The Story Behind Jewellery Artist Cindy Chao's Success
Cindy Chao made her first butterfly brooch back in 2008. Pocket-sized and far smaller than her more recent versions (she makes one every year), a plump pair of Burmese rubies act as centrepieces on wings lined with sparkling sapphires and diamonds. This January, that same brooch was put on permanent display at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, becoming the latest in a series of success stories that include appearances at super-high-end art fairs Masterpiece in London and TEFAF in Maastricht.
The Taiwanese jeweller creates under the name Cindy Chao The Art Jewel and has by-appointment-only showrooms in Taipei and Hong Kong. We meet at the latter—all dark wood and leather, the space is lined with bookcases bursting with heavy-set hardbacks and a framed photograph of Chao alongside actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who co-designed the jeweller’s 2014 Black Label Masterpiece “Ballerina Butterfly Brooch”.
Chao is businesslike, dressed in a tailored pinstripe blazer and white shirt, her black hair pulled back into a smart ponytail. She tells me her Connaught Road showroom took six years to design, and that she had to interview several interior designers before finding one who could fulfil her exact requirements. “I didn’t want a showroom that felt commercial,” she tells me. “I wanted an exclusive space where my clients could relax and take their time admiring my pieces. Privacy was my number one concern.” And it’s easy to understand why.
Chao designs just two collections each year—her one-of-a-kind Black Label Masterpieces, with prices topping an eye-popping US$10 million, and the more accessible White Label line. Defined by extraordinary levels of craftsmanship which can add up to 10,000 hours of work for a single piece, some of Chao’s Black Label Masterpieces are on show at Connaught Road. She carefully takes out the 2019 Black Label Masterpiece I “Aurora Butterfly Brooch” from its display case.
The insect’s body is made up of four pigeon’s blood Burmese rubies totaling 8.48 carats. Set in titanium and aluminium, the brooch is surprisingly lightweight considering its wings are drenched in blue sapphires and yellow and white diamonds. Chao is known for crediting her artistry to her father, who was a sculptor, and her grandfather, who was a noted architect. She shares a conversation she had with her father a few months before he died, during a particularly difficult time running her business.
“I can’t remember what had upset me, but when I went to him for advice, I started to cry. When I got up to leave, he told me that as an artist, he could never have hoped to achieve the level that I had already achieved.” Chao pauses and tries to hold back tears. “I didn’t respond, which is something I deeply regret. I wish I’d hugged him.
“He never got the chance to see most of my pieces. It upsets me that he never saw how successful I’ve become. He never saw me at my best. If I could wish for anything in the world, it would be a time machine so I could go back and show him what I’ve become. There are some things in life that no amount of money can buy.”
Few contemporary artists have risen to international fame as quickly as Chao, and her architectural heritage has undoubtedly played its part. She remains largely traditional and yet continues to push the envelope further and further. We can only imagine what she has in store for us next.
See also: 30 Hong Kong-Based Jewellery Designers You Need To Know
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