Cindy Chao is the Taiwanese high-jewelry designer who creates stunning, artful pieces—such as a single earring consisting of a 300 karat emerald, or a butterfly brooch designed in collaboration with Sarah Jessica Parker, layered with nearly 2,000 rare gemstones. She releases about 30 pieces per year, and once per year, she shows her new collection at Paris Haute Couture.
But Chao might be best known for her incredible, artful gem studded butterflies. Each year, Chao creates one butterfly piece.
Each butterfly takes more than 18 months to complete as gemstones and thousands of pavé-set diamonds are set on and around delicately molded wings. She is also the first Taiwanese jewelry artist to take part in a Christie’s New York fine jewelry auction and is often a fixture of high-jewelry auction and rare collections.
“Cindy has the extraordinary ability to instill strength into femininity, creating an aesthetic that is uniquely hers,” says François Curiel, Chairman of Christie's in Europe and Asia. “She takes a sculptor’s approach to the most delicate of subjects such as butterflies and floras, and with great ingenuity achieves the perfect balance of sophistication, elegance and class.”
Here, Chao tells us about her inspiration, her creative process and what’s next in her own words.
Departures: What originally inspired you to start creating butterflies? How did the first one come about?
Cindy Chao: "In 2007, I presented my Winter Branch Choker and Bangle to Christie’s New York. It was indeed a good starting point as it opened a door for me towards the international stage. Still, promoting the (then) new concept of “jewelry art” and jewelry craftsmanship was not easy in Taiwan back in those days. I was at the beginning of my career, not certain about the future of myself or the brand, and asking myself, ‘what would it be if I could create only one last jewelry piece in my life?’
I particularly thought about butterflies because they are a reminder that even the briefest of lives must be lived to the fullest."
This idea gave birth to my very first Annual Butterfly, the 2008 Black Label Masterpiece I “Ruby Butterfly Brooch”. It features a pair of irregular-cut, unheated Burmese rubies of 12.89 carats in total. The butterfly is also the first piece in which I adopted a 360-degree setting with no surface left untouched by precious gemstones. What distinguishes this first Annual Butterfly from the later ones is that it is portrayed from a side view. This creature, with a swelling and distorted form, just came out from the cocoon and aims to fly high. It somehow mirrors my mindset and my expectation of myself during the first years of my brand’s establishment: I was making an attempt to show my talent to the world and to let my jewelry art fly as high as a beautiful butterfly.
What was the inspiration for the latest butterfly—the 2019 Black Label Masterpiece?
"The inspiration for the 2019 Black Label Masterpiece I 'Aurora Butterfly Brooch' essentially comes from my family legacy, especially the architecture side from my grandfather. During my childhood I spent a lot of time with my grandfather in his studio. On his desk were always piled up blueprints and sketches of the buildings he was working on, with lots of numbers, mathematical formulas, and annotations. I couldn’t understand any of them at all, but my grandfather asked me to try to imagine how the drawings would be turned into real architectures. One of such drawings inspired the silhouette of the Aurora Butterfly, with the anodised titanium base (in blue colour) to symbolise the blueprints. The yellow diamond-drifted vein throughout the butterfly also refers to the continuation of my family heritage. This branch-like motif, which debuted at Christie’s New York in 2007, has been reinterpreted in such a way in recent years to denote my family tree.
Finally, over the butterfly are floating clusters of rose-cut diamonds in various sizes and shapes. They look firmly built on the titanium base, but at the same time look suspended in the air. Such is the architectural dialogue I intended for the piece to reflect. I want to portray my creative insight into how architectural elements may be represented in my jewelry art, and how my Art Jewels can be legitimately described as miniature architecture."
What, in your opinion, is the most unusual feature of this new piece?
"One highlight of the making of the 2019 Annual Butterfly, is the use of aluminium for the metal base of the four unheated Burmese “pigeon’s blood” rubies in the centre. It is the very first time this particular metal, even lighter than titanium, is adopted in a Cindy Chao piece, for coloration purposes. I wanted to bring out the red color of the rubies and found out through experiments that aluminium worked better than titanium in offering this bright and much saturated red hue when anodised."
What's your creative process like?
"Creating a jewelry masterpiece is a long process starting from wax sculpting, sketching, gemstone selection, to moulding, metalworking and finally setting. Every stage has its standards to meet and I never compromise the quality. Such time-consuming creation is meant to bring the work into full life. The initial stage of wax sculpting allows me to visualize the three-dimensional aspects of my works, and from this, the base of the art jewels emerges. As I carve the wax, I’m freely led by inspiration. Sometimes, gemstones are temporarily fit on the wax model to accurately calculate the final setting positions. This is an incredibly intricate process given the complex undulating lines. However, the wax technique is the only approach that guarantees perfection as the ending result—I can feel it, touch it, and view it from all angles.
Once the wax models are completed, we create sketches to help the diamond setters and master craftsmen visualize the coloration of the final art jewel. The wax models, sketches, selected diamonds and gemstones are then sent to our exclusive ateliers in Europe. The master craftsmen transform the wax into gold, silver, or titanium, chisel and polish the metal base, and go on spending months to years setting thousands of gemstones. The final setting is said to be the most challenging step as I explore the three-dimensional inlay technique to the extreme. It must maximize the brilliance of gems by taking into consideration their characteristics. The work is so precise and demanding that my craftsmen can only spend three hours a day on this task.
I travel to Switzerland and France to visit the ateliers almost every other two to three weeks. It is very important that I be there to see and feel the pieces during the process, and brainstorm with the craftsmen. It’s very rewarding to feed off of each other’s energy and ideas, and bring forth beautiful works of art."
In what other ways do you bring the idea of travel into each piece?
"I believe that inspiration is an accumulation of one’s life experiences, sensibility and passion. The energies I invest in my artworks can be said to originate from my accumulation of travel and cultural experiences. Instead of finding inspiration purposely, I let inspiration come to me at any moment in life. For example, the ocean’s mesmerising blue and green colours that greeted my eyes in a snorkelling expedition in Phuket inspired my Aquatic Collection. I’ve also felt inspiration from the splendid cliffs at sunset I witnessed in an olive yard in Majorca, and the magnificently pure white snow in Gstaad. These serendipities come at every corner of my life, fulfilling my mind and motivating my design in unexpected moments. Additionally, In the recent 2019 Black Label Masterpiece IX “Damask Rose Brooch”, one can also find direct references to my discoveries from a trip to Oman."
You've obviously designed a lot of art-worthy jewels. What's been your greatest achievement? What's been the most difficult challenge?
"The greatest achievement of Cindy Chao The Art Jewel in recent years is undoubtedly the induction of the 2008 Black Label Masterpiece I 'Ruby Butterfly' into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, at the occasion of the brand’s 15th anniversary. France is home to almost all of the high jewelry brands and houses, as well as centuries-old craftsmanship. It is an absolute honour to be the first Taiwanese female jewelry artist whose work can be found next to century-old mega brands in the prestigious Galerie des Bijoux in the museum. This event is something indicative—a genuine recognition of my work, and of all the efforts I have made until today.
The driving force behind this came from the tough challenges encountered when expanding into the Western market. It has indeed been an obstacle for a young brand from Asia like Cindy Chao The Art Jewel to build up its credibility among international collectors. We have made constant attempts and managed to make our presence on a regular basis at important auction houses and museum-calibre art fairs on the global level. It has been a long journey, and I am glad that we are here today."