Designer Cindy Chao on the link between architecture and jewellery

The award-winning art jeweller tells us about the influence her family’s background brings to her sculptural creations

The award-winning Winter Leaves necklace by Cindy Chao 
Powered by automated translation

Taiwanese jewellery designer Cindy Chao won top honours at the Masterpiece London Highlight awards this July, when her Winter Leaves necklace was named the Best Jewellery Piece of the Fair. The necklace was part of Chao's Black Label Masterpieces collection; made up of 240 carats of diamonds, the handcrafted jewel portrays a frosty winter foliage.

The granddaughter of an architect and daughter of a sculptor, Chao paid tribute to her family by showcasing her creations at Masterpiece London around a custom-created Tree of Life installation. She tells us more about her unique "art jewels", which are highly sought after by collectors and museums alike.

Taiwanese art jewellery Cindy Chao 

What is the difference between a jewellery designer and an art jeweller, as you call yourself?

There are some criteria people use to distinguish between designers and artists; one of them is functionality. Designers make daily life more convenient, either by bringing utility to existing tools or by creating new products. These are more or less indispensable to everyday life. On the contrary, as said by Andy Warhol, an artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have. These creations can indeed bring happiness, but are not something one cannot live without.

When I make my art jewels, I seek to bring my pieces closer to artistic perfection. Much attention is paid to detail, to craftsmanship, to artistry, and to the spirit endowed into each piece. This is not a functionality-­motivated process, but a creator-centred one that demonstrates my [different] personalities as an artist.

What is the difference between the Black Label Masterpieces and White Label Collection, from a buyer’s point of view?

The Black Label Masterpieces are exclusive fine-jewellery pieces [akin to] miniature pieces of art. They are original, innovative and technically challenging, and combine rare stones with exquisite craftsmanship.

The White Label Collection, on the other hand, lead new collectors to explore my vision. Classic motifs are reimagined and reinterpreted, and the White Label is therefore more varied and designed for everyday wear.

Given your family background, how would you say the principles of architecture influence your designs?

My childhood playground was my grandfather's studio and construction sites, where he would explain architectural concepts referring to his blueprints. This process gradually formed my three-dimensional perspective. I have since learnt to use my imagination in a spatial context.My grandfather also trained my eyes. He showed me the art of toning to create a palette of colours with subtle nuances. I am particularly sensitive to colour gradations, which I find indispensable in creating visual impact.

Architecture for me is therefore a mindset; it is about arranging colour, light and shades in a space governed by its structure. I think about how my “blueprint” can be best planned in order to orchestrate the hues and fiery brilliance of a gemstone in a layered, organic construction.

Take my 2019 Black Label Masterpiece IX Damask Rose brooch, for example. 

Damask Rose Brooch by Cindy Chao 

It is composed of eight richly undulated petals of varied sizes and shapes, all assembled in an asymmetric manner. A total of 1,924 diamonds, 1,504 pink sapphires and 232 orange sapphires are set on the flower; the pink sapphires alone come in 18 colour gradients. In addition, the titanium base is anodised into a wide colour spectrum, ranging from pink to gold to orange. When the light travels through them, each gem is brought to life.

Does sculpting play a part as well?

I typically start the creation process with wax sculpting. This artisan technique, once widespread in 18th-century Europe, helps me concretise my imagination and visualise the three-dimensional aspects of my art jewels. As I carve the wax, I am led by free inspiration, carving each undulation, curve and angle on the sculpture. Sometimes, gemstones
are temporarily set on the model to calculate the final positions. It is an incredibly intricate process, but the wax technique is the only approach that guarantees perfection of the end result – I can feel it, touch it and view it from all angles.

Do you prefer working with coloured stones over white diamonds, then?

In comparison with my works from a decade ago, which consisted mostly of black and white, in recent years I have become keener and keener on experimenting with different arrangements using a wide range of gemstones, both in terms of stone types and colours. The use of chrysoberyl cat's eye and pink sapphire as centre stones in my latest Black Label Masterpieces illustrate this tendency.

I have a particular predilection for the emerald. Its vibrant greenness fascinates me, and its garden-like inclusion, which is never the same in any two pieces, [is testament to] nature’s fathomless power and wonder.

Cindy Chao lists the emerald as one of her favourite stones to work with 

Speaking of your personal aesthetic, what jewellery do you wear, buy and invest in?

It may be surprising to most, but I don't wear jewellery in my daily life. Creating jewels in line with my artistic fantasy is my passion, but I am highly conscious of the fact that I am creating for someone else: for a collector's wedding anniversary, a mother's loving gift to her daughter, etc. These intimate experiences connect me as a creator with the collectors, and imprint indelible marks in our shared lives.

Can you take us through the creation process of the award-winning Winter Leaves necklace? How long did it take to create? 

Creating the Winter Leaves necklace was a long process – from wax sculpting, sketching and gemstone selection, to forging, structural engineering, metalworking and gem-setting. Every stage has its standards to meet.

The initial stage of wax sculpting allowed me to visualise the 3D aspects of the necklace, and from this emerged the base. Once the wax models were completed, sketches were created to help the diamond setters and master craftsmen visualise colouration.

An internal team of gemmologists selected diamonds of DEF colours, and VS and above grade clarity. In addition, the cut grade, symmetry and polish were also taken into consideration. Out of the 20,000 diamonds collected from major mines, only 5,992 white diamonds, totalling 240.66 carats, were chosen The wax models, sketches and selected diamonds were then sent to our exclusive ateliers in Europe. The master craftsmen forged titanium according to the wax sculpture, followed by chiselling and polishing.

One interesting aspect of the necklace is that it contains 11 intricate joints that link each component with a minuscule, flexible bolt. Although crafted in titanium, these articulations are actually lithe and supple. To enhance general wearability, their respective positions were studied and tested dozens of times.

A lot of time was later spent on honeycomb fine-tuning in order to remove excessive metal as a way to reduce the necklace’s weight and to maximise the amount of light reflecting through the diamonds. Chiselling was not easy as stones of many different sizes and colours were used for the pavé setting to keep the curvature organic and lively.

The final setting was the most challenging step as the three-dimensional inlay technique was explored to the extreme. To achieve a seamless pavé setting, master setters needed to work with a 25 times or higher magnifying microscope. So physically demanding was the work that they could only spend three hours a day on this task.

How long did it take to create?

All the technical strains and complications inevitably resulted in a prolonged production period of two and a half years. At the later stage, I travelled to Switzerland to visit the ateliers every two to three weeks.

There was a particular leaf that I demanded be redone as its curve and angle were not how I envisioned. One master gem setter said to me: “Before it was a beautiful leaf, and now I see you put life into it.” It is very rewarding to feed off each other’s energy and ideas, and bring forth a beautiful work of art.

Given the time it takes, how often do you release a collection or design a piece?

Every year, we produce about 12 to 18 Black Label Masterpieces. The number fluctuates depending on the level of craftsmanship difficulty. Each being numbered, named and dated, these masterpieces are unveiled once or twice annually at private exhibitions or international art fairs. The brand does take custom-made orders, but this is an exclusive service for our VIP clients only.

What has been the most interesting material or stone you’ve worked with, and why?

Definitely titanium for the metal base. I enjoy creating voluminous pieces, such as brooches, as they can serve as a relatively spacious platform where I am allowed to fully and freely unleash my imagination. At the same time, I believe jewellery should be wearable art. To be such, my jewels must be light. It was this desire to create large yet light pieces that propelled my team and myself to explore titanium, one of the world’s lightest alloys.

For example, in the 2019 Black Label Masterpiece III & V – Royal Feather brooches, each features a heart-shaped diamond of 7 and 8.6 carats, and are entirely crafted in titanium.

Royal Feather brooches by Cindy Chao

More than 750 pieces of sapphires in nine colour gradients and five cuts are arranged with D and E-colour diamonds. And although, they are 16 centimetres and 15cm long, the brooches weigh merely 35 and 25 grams, and are indeed worthy of being qualified “featherlight”.

Although four times lighter than gold, titanium is notorious for its hardness, and so its crafting – casting, forging, metalworking and gem setting – is more time-consuming. Any careless mistake would force the whole process to start over.

Fortunately, my European craftsmen have more than 15 years’ experience in titanium processing, and can craft the metal alongside preserving the organic, sculptural contour of my art jewels.