Designer's creativity shines through in her jewelry
Artist Cindy Chao builds her career through her notion of lifelike organic forms with a strong emotional response
As an artist Cindy Chao works with expensive materials.
She created bracelets that represent a flowing river with thousands of diamonds reflecting the light like water; she sculpted the fluttering wings of butterflies with precious stones set on titanium, a durable, resistant metal commonly known for its application in space science; and her brooches represent the rich changing colors on a petal using carefully selected jewels of different shades of pink.
The 46-year-old artist from Taiwan province was in Shanghai in November where her work was the highlight of the ART021 and West Bund Arts & Design, the city's two largest art fairs of the year. They were both held on the second weekend of last month. The designer also launched her first showroom on the Chinese mainland last month. The Cindy Chao Maison is in the historic and chic Somekh Building, a throwback to the 1920s, which is located near the Bund.
One of the few, if not the only Asian woman artist breaking into the male-dominant Western jewelers' world, Chao built her career through a distinctive style featuring architectural shapes, lifelike organic forms and the strong emotional response they inspire from the audience.
One of her creations, the Winter Leaves Necklace, won the Masterpiece London Highlight Award in the United Kingdom and was selected as "the Best Jewelry Piece of the Fair" at the Masterpiece London fair in 2019. Philip Hewat-Jaboor, chairman of the fair, said that "Cindy Chao's jewelry has a very different element: the sculptural quality, the emotional investment, the real intellectual curiosity behinds the designs, and the extraordinary combination of stones are put together in a way that no one has ever seen before".
Another piece, a Royal Butterfly brooch was inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the United States in 2010. It was the American museum's first piece by a designer from China's Taiwan province. The museum said displaying the piece as part of its permanent collection "ensures that generations to come may enjoy the colors, gems and craftsmanship of this timeless piece".
Sitting in the Cindy Chao Maison in Shanghai, an exclusive showroom designed by Dutch architect Tom Postma, Sweden artist Ingrid Donat and French designer Herve Van der Straeten, Chao shared her story on how she created her own jewelry house from the sitting room of her parents' home.
Chao's maternal grandfather was an architect, who used to design traditional Chinese temples, and her father is a sculptor. As a child she was sensitive to colors and space. "I was my father's first apprentice," she told China Daily on Nov 17. "He used to give me a piece of clay and let me play with it." The young Cindy learned from father the techniques and skills of sculpture, but more importantly it was his ideas that made the greatest impact. Whatever you create must be "as vibrant as it is in real life," he taught the daughter to "observe and pay attention to the tiniest details, before putting into forms what you have perceived".
Chao fell in love with the 18th century craftsmanship of jewelry, admiring the ultimate aesthetic pursuit. With the help of wax modeling (cire perdu), a well-designed jewelry piece could be a miniature sculpture, ready for appreciation from various perspectives.
However such perfectionism has largely been lost because of industrialization and modern business patterns.
Chao however was determined to combine her architectural mindset and sculptural skills with jewelry design, and her design using wax modeling did bring some refreshment to the industry. Some of the craftsmen she worked with in Switzerland, Austria and France, used to say that she was "a woman with steel hands in velvet gloves", because of the new difficulties and great challenges she brought into the work.
Now as her work gains more recognition, showcased at events such as the TEFAF Maastricht, worn by celebrities on the red carpets and film festivals, Chao believes her career is stepping into the beginning of long climax period. For the first 15 years of her career she was fighting a lone battle in Europe, overcoming obstacles and struggling for survival, and now she has become a mature artist, with adequate resources and platforms.
Chao has scaled the heights but is ready to keep evolving to achieve a better balance between technique and lightweight, and explore new expressions using gems as oil painting pigments.
The Cindy Chao Maison in Shanghai is the brand's largest showroom in Asia, as she believes mainland consumers are ready for her creations, as well as the connoisseur experience the showroom provides to visitors.
Collectors of her jewelry creations are discreet, though she did reveal in an interview with the Financial Times in October that 60 percent of her collectors are from Asia, and the ratio will likely keep growing.
Chao plans to open a new showroom in Beijing in the coming three years. As a Chinese woman breaking into the luxury jewelry industry dominated by big luxury companies, Chao is more than proud to introduce her brand to her compatriots in the Chinese mainland. The mainland market has lots of potential, she said, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic only "sped up my return to the homeland". The world seemed to fall asleep as fairs and events were canceled but the Chinese market is still strong and active, she said.