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An Artist's Adventure

Solstice Cuff, Black Label Masterpiece VIII, 2010


Solstice Cuff, Black Label Masterpiece VIII, 2010

Next year Cindy Chao, the renowned Taiwanese jewelry designer, celebrates the 20th anniversary of her eponymous brand, Cindy Chao The Art Jewel. It is a major milestone for Chao, whose work is collected by leading museums and who was awarded the Chevalière de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by Roselyne Bachelot, then-French minister of culture, in 2021. Chao and Sotheby’s have a long history, dating back for more than a decade. In March, as part of Sotheby’s celebrations of its five decades in Asia, Sotheby’s named her its “Female Artist Extraordinaire.” Chao says: “We share two extraordinary journeys and a commitment to the world of art.”

Chao’s designs are inspired by the natural world—dewdrops teetering on the edge of a leaf, a butterfly taking flight. “Nature is my ultimate muse,” she says. Her dramatic sculptural pieces use statement gems surrounded by subtly colored smaller stones in pavé settings. She uses the ancient sculptural technique cire perdue—lost-wax casting—to create the forms of her pieces, which are embellished with stones by a team of master craftspeople based in Geneva and Paris. She has pushed the boundaries of materials, often working with titanium as a setting as well as experimenting with recherché materials such as ebony and horn.

Jewelry designer Cindy Chao

Jewelry designer Cindy Chao

“Cindy is as much an artist with her color palette of gemstones as she is a sculptor,” says Francesca Fearon, fashion and jewelry journalist. She points to how Chao’s designs express “power and femininity” with their “fluidity of forms and intensity of color.”

Chao has a recognizable style: fans of her brand cite familiar motifs such as flowers, leaves and butterflies, and her use of titanium and exquisite color compositions achieved through the complex layering of stones. But over the past few years her work has evolved and matured. She originally used titanium to make pieces lighter, but it now comes in anodized colors that enhance the stones’ beauty. Chao’s use of stones has evolved, too—creating forms that are lighter and more transparent but with greater volume and dimensionality.

Chao says she now uses fewer colors in her compositions. “By focusing on creating striking contrast and tension through their arrangement, I elevate the concept of three-dimensionality through color,” she says. The result is shading and graduation that is more delicate and visually refreshing than in some of her earlier work.

She says she now feels a sense of freedom, having grown in confidence as both an artist and a person in recent years. “I wanted so much to prove myself when I was younger. I was afraid people wouldn’t know how good I was as a designer, so I put in so much effort—adding more and more—to show as much as possible,” she recalls. “Now I try less to impress, but the impact is stronger. I enjoy the creative process—and I’m having more fun.”

There have been a number of important milestones shared by Chao and Sotheby’s. Their relationship got off to a flying start in 2011, when her Solstice Cuff, inspired in part by the creations of Antoni Gaudí and set with diamonds, rubies, pink sapphires and rhodolites, sold in Hong Kong for HK$3.6 million ($465,000), three times its high estimate. In 2013, a ruby and diamond ring set with a 8.03 carat Burmese ruby sold for HK$29.8 million ($3.8 million), setting a new record for a contemporary jewel at the time. Three years later came the Ballerina Butterfly brooch, a collaboration between Chao and her friend, the actor Sarah Jessica Parker. It sold for HK$9.4 million ($1.2 million) and the proceeds were donated to the New York City Ballet.

A Spring Cardamom brooch (part of set), Black Label Masterpiece X and XI, 2022
A Spring Cardamom brooch (part of set), Black Label Masterpiece X and XI, 2022

Chao divides her work into two main groups: a limited-edition White Label collection and one-off Black Label Masterpiece designs. She also creates a single Annual Butterfly brooch once a year to mark her progress as an artist. Her work has been acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Her designs are often described as sculptural and architectural, which is a reflection of her heritage. Chao is the daughter of a sculptor, Chao An Yu, and granddaughter of the celebrated architect Hsieh Tzu Nan. The latter designed more than 100 temples across Asia and was the chief architect overseeing the renovation of Sun Moon Lake Wenwu Temple, one of Taiwan’s most important buildings. Most temples are made of wood and elaborately painted in symbolic hues, and Chao credits her grandfather with honing her eye for color.

“The types of colors are very particular,” she says. “My grandfather made sure there were 12 different kinds of blue—bluish green, greenish blue, purplish blue, violet blue—every kind. As a girl, I wondered how he could differentiate between some of them. He really encouraged me to develop this sensitivity.”

This subtlety of tone is what Chao calls her “blueprint” for exploring light and space. “Architecture is a mindset,” she says. “It is about arranging color, light and shade in a space governed by its structure.” Last year she created a pair of Spring Cardamom brooches, which feature two Colombian emerald cabochons of around 80 carats each, set in titanium and surrounded by green, yellow and white gems. She arranged no fewer than 28 shades of green stones to create an almost painterly palette, enhancing the contours of the brooches.

a Sweet Violet earring from the Tango in the Garden Collection, 2022

A Sweet Violet earring from the Tango in the Garden Collection, 2022

Her father, while not as renowned as her grandfather, also had a profound influence. Chao is the first to admit that she’s a better sculptor than a painter. “Sketches are too two-dimensional for me. I’m more of a three-dimensions person,” she says, adding that “holding sculpting tools feels as natural as holding chopsticks.” Perhaps the biggest lesson from her father was the importance of patience and observation. Chao recalls one of his most memorable lessons. “He said: ‘Regardless of the subject, the final piece must be as vibrant as [the object] in real life. You must observe the object, pay attention to the tiniest details, and then, with your heart and soul, put into form what you have perceived’.”

Architecture and sculpture, she says, compete with each other but are also related. “You may have the hand of a sculptor, but not necessarily the mind of an architect. But if you have the ability to visualize the landscape and compose in three dimensions as architects do, you will become a better sculptor.” It is Chao’s use of form, her painterly palette and her technical mastery that set her work apart in the world of contemporary jewelry.

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