Cindy Chao – lady-master
I usually begin my articles with an introduction of our hero. But this time I would like to start with expressing my gratitude. I want to thank my destiny for meeting Cindy Chao, asking her questions and her honest responses.
It is very hard to remain who you are, and show yourself unvarnished, without hiding behind some images or masks, which is extremely important for artists, as it is the only way for them to reveal the depths of their hearts and bare their souls fearlessly through the creations. Only then it strikes deep chords in our hearts.
Cindy Chao creates alive jewels. When you touch them, they vibrate – literally and figuratively – as if someone's soul vibrates after you touch it. "I put a lot of feelings and emotions into my jewels," says Cindy. "I believe you!!!" was my answer.
I invite you to read the whole interview with Cindy Chao, without embellishment, regalia or titles, as well as to get to know this lady-master along with her joys and challenges.
– It's hard to create new masterpieces constantly. Where have you drawn inspiration for this collection from?
– My grandfather was an architect, and my father worked as a sculptor. I have always enjoyed creating something, especially sculpting. I have been dreaming about Biennale des Antiquares for 6 years. It was my cherished dream. So,basically, I started creating most pieces, that you can see here this time, 2-3 years ago. I told myself that one day if I have a chance to get to the Biennale, this will be the collection I'll want to present. And several years ago I started preparing for the fulfillment of my dream. So, last year, when they invited me, I was so happy, that you can barely imagine!
– Have you really prepared for the Biennale in advance?
– Yes, I have. – I was dreaming. You know, this is like everybody does: you have to get prepared for your dream moment to come.
– Which of the presented jewels have you mostly focused on?
– Phoenix Feather brooch from Black Label collection.
– Ahh, yes, the one I've touched... It's absolutely weightless!
– Yes, this brooch weighs only 36 grams. It comprises around 1000 diamonds of nearly 90 carats total. While working on it, we really tried to reduce its weight as much as possible. Except for the lightness of this piece of art, its color palette is worth mentioning – more than 30 hues of yellow diamonds were used to craft this jewel.
– What other jewels were you creating while dreaming about the Biennale?
– Winter Leaves titanium necklace with 3 oval-cut diamonds of 18.26 carats. It took us 10000 hours to crate 3D piece of art. Ruby flower brooch. Lots of them, actually.
– Well, creation is always a real challenge. As you know, we use a lot of titanium. Many jewellers use it, but titanium is not my solid point. When you touch my pieces, you cannot even visualize it is set with titanium. That is why when I work with my team, I tell to my setter, "We're making High Jewellery. Titanium is just for you to reduce weight, make it lighter, but in fine jewellery it is not supposed to be seen! The craftsmanship has to be perfect!" We want to present people the craftsmanship and design, I mean, the whole package!
Besides, I like to make big pieces and focus on big gems, and titanium helps me to create them. My jewels cannot be made of gold. You won't even be able to hold them. You should feel comfortable while wearing them all day long.
– Why do you like designing big pieces?
– Because I grew in a family, where my father was an architect! (laughing.) So, I like big things.
– Ooh, yeah... (laughing.) Is you father proud of you?
– He passed away 4 years ago.
– But you were already famous 4 years ago, weren’t you?
– Yes, but not at this stage. I think he did! I remember the last conversation I had with my father right before he passed away. He was always my mentor, my teacher, my friend, I mean, we talked about design, creation, sculpture, sculpt skills. But we never talked about personal life or feelings. One day I was so frustrated, that I needed to talk to someone. And I came up to my father.
He was like me, always worked alone. So, I entered his room, touched his shoulder, he looked at me and I started to cry. He told me to sit down, sat next to me and I had been crying for one hour and a half. I did not say a single word. Then I finished and said, "Ok, I'm done."
I was going to leave when he grabbed my hand and said, "Cindy, I am not a businessman, I don't know what to advise you. I don't know what challenges you are facing now. But you always have to remember that you are much more successful than I am. And that's what I really respect. No matter what challenges you will be facing in the future, you should always be proud of yourself!"
– Who bought your first piece?
– Actually, my mother did. (laughing.)
– I noticed that some member of jeweller's family often buys his or her first jewels.
– When you are not famous, you need someone to trust in you. Very often you first clients are your parents, sisters, in other words, your family. 2004 was a very challenging and tough year. At the beginning it was very tough. This year is my 12th anniversary. I sold all my property, which my mother had gifted to me, to set up my business.
– What does your mother do?
– She manages real estate business, inherited from my grandfather.
– Well, your mother bought the first piece. But how did you sell your first jewel to a real client?
– I think it was 2007 when Christie’s New York successfully auctioned my first pieces.
– How did you enter Christie's?
– When I was living in New York, my house was near Christie's. While going to school, I passed it by every day, and thought that if one day I become a creator and have one piece to be auctioned at Christie’s, it will be something like wow!!! So, when I finished my first collection I came to Christie’s to present it all. I met the head of Christie’s in New York, and he liked the collection. He made a very low offer. I said confusedly, "No, it is much lower then my cost." And he said, "Cindy, this is an auction house. We always give the estimation lower then the market price. You decide if you want to enter the auction or not." I was not famous, and he liked my collection. So I told him, "OK, but on one condition: you will put down my name." He looked at me and said, "Cindy Chao! Do you know that there are only two types of people, whose names we put down?! The first are big houses, the second – super famous designers.
But I am going to put your name. Because I believe in you!" That's how we started.
– And what happened next?
– After the auction I felt popular, and people started showing their interest. But I became worldwide famous in 2010, after my Royal Butterfly brooch, created in 2009, has been inducted into the collection of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Collection development was devoted to the 100th anniversary of this honored institution. A big press conference with more then 100 members of the press was held in this regard. One of the journalists asked, "Why Cindy Chao? Why living jewellery artist from Asia?" The museum curator answered, "Because this museum is one of the highest cultural institutions in the world. We are authorized to preserve the future which we believe Cindy Chao's butterfly represents. It represents the 21st century of jewellery art."
I was 36 at that time, and it made me think, "Wow! Every single piece I'll create could be seen by people in 300-500 years' time, and they should still feel fascinated. So I decided to put more energy and thoughts into it, trying to challenge myself as much as I can to make pieces more valuable."
– And how did your butterfly get to the Smithsonian’s National Museum?
It was 2009. I decided to present my collection to Bergdorf Goodman – one of the most important department stores in New York. So, the butterfly was one of the pieces. Oh, it was a funny story!
I called the head of the jewellery department at that time and made an appointment. I was so nervous. It was so important for me at that time. She told me, "You have only 30 minutes, then I have the next appointment." When she saw my collection, she canceled all her appointments and looked at me, as if asking, "Who are you? Where did you come from?" She said that she needed to make a few phone calls. Then she came back to me and added, "Someone from the press is going to call you. Make sure, you will pick up the phone." Next day I received a call from a very famous New York magazine. We made an appointment. I brought my collection, they shot it and put my butterfly on the cover of their magazine. Then I got an email from a collector, where he wrote that he was interested in my butterfly.
Then I got a call from him. He told that he was going to buy my butterfly, but I answered that I don't want to sell it, as it is the first time a jewel is on the cover of such an important magazine. He asked me what I was going to do with it. I said that one day I would like to see my butterfly at an exhibition or in a museum. He asked me whether I was sure about it.
We met, and he bought some other pieces of mine, but he still wanted that butterfly. So, 2-3 month later he called me again and asked if was sure I didn't want to sell my butterfly. I said yes again. Then he inquired what museum I liked. I didn't know what to answer. He asked about Smithsonian's National Museum. I was like, "Yeah! (laughing) But how?" This collector collaborated with that museum and put a lot of his own pieces for exhibitions. He acquainted me with the museum staff, and that's how it started...
– Marvelous! Sounds like a fairytale.
– Yeah, it is an amazing story.
– You had already been in this business for six years by that time. But what was your life like during first three years before Christie's?
– Oh, it was a disaster… I sold all the property, my mother had gifted to me, to support my business. Nobody knew me, but I was still focused on what I did. In 2004 I decided to move back to Asia. Before that I had been living in New York, working in a diamond company for a few years.
– What makes jewels so special? How do they go down in history?
– Auctions, museums.
– That's wonderful! You're young, famous and already in history!!! (Laughing together.)
– If you could choose one thing to know from your future, what would it be?
– My place in history. What people will say about my creations.
– Why do you make butterflies and why every year?
– It is just a philosophy. Remember, I told you that 2007 was the most difficult time for me. Then I thought to myself, "If it is my last piece, it should be a butterfly, because its life is short, but beautiful." So, I created my first butterfly in 2008.
– Imagine, you have only one year to live... what would you change first?
– I would work harder...much harder.
– You are the first who said it. Many people answer that they would stop working and go off on journeys.
– No, I would work harder. I want to leave my work to prove that I have been living.
– If you had a chance to invite any person, that had ever lived, for lunch, who would you invite and what would you ask him?
– It would be Antonio Gaudi. I'd like to talk to him. Many people say that my works are very Gaudi. (Antonio Plácido Guillermo Gaudí y Cornet was a Spanish architect. Most of his projects are located in Barcelona. – Author's note.)
– What piece of advice would you give yourself at the age of 18?
– Be brave!
– Name one fact of your life that would amaze people if they knew about it.
– I am a single mother and have a 18-year-old son. Can it surprise people? (laughing.)
– Oh, he's already an adult.
– Yeah, he is...You are surprised, you see! (both laughing.)
– Which piece of jewellery would you like to have?
– For myself? I don't have jewellery, I don't like to wear it. I just like creating it.
– Which jewel among existing ones would you like to be created by you?
– I would make the crown for Napoleon. He liked crowns, so I would create one for him.
– Which piece of jewellery wouldn't you ever create?
– A solitaire ring.
– But what if it's one of the best gems in the world?
– Anyway, I will put some details on it.
– Who are your main customers?
– 30% of male collectors and 70% of female.
– How we can find balance between the price and exclusiveness?
– Prices are equivalent to time and energy we put in our pieces. And it takes too much time for us to create them.
– Do you believe that jewellery has its own energy?
– But you can't be in a good mood all the time, how do you cope with it?
– If I am in a bad mood, I go to play tennis and leave my anger there. I am a tennis player. When I get back to work, I try to have positive thinking and energy. Because I believe that creator can bring his soul to the pieces.
– The earrings, which I've tried on....How did they come into being?
– When I saw these emeralds of 100 carats each, I liked them much. Frankly speaking, they weren't of the best color, but I found this light hue fresh and young.
– How are you feeling now?
– For the last six years I have been working on entering the Biennale. And here I am! I feel so satisfied! Feedback was phenomenal. God is always next to me, watching and protecting.
Cindy Chao set up Cindy Chao Art Jewels when she was 29. Now she is 42 and has a 18-year-old son. She was born in Taipei on April 12. She creates here jewels in ateliers in Geneva, Paris and New York.
Cindy Chao artfully combines design, gem and setting to create unique, exquisite jeweled butterflies – the symbol of her art and life – which I placed below according to the year of their creation.
2008. Cindy Chao Ruby Butterfly brooch
2009. Cindy Chao The Royal Butterfly brooch from Black Label collection has been inducted into The Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History permanent collection. The brooch is set with fancy-colored and color-changing sapphires (16.64cts.), rubies (8.74cts.), diamonds (19.67cts.), rough diamonds (16.63cts.), emerald-cut diamonds (1.64cts.), yellow diamonds (4.75cts.), fancy-colored diamonds (4.75cts.), and tsavorite garnets. The centerpieces of the butterfly’s wings contain four large faceted diamond slices stacked atop a pave layer of faceted diamonds, creating a pattern, which resembles the microstructure and the scale of living butterfly’s wings.
2010. Cindy Chao Crimson Ruby Butterfly brooch composed of 9.45 carats ruby main stone and major six pieces of chestnut-color gems.
2011. Cindy Chao Perfection Butterfly brooch
2012. Cindy Chao Transcendence Butterfly Brooch diamonds and sapphires. Transcendence butterfly was sold at Christie's for $952 866, which was four times bigger than its estimated value ($210 000–260 000)!
2013–2014. Cindy Chao Ballerina Butterfly Brooch, designed in collaboration with actress Sarah Jessica Parker, was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite Sale on October the 7th in 2014 for US$1.21million. Being modeled as a ballerina portraying a butterfly, the wings set with a cushion-shaped fancy brown-yellow diamond weighing 26.27 carats, and three diamond plaques of champagne hue, totally weighing approximately 47.70 carats, embellished by variously-shaped diamonds and colored diamonds totally weighing nearly 97.95 carats, the body of the ballerina set with two marquise-shaped diamonds totally weighing approximately 1.85 carats, a pear- and a shield-shaped diamond weighing 2.52 and 1.04 carats respectively, highlighted by three conch pearls totally weighing around 10.75 carats (each representing Parker’s three children), mounted in titanium and 18K white gold.
2015–2016. Cindy Chao Ruby Butterfly brooch set with Burmese non-heat, pigeon’s blood ruby of 5.16 carats, rubies of 45.90 carats total, diamonds of 72.04 carats total, presented at Biennale des Antiquaires 2016.