The Metamorphosis Of Cindy Chao
Imagine a butterfly in mid-flight, its iridescent wings spread open and dotted with tiny droplets of morning dew. Now imagine that same butterfly, in all its beauty and fragility, expressed as jewellery, a spectacular creation consisting of Burmese rubies, white and yellow diamonds, sapphires, and more rubies. It is delicate, intricate, bold and precious. It is, down to the yellow diamonds that delineate the wings, and the white diamonds of different sizes and cuts signifying water droplets, nature transformed into art through the medium of gemstones.
This stunning piece is the Aurora Butterfly Brooch, the 2019 Black Label Masterpiece from Cindy Chao The Art Jewel that was presented to an awestruck audience at last year’s Masterpiece London Art Fair.
Chao, the founder and creative director of Cindy Chao The Art Jewel, has seen her designs inducted into the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, for instance, has inducted in 2010 the 2009 Black Label Masterpiece I Royal Butterfly brooch. This year, the Musée des Arts D.coratifs in Paris added Chao’s 2008 Black Label Masterpiece I Ruby Butterfly brooch to its permanent collection.
As a student in New York, Chao recalls that she would pass Rockefeller Center every day and look into the windows of Christie’s, the celebrated auction house. She would tell herself, “It is the biggest dream of my life, if someday one of my pieces could be auctioned at Christie’s.” International recognition first came a mere three years after she opened her private showroom and design studio in Taipei in 2004.
In 2007, she headed back to New York with five pieces in her luggage, including the Winter choker and bangle from the Four Seasons collection, and made an appointment with Rahul Kadakia, now international head of jewellery at Christie’s, to present them. “At the time, I was unknown to anyone at Christie’s, and no one had ever seen my creations,” she says.
Two pieces were accepted for auction. The Christie’s Magnificent Jewels Auction in December 2007 marked Chao’s debut on the world stage, and her creations swiftly gained worldwide attention as exquisitely handcrafted wearable pieces of art. In 2016, another dream became reality when she took part in the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires.
Two years later, she was the only Asian high jeweller to participate in Masterpiece London, a leading cross-collecting art fair, where her ruby-studded Peony brooch was singled out by the 150-member Masterpiece award committee as the recipient of the Outstanding Object Award, calling it “an outstanding example of contemporary craftsmanship and great design”. She has also been taking part in TEFAF Maastricht—a major fair for museum-quality art, antiques and design—since 2019.
Now, Chao, 45, is looking to the future. “My next goal is to build my brand into a hundred-year-old brand”, she declares, “an Asian lifestyle brand.”
Chao notes that when she first started, not many people understood her meaning of “art jewels”. In the past 15 years, however, “the world has changed so quickly, with everything else being fast and automated, that collectors treasure craftsmanship that takes time to refine.”
While the jewellery landscape has historically been dominated by European brands, more and more independent creators are emerging globally to challenge the limits of jewellery design. “Among these individuals”, Chao observes, “We see a large number with Asian heritage. By bringing their unique insights and tastes to their works, they enrich the landscape of the industry.”
As a relative upstart in the world of high jewellery, Cindy Chao The Art Jewel admittedly has some 85 years to go before it marks its hundredth anniversary, but Chao has mapped out the company’s succession plan. “My heir is everyone in the company, and they are the guardians of the brand and its most important ambassadors,” she explains.
See also: The Most Influential Asian Jewellery Designers To Know Right Now
Chao comes from a family of artists: her father was a sculptor and her grandfather was an architect. She sees herself continuing that artistic legacy, defining herself as “a jewellery architect and sculptor.”
Her grandfather, she says, “shaped my mindset. He explained to me the architectural concepts and blueprints. Abstract at the beginning, this process has gradually formed my three-dimensional perspective to look at the world. I have since learnt to use my imagination in a spatial context.”
She was her father’s first apprentice, learning various sculpting skills and techniques, and “the importance of observing life with patience.” He told her, “Regardless of subject, the final piece must be as vibrant as it is real life. Observe the object, pay attention to the tiniest details, then, with your heart and soul, into forms what you’ve perceived.”
Her mother counselled her “to use my creative talent into profession that she felt was more feminine. So instead of stones and timber, I chose precious gemstones and metals.”
She continues to fashion those elements into incredibly detailed, shimmering pieces of jewellery that radiate passion and emotion, guided by three tenets that comprise the soul of the brand. “First,” she says, ‘your attitude determines your altitude.” She dreams big, and sets concrete goals for the brand that she can meet, and achieves them through a combination of boldness, discipline and craft.
Second, creativity is not limited to her creations, but extends to every detail of the company.
And third is to follow our unconventional business model—the private showroom.”
As such, she dreams big, but keeps the business small in the sense of not catering to thousands of customers through traditional retail, but only "the top 100 clients in the world".
The butterfly, a signature annual motif of Cindy Chao The Art Jewel, has become a glittering metaphor for a brand in constant metamorphosis: its beautifully detailed wings gliding through a world filled with magic, fitting in and out of the seasons, amid flowers and feathers and leaves, ready to soar towards the future.
Watch our exclusive interview with Cindy Chao in the video below and visit cindychao.com to learn more about the brand
- Photography Chiang Ming Shih
- Hair Ethan Yao
- Make-Up Ian Lee
- Styling Kevin Cheng