Inside Cindy Chao's Debut at the Biennal des Antiquaires
"I’ve been waiting for this moment for 12 long years,” says Taiwanese jeweller Cindy Chao, sitting in a quiet corner of Restaurant Les Galeries at the Grand Palais in Paris. Just a few steps away, a crowd has gathered around her exhibition space—critics, collectors and the curious—all peering into the large glass bubbles containing her sculptural jewelled showpieces.
Wearing her go-to power suit, hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, Cindy gazes at the crowd appreciatively. The Taiwanese designer is celebrating her first showing at the Biennale des Antiquaires. One of Europe’s most prestigious art, furniture and jewellery fairs, the Paris biennale has, since 1962, been a well-known platform for high jewellers to show their works to an international audience.
Cindy, whose three-dimensional flowers, leaves and butterflies have fetched astronomical prices at auction and have featured in many exhibitions—including a permanent place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History—certainly deserves to be here. The self-confessed perfectionist describes her pieces as art jewels, with light and colour from every angle and curve, no surface left untouched by gems, and the back always as exquisite as the front. She gazes at the visitors appreciatively. “It’s been my dream to be at the biennale and when they invited me to participate, I didn’t think twice.”
The last time Cindy walked the halls of the Grand Palais as a participant was four years ago, supporting Hong Kong-based jeweller Wallace Chan as he debuted his collection. “I was in awe then that a Chinese designer was invited to exhibit at the biennale,” the jewellery artist says. “Being Chinese, we play an important role in this industry, which has, through the centuries, been traditionally led by Western designers.”
Cindy says she likes to think of herself as a bridge between East and West. “Every one of my pieces uses my energy, my passion, my light—and is then executed by master craftsmen who are mostly French, all of whom are required to have at least 15 years of experience in jewellery and gem-setting.”
Now it’s Cindy’s turn in the spotlight and she’s chosen nine impressive pieces to exhibit from her Black Label Masterpiece collection. One of her favourites is the Phoenix Feather Brooch, which shows the technical breakthroughs her team has achieved in creating jewellery with titanium.
The lifelike piece is set with 1,000 yellow diamonds weighing 100 carats and is 18cm long, yet it weighs a mere 36 grams (or seven sugar cubes). “It took us eight months to find all the stones in 26 different shades.”
Cindy says she was so inspired by the brooch that she might do a feather design every year, like her annual butterfly.
Another notable work that makes use of titanium is the Winter Leaves Necklace, which is intricately sculpted to sit comfortably on the neck, set with 6,000 sparkling diamonds (250 carats). It weighs only 40 grams—the equivalent of two macarons. The house uses an extremely complicated 360-degree micropavé gem-setting technique in which each piece is dismantled and reconstructed several times to ensure the placement of the stones results in optimal brilliance and life.
Having an artist’s perspective has helped Cindy become more forward-thinking when it comes to creating her unique jewels. The brand’s artisans combine traditional precious metals like gold with titanium to reduce weight. “I wear big pieces of jewellery, so I know how important it is for us to be comfortable while wearing them. I have to say titanium is the future,” she says.
Cindy didn’t forget to bring a butterfly, either. The Annual Ruby Butterfly Brooch, which features a 5.16-carat unheated Burmese pigeon blood ruby surrounded by 2,561 diamonds and more rubies, took almost three years to complete.
It seems Cindy has chosen the right time to present her collection at the biennale—it’s the first year since 1964 that high jewellery heavyweights such as Cartier are absent, after changes to booth specifications prompted many of the big names to withdraw. Cindy’s team, however, was unfazed: “We knew early on that there were some brands who had pulled out, but I am not one to jump on the bandwagon. This is an important milestone for me, and I joined the exhibition for my own benefit and recognition.”
Having fewer jewellers present at the biennale seems to have worked in Cindy’s favour, if the number of visitors to her booth is anything to go on. Even Dominique Chevalier, the president of the organiser of the exhibition, Syndicat National des Antiquaires, had to wait a few hours to see her. “He told me, ‘Cindy, you are definitely the spotlight of the biennale—I’ve been waiting to see you for four hours,’ to which I jokingly replied, ‘Compared to 12 years, four hours is nothing.’”
The debut is certainly another feather in Cindy’s well-decorated cap, and its significance is not lost on her. “I am amazed at how people have showed such admiration and respect for my pieces,” she says. “One of the things I’ve realised is that nowadays people recognise great work, no matter where it’s from.”
This article was printed in the November 2016 issue of Hong Kong Tatler