Taking Flight: Cindy Chao's Bejewelled Butterflies
With a sculptor as a father and an architect as a grandfather, Cindy Chao has inherited a meticulous creative process. In conceptualising and fashioning her exquisite objets d’art, the Taiwanese jewellery artist initiates her creative process using the classic 18th-century wax sculpting technique, before crafting the final perfected design in precious metals and gems.
Her method results in three-dimensional free-flowing pieces of jewellery with asymmetrical shapes. Over the 15 years since she established her brand, CINDY CHAO The Art Jewel has become one of the world’s most remarkable independent jewellers.
Each year since 2008, Chao creates a unique bejewelled butterfly to join her yearly Black Label Masterpieces collection. She unveiled her latest in the Annual Butterfly series—the 2018 Black Label Masterpiece I “Red Diamond Butterfly Brooch”—in Paris in January. Designed for an influential collector of the Chinese-French artists Zao Wou-Ki and Sanyu, it is inspired by the free-flowing lines that dominate the artists’ work.
Guided by their use of ink wash painting, Chao opted for an unusually soft silhouette. “Both Sanyu’s and Zao Wou-Ki’s work, although very different at first glance, share one thing in common,” she explains. “Their lines are saturated with textures, stories and moods. [This] echoes with my creative philosophy in recent years and I wanted to infuse this artistic concept into the 2018 Annual Butterfly.”
The Annual Butterflies embody the ongoing metamorphosis of myself as an artist and the advancement of our techniques and craftsmanship—Cindy Chao
Only a limited number of these one-of-a-kind creations are made, and they are unveiled at invitation-only exhibitions in New York, London and Paris. “The Annual Butterflies embody the ongoing metamorphosis of myself as an artist and the advancement of our techniques and craftsmanship,” says Chao, who studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and the Gemological Institute of America.
The 2018 butterfly is a more abstract interpretation of this delicate creature than in previous years. A rare octagonal-cut fancy orangy-red diamond of 10 carats takes centre stage, surrounded by seven cut-cornered, triangular-cut diamonds. Three pairs of curled wings formed from 18-karat gold and titanium—a light but notoriously difficult material to work with—are brought to life with a hidden mechanism that allows for additional movement.
See also: Jewellery Designer Cindy Chao Makes Her Masterpiece London Debut
The top two pairs feature 180 rose-cut diamonds neatly bordering the edge of the metal to achieve a precise silhouette. This is exceptionally difficult to accomplish because setting gems on a curved surface requires great accuracy. The smooth colour graduation from burnt- brown to sunshine-yellow adds to the brooch’s ethereal appeal.
Scroll to see Cindy Chao's butterflies from 2008 till now:
With its 2,578 diamonds weighing a total of 175 carats, the Red Diamond Butterfly Brooch took two-and-a-half years to complete and is markedly different from many of its predecessors depicted in our timeline.
For example, Chao’s first museum-calibre Annual Butterfly, the 2008 Black Label Masterpiece I “Ruby Butterfly Brooch”, was far smaller and more realistic, featuring a pair of non-heated baroque Burmese rubies weighing a total of 12.89 carats. Set with fancy-coloured diamonds and colour-changing sapphires, it portrays a butterfly that has just emerged from its cocoon, evoking Chao’s own emerging artistic and professional standing.
See also: Cindy And The City: Cindy Chao
Just two years later, the Smithsonian Institution hailed Chao by adding the 2009 Black Label Masterpiece I “Royal Butterfly Brooch” to the collection of the National Museum of National History. “The awe-inspiring array of colourful and glistening gems and Cindy Chao’s masterful design combine to create a whimsically beautiful jewelled butterfly,” Jeffrey Post, curator of the museum’s gems and minerals collection, said at the time of the acquisition.
With its unique layering of rough diamonds—a breakthrough technique especially developed for the brooch—the Royal Butterfly Brooch cemented CINDY CHAO The Art Jewel’s reputation as the museum-calibre brand in the world of contemporary art jewellery.
Each year Chao’s Annual Butterfly illustrate her desire to break boundaries and redefine high jewellery. The 2012 Black Label Masterpiece I “Transcendence Butterfly Brooch” was the first to be crafted in titanium. It sold at Christie’s Geneva that year for nearly US$1 million, almost five times the estimate.
The awe-inspiring array of colourful and glistening gems and Cindy Chao’s masterful design combine to create a whimsically beautiful jewelled butterfly.—Jeffrey Post
The 2014 Black Label Masterpiece I “Ballerina Butterfly Brooch” was co-created with the actress and philanthropist Sarah Jessica Parker based on the concept that ballerinas are as light as butterflies. The brooch sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for US$1.21 million, with the proceeds going to the New York City Ballet’s educational programme.
With each passing year, Chao’s Annual Butterflies embody her personal and professional experiences. The artist’s desire to shape her destiny is demonstrated in the boldness of her work, as she portrays her own continuing transformation into one of the world’s most remarkable jewellers. She has mastered intricate sculpting and developed unparalleled skill, but it would appear her ambition has no limit, leaving no doubt that her wearable butterflies will continue to evolve as she continues to innovate.
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See also: How Cindy Chao Took On The Global High Jewellery Stage