Jeweller Cindy Chao Discusses Legacy, Celebrities And Her Debut At TEFAF
The scent of eucalyptus, the sight of glass jewellery boxes suspended from branches and the sweet sound of birdsong—these are some of the sensory experiences that welcome gem connoisseurs visiting Cindy Chao’s Tree of Life installation at the European Fine Art Fair in the Dutch city of Maastricht.
During her bold debut at this world-famous fair, commonly known by its acronym, Tefaf, the Taiwanese jewellery designer is unveiling her 2019 Black Label Masterpieces within the boughs of a leafy sculpture towering over her exhibition space. Rising tall from a solid foundation of roots, this whimsical design reflects the inspiration behind Cindy’s latest collection—her own family tree.
When I meet Cindy she is busy tapping away on her laptop in a private room tucked away behind the booth for her brand, Cindy Chao The Art Jewel.
“Come and take a look at these,” she says, beckoning me towards her screen. “Aren’t these incredible,” she enthuses as she scrolls through digital scans of blueprints of Taiwanese temples meticulously hand-drawn by her grandfather in the days long before computer wizardry.
An architect, her grandfather built hundreds of sacred buildings across Asia during his 60-year career, many of which are now treasured national monuments.
“I love studying the details in his work,” says Cindy, who preserved thousands of her beloved grandfather’s sketches after his death and has framed originals hanging on her office walls.
“They remind me of where I come from, my heritage. My jewellery designs are very architectural and people often ask about the inspiration behind them. I grew up watching my grandfather create intricate drawings and calculating angles in order to craft beautiful structures. His genius shaped the way I think.”
While Cindy credits her grandfather with giving her the mindset of an architect, it was her sculptor father who sparked her imagination. “He showed me how to tap into my creativity and use my hands to mould and sculpt my feelings and emotions into pieces of art. He taught me skill and technique but also to listen to my heart and embrace my passion. So when people ask why I became a jeweller, I feel that it wasn’t a conscious choice. It’s my ancestry—it’s in my blood.
“Let me show you,” says Cindy, closing her laptop and whisking me through a black satin curtain into her dark, dreamlike exhibition space, where a crowd has gathered to admire her exquisite Black Label art jewels, each of which is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that can take up to three years to complete.
“This Emerald Architectural necklace is very special to me because it’s a homage to my grandfather,” she says, gazing into an illuminated glass cube that contains a choker featuring a pair of Colombian emeralds of 100 and 99 carats connected by delicate woven strands of 10,000 vivid green emerald beads.
The entire 2019 Black Label Masterpieces collection honours the skills and passions passed down by Cindy’s forebears. The jeweller’s great admiration for Renaissance artist Michelangelo, for example, was inherited from her father and is celebrated in her 2019 Black Label Masterpiece VI Scultura di Giglio bangle, a spectacular statement bracelet featuring 4,428 diamonds, fancy-coloured diamonds and sapphires weighing 180 carats. “Michelangelo once said, ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ This echoes my creative philosophy,” says Cindy.
“When I do wax sculpting, my thought is always to create impeccable pieces by removing unnecessary material,” says the designer who, since founding Cindy Chao The Art Jewel in 2004, has become renowned for using an 18th-century European artisanal technique of wax sculpting in developing her designs.
Cindy continues to guide me around her magical tree display, stopping to introduce other new pieces nestled within its branches. First we encounter the Bow brooch, which dazzles with 3,600 diamonds, sapphires, tsavorites, alexandrites and blue spinels—weighing a total of 120 carats—superbly set on a delicate titanium base less than one millimetre thick.
There’s also a showstopping pair of Royal Feather brooches, which manage to be fabulously featherlight despite featuring two heart-shaped diamonds of 7 and 8.6 carats, and the magnificent Marguerite brooch, complete with an 84.89-carat cabochon emerald at its heart, fringed with diamond-crusted petals.
As we come full circle around the sturdy trunk, we find our path blocked by a line of admirers queuing to snap photos of the Architectural earrings Julia Roberts wore while presenting the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards earlier this year.
The actress, wearing a hot pink Eli Saab gown, paired the yellow-gold earrings, which are set with conch pearls and diamonds, with the Branch bangle, a bracelet in white gold encrusted with diamonds and six oval diamonds from Cindy’s Four Seasons collection.
“A week before the Oscars, Julia’s stylist called me and asked that I send a selection of pieces to her home in LA,” remembers Cindy. “I knew she was considering wearing them but I didn’t know for sure until she actually stepped on stage. I was watching in my office in Taipei and the second I saw her I just started screaming with excitement.”
An equally memorable moment for Cindy was when she discovered she’d been invited to exhibit at the 32nd edition of Tefaf. Arguably the world’s top art fair, Tefaf showcases an opulent array of treasures ranging from old masters and ancient artefacts to contemporary sculptures and designer furniture. It takes place every March in Maastricht and twice a year in New York, and has a notoriously strict vetting process.
This year Cindy is one of only 40 new exhibitors approved by Tefaf’s selection committee of 180 academics and experts, and the only newcomer added to its high jewellery section, joining esteemed names such as Wallace Chan, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Hemmerle.
I think Asian jewellery is growing stronger and I want to be a driving force behind this new wave of designers.
— Cindy Chao
Cindy is a perfect fit for such a rarefied arena. Her dazzling baubles break auction records, VIPs flock to her showrooms in Hong Kong and Taipei, and the Smithsonian loves her work so much it added her butterfly brooch to its famous gem collection.
She also has a legion of celebrity fans, including Wendi Deng, Ivanka Trump, Li Bingbing, Salma Hayek and Sarah Jessica Parker, with whom she co-designed the 2014 Black Label Masterpiece Ballerina Butterfly brooch.
“I’ve dreamed of being invited to Tefaf for more than 10 years,” says Cindy. “That my pieces are showing alongside Picasso, Henry Moore and Matisse is a dream come true.”
It’s no wonder Cindy feels like 2019 is shaping up to be the best year of her career. “Everything is falling into place,” says the jewellery artist, who will celebrate her 45th birthday this year and the 15th anniversary of her brand.
“I’m more mature in terms of my creative side and my craftsmanship, and I have the confidence that comes with age and the experience and skills to support it. I feel like this is my time.”
During her stellar career, Cindy has enjoyed a meteoric rise from Asia star to global player, and now her goal is to share that success.
“I think Asian jewellery is growing stronger and I want to be a driving force behind this new wave of designers. I want to help take Asian high jewellery to the world stage. I feel change is coming and I’m ready for the next chapter in the life cycle of Cindy Chao The Art Jewel. Like our tree, I feel we are ready to blossom.”
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