'The one who stays, wins': How Cindy Chao built a glittering jewellery label from scratch

The Taiwanese designer has had her work included in two prestigious museums but such acclaim, she reveals, comes with plenty of responsibility

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The best advice Cindy Chao has to offer aspiring jewellery designers hoping to follow in her footsteps is to not become jewellery designers.

"Don't do it," she says wryly, her face deadpan, from a small room tucked away behind her stand at March's European Fine Art Fair.

"Not because I’m afraid of competition or want to stop talent, but it’s a really heavy investment. It’s not all glory, you know."

As true as her words may be, in the 15 years since starting her namesake label, Chao, 45, has been doused in acclaim. The Taiwanese jeweller, who founded Cindy Chao The Art Jewel in 2004, has seen her pieces adorn more than just the necks of some of Hollywood's elite, such as Sarah Jessica Parker. The designer has had her work inducted into some of the world's most prestigious galleries and museums, including the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris's Palais du Louvre and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Indeed, such recognition epitomises the nature of Chao's designs, which delicately straddle a tightrope between jewellery and artwork, a freedom she has without the "burden" of working for a centuries-old maison.

"A good designer can just design something that you can sell to market. A good artist is very adventurous, very advanced," she muses from Tefaf, where 2020 marked the second year she was invited to showcase among only six jewellery brands at the Maastricht fair.

"So you tell me," she commandingly requests as she sips a coffee, crossing her black-suited legs, after being asked if she identifies more as an artist or designer.

After seeing the pieces that make up her Tefaf display, lit from just-so angles so that the brilliant gemstones seem to coyly wink upon catching your gaze, it is an easier question to answer.

The Green Plumule Brooch and Earrings, for example, taken from Chao's Black Label Masterpiece collection, are clearly works of art that just so happen to be crafted in emeralds rather than oils or paints. The brooch alone comprises 172.58 carats of emeralds, which dance across a titanium base like a feather blowing in the breeze. It's Chao's favourite piece from the five new creations she showcased at Tefaf – she even made a picture of it the screensaver on her phone, she reveals with a smile. The earrings, meanwhile, are centred around a two pear-shaped Colombian emeralds totalling 90 carats, a double act that Chao acquired a decade ago and has been waiting to use.

"It’s more courageous than ever," Chao says of her most recent work. "My craftsman was making fun of me when I threw the Colombian emeralds on the feather – he looked at me like you have no mercy at all, hey, and I was like, 'no'."

That headstrong approach might just be why the formidable Chao has her work displayed at Tefaf, alongside the stands of generations-old jewellers such as Van Cleef & Arpels.

She is a woman who hears the word no, and just carries on.

"At the time we were building it, I fought with my French guy so bad," she says of her Winter Leaves Necklace, a piece embedded with 6,000 diamonds to look like a wisp of foliage bedecked in frost. The necklaces, three years in the making, was named Best Jewellery Piece at 2019's Masterpiece London Highlight.

"First, I never compromise, and second, I really tried to push them to the limit," she recalls of working with her French manufacturing team, who have been with her since the beginning. "The detail isn't right? Then start again. It was so hard, in terms of craftsmanship and engineering, I really pushed them. It’s hard to visualise something that hasn’t existed before.

Cindy Chao has had two of her gem-studded pieces inducted into museums around the world. Courtesy Cindy Chao
Cindy Chao has had two of her gem-studded pieces inducted into museums around the world. Courtesy Cindy Chao

"My craftsman was like, 'Cindy Chao, I’ve had enough, don’t call me for two months'. One week later, he called me, like, 'what we should do next?'"

Her pieces, which are valued within the millions, do not litter the jewellery boxes of the many, but Chao is quick to point out this is not a commercial decision.

"Some people say Cindy Chao only serves the billionaires and it’s not because we’re snobbish, we just don’t make mass production," she says. "I’m not saying I’m the best, we’re just different. Actually, I really try to cut down on production, to make it even more exclusive in terms of every detail. I think nowadays, a lot of brands really lack the quality."

It is that perseverance and focus on calibre that Chao credits with helping her label, still emerging by jewellery standards, become a pioneer of the industry. The designer, who is from a family of architects and sculptors rather than fellow jewellers launched the brand with her own money. Just three years after opening her Taipei showroom, she became the first Taiwanese jeweller to be included in Christie’s New York fine jewellery auction. Another three years, and the Smithsonian came calling.

Some people say Cindy Chao only serves the billionaires and it's not because we're snobbish, we just don't make mass production

"A lot of people say look Cindy, it’s only 15 years, you’ve achieved so much – but every single day was like everybody else’s 72 hours. I really pushed myself hard and pushed my team," she says. "I’m not saying that just because you work hard you will get results but I think we are very fortunate and we really did just that."

A moment of realisation came when her 2008 ruby butterfly brooch was inducted into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in January 2020 as a permanent exhibition.

"When the chairman of Christie’s turns to you and says, 'gosh, you must be so proud of yourself' and I look at this room and it’s all big maisons, big names with more than 100 years ..." she pauses and sighs. "You are the only female, Asian jeweller and your name is next to them."

Those words – female, Asian – have come to somewhat define Chao over the years, with the jeweller often touted as the first jewellery designer in that bracket to break industry records. But does is such achievement weighted down with the pressure of expectation?

"I do feel a responsibility," she admits," but no pressure, because I never set the goal of wanting to be in the spotlight. If you really look at my past 15 years, I always push the brand, not me.

"But now I am opening up a lot more and letting people get to know me. I want to be an influence for the younger generation, to show them, 'oh, an Asian can achieve this much in the western luxury industry'."

But despite the continued recognition of her peers, Chao is determined not to rest on her laurels.

"I’m always trying to outdo myself," she says, arching a brow as she admits she's found a new confidence within as her brand approached its milestone 15th anniversary.

"I can’t say it’s a midlife crisis, but there's something different inside me. I’m going through a transformation stage in terms of creativity and as a person, too. You’re much more mature, you know what you’re capable of and what you’re not capable of. That’s why I say I so much enjoy my age now. When I’m facing something now, I really embrace it."

While Chao might be embracing a renaissance of sorts, revealing that the next 15 years will be all about growing the brand – starting with a soon-to-open showroom in London – she does have one eye on the door.

I say to my team, use me as much as you can for the next 10 or 15 years. No one stays forever, and I won't

"The pinnacle period is coming. I’m in such a good position – age, maturity, resource – I say to my team, use me as much as you can for the next 10 or 15 years," she smiles. "No one stays forever, and I won’t."

Chao might be thinking of an eventual exit plan but underneath her steely demeanour, she positively hums with energy, like an electrified barricade. It is hard to believe she will be able to switch that off and ease into a quiet retirement.

"No, the creativity never goes away," she acknowledges. "Actually, I think persistence is the best advice I would give to the younger generation. When people ask me what is the key to building a successful brand, I always say that when everybody else gives up, you stay.

"Nowadays, the younger generation are of this attitude, they easily get frustrated with the challenges they are facing. If you give up, you just don’t have a chance. The one who stays until the last wins."

And Chao, it is safe to say, is no defeatist.