Cindy Chao materialises from the fashionable darkness of her booth at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, like a panther emerging from its lair. The diminutive jeweller/artist is dressed in her trademark black, with her hair up in a bun, looking more like she is determined to cut you the deal of your life than talk about jewellery art.
The Taiwan-born Chao debuted at the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires in 2016 and is making her debut at TEFAF, arguably the world's largest art fair, which has added a modest section on high jewellery this year. It's a sign of the rising significance of Chao's eponymous brand Cindy Chao: The Art Jewel on the international stage: this, and the fact that Julia Roberts chose to wear two of her pieces to present the best picture award at this year's Oscars.
STYLE Edit: Jeweller Cindy Chao brings her Black Label Masterpieces to Asia
To hear Chao tell the story in her workroom later, they almost did not make it. "They wanted 50 pieces for the look book and I was like, 'Excuse me, I don't have 50 pieces!' They didn't tell me who it was for. About a week before the awards, I said we could send over 10 pieces," recalls Chao.
Chao and her team did not hear anything more until about four days before the ceremony (which was held on February 24) and found out they had to bring the shortlisted pieces for Roberts the day before the awards. "We didn't have time to apply for a visa and we had to go around the team to see who had a US passport so (the colleague) had to fly in and do the fitting, after which they narrowed it down to three pieces."
Still, the team was kept on tenterhooks, unsure which pieces " if any " Roberts would pick until she walked onto the stage in her stunning pink Elie Saab gown and Chao's diamond and pink pearls Architectural earrings and dazzling diamond Branch bangle. "My entire team was in Asia standing by the computer. The timing was perfect; it was a few weeks before TEFAF. Recently, I've realised (everything) has a timing. You can't really predict when it will be and you certainly can't control Julia Roberts," says Chao, who celebrates her brand's 15th anniversary this year.
Cindy Chao: the only Asian jeweller to exhibit at Masterpiece London
While the Oscar appearance gave Chao the largest platform ever to show off her artistry (close to 30 million watched in the US alone), it is certainly not the first time that she has won international acknowledgement. Her pieces regularly break records at auctions and in 2013, she became the first Asian to have a piece inducted into the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum's permanent collection.
It's also not the first time that her masterpieces have been associated with Hollywood. Salma Hayek wore one of her necklaces on the red carpet at the 2013 Oscars and the Taipei native is good friends with Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker. The two friends collaborated on a unique Butterfly brooch that was auctioned off for Parker's favourite charity, the New York City Ballet.
While it seems that Chao's sun may now be rising in the West, it has not always been that way, says the 45-year-old, who splits her time between homes in Taipei and Hong Kong, and her workshops in Geneva and Paris. As a single mother bringing up a young son, her early years were all about survival, she says.
"At that time I was a single mom and was sending (my son) Jason to one of the most privileged schools in the US. After I paid his tuition, my account balance was US$860. He was my driving force. One of the key messages that I always like to share with my team is, 'If we can survive, we can succeed someday'. So in the first decade, it was trying to survive. When people asked me where my strength and determination came from, I said, 'I really have to thank my big boss, my son Jason Chao!" she says with a laugh.
I just use the stones as much as I can! I never try to envision who is able to afford to payCindy Chao
Despite the difficulties, Chao never faltered from her original ambition to turn jewellery into art pieces or vice versa. Her pieces have always been bold and larger than life. Growing up with a sculptor for a father and a grandfather who was an architect trained her to see things in a more 3D, structural way.
Celebrity jeweller Cindy Chao's artistic earrings auctioned for almost HK$1.4 million at Sotheby's
"(Given) the way my grandfather trained me, when I want to design something, immediately in my mind I have a 3D, 360-degree picture. So since the beginning, I never went for the commercialised way. I believe jewellery is supposed to be like miniature art and that's why it was really tough in the first six years, when (my) belief was very new in the market. Even nowadays people are calculative about the price, how big is the stone, how much is it per carat," she says.
Today, she has made it easier by separating her collections into the Black Label Masterpieces and the White Label Masterpieces. When she is creating her Black Label pieces, which are priced in the millions, she throws commercial concerns out the window. "I just use the stones as much as I can! I never try to envision who is able to afford to pay. It's very much the way that I enjoy my creative work without thinking of numbers, which is good because a good piece of art should not have so many commercial considerations," says the designer who is strongly inspired by nature motifs such as butterflies and flowers. "For the White Label, I would compromise a little, like the team would say 'for the ribbon earring, we can't go over $100,000'. When I start going crazy, I stop, because there is a price point. It was also a great motto to sustain the brand."
Like any artist, Chao is also very concerned with who her pieces go to, especially with private commissions which she only takes from regular clients, which make up about 10 per cent of her business. The clients also have to expect that delivery could take any time from one to three years.
Wallace Chan, Cindy Chao and Michelle Ong have drawn international attention with their museum-worthy designs
Chao has been known to turn down a sale or two because she "didn't feel right" about it. "The difference between a good designer and a good artist is that for a good designer, you just design a product that is fit to sell in the market. For an artist, it is more revolutionary. Perhaps it takes some time to understand your work, your philosophy, your creation and you are much more advanced and you see your journey and it takes a few years or even longer for people to understand and appreciate what you do. Actually I am very curious about what I'm doing now; after 20 to 30 years, how will people define my position in the industry?" It's one of the reasons she is holding on to her independence as a brand even though investors have come knocking on her door.
The most important thing, she says, is that someone really understands her vision because it was too early for Cindy Chao: The Art Jewel to be a commercialised brand.
"I'm turning 45 this year, my son is 20 years old now, the brand is going into its 15-year anniversary, and I feel like I'm so ready in terms of life experience, maturity and confidence. And, I want to do more in the next 10 years at least. In terms of investors, I'm sure God will send me, eventually I hope, someone who really understands me and together we can build the next Central Asian brand."
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