and I present a titanium feather brooch in a whole new way. Ebony for me is a very warm, organic wood representing Asian roots and culture.

I have also re-imagined a flower called the Diphylleia that has extraordinarily delicate pearly white blossoms that undergo a magical transformation in the rain, becoming translucent. Using rose-cut diamonds mounted at precise angles, carefully calculated to create undulations and folds for each petal, I attempt to illustrate the unique trait of each bloom as it transforms itself in the rain. Each stone appears to be floating on air, which as a process has been technically and creatively demanding. The back of each setting is meticulously sculpted, formed of interconnected and nearly invisible skeleton veins of real Diphylleia petals, allowing light to flood the jewel. My journey, like the metamorphosis of the Diphylleia is on-going.

Author: Melanie Grant | Photography: Courtesy of Cindy Chao