Having recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary, artist and sculptor Cindy Chao believes she’s only just getting started. With a fusion of art and history being the cornerstone of her work, sculpting pieces of art is more than just a traditional practice.
By Susan Devaney
Chao refers to herself as a sculptor, not a designer – and it makes sense. ‘Through the creative process, I have many identities. In addition to being able to sculpt my ideas via wax, as a creator I have to consider the structure of the piece, the setting and aesthetic, the composition of gemstones that allow maximum lighting to pass through, the wearability and functionality of a piece. Therefore, I’m also the architect and the engineer’, she explains. For the Taiwan-born sculptor, the sculpting and architectural design process runs in her blood. Her grandfather was an architect and her father was a sculptor. From a young age Chao was trained on how to view the world in a three-dimensional way. Accompanying her father on a daily basis, she learnt about angles, form and expression. ‘My father would often comment on my projects, and share with me his words of wisdom: ‘Regardless of the subject, the final piece must be as vibrant as it is in real life. Spend time to observe the object. Pay close attention to the minute detail. And then, with your heart and soul, put into forms what you’ve perceived’ she recounts.
As much as she studied at well-respected institutes – including the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Gemological Institute of America – Chao believes it was her family’s teaching that really educated her. Living and working between Taipei and Hong Kong (she travels to Geneva for the manufacturing process) Chao designs two collections per year. ‘It took our craftsmen in Geneva two years to be able to set 4,700 of gemstones on our latest 2014 Black Label Masterpiece I, Ballerina Butterfly’, she says. The butterfly, the ribbon and floral motifs remain the firm artistic fixtures of her pieces. Surprisingly, many of her sculptures are lightweight even though the detailing is so beautifully exquisite the naked eye believes they must be heavy on the hand. ‘I insist that every piece of my art jewel is designed in 360 degrees, so that it can be savoured from all angles,’ explains Chao. By keeping the development of new gem-setting techniques in mind using titanium has been a work in successful progress. ‘In recent years we started to work with titanium, with the idea to create art jewels with grandeur and higher functionality. Titanium, as the hardest metal, is extremely difficult to be fully paved with diamonds and gemstones. The time spent to work on a titanium piece is double that of a gold piece,’ she says. This sheer level of dedicated craftsmanship is prevalent through each and every piece. This would explain why at a Christie’s Geneva jewellery sale in 2013 her iconic butterfly brooch from 2012 sold for US$954,102, nearly five times its estimate of US$210,000 to US$260,000.
After a decade, Chao has become an extremely successful independent jewellery maker. Since founding her company in 2004, Chao has never accepted any outside investors because she wants her vision to remain fluid and unsaturated. ‘There are parts of myself in each of my art jewels, making each art jewel impossible to replicate, hence distinctively one-of-a-kind’, explains Chao. In 2009, Chao’s Black Label Masterpiece I, the Royal Butterfly was inducted into the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Composed of 2328 gemstones weighing a total of 77 carats, the brooch was set with glistening sapphires, rubies, diamonds and tsavorite garnets. Citing this as one of her most memorable career moments thus far, Chao questioned the piece’s suitability to the museum with a mixture of confusion and flattery to the curator, Dr Post. In his reply, he cited the brooch’s ability to ‘ensure that generations to come may enjoy the craftsmanship of this timeless piece’. In short, it represents the 21st century.
Standing the test of time appears to be a centralised theme within the life and work of Chao. Having learnt her craft from generations before her, it’s something which she hopes to pass on herself, in time. ‘Ever since I was a child, my father and grandfather have imprinted an idea in me – true art has to be able to stand the trial of time, and only true art can transcend time and be passed on from generation to generation’, she recalls. Like the metamorphosis of a butterfly, Chao looks to create something more spectacular than the last, something that defies time.