3 Of Asia's Most Influential Jewellery Designers
From fantastic inspirations to the world’s most precious gemstones, there’s a palpable intensity to the growing pool of high jewellers that have emerged from Asia over the past few years. Hong Kong-based Wallace Chan's glittering sculptures, Singapore-born Edmond Chin’s one-of-a-kind creations and Michelle Ong's art deco-inspired designs indicate that Asia has no shortage of world-class talent, and pieces by the region’s most outstanding jewellers are proving to be record breakers at auction.
“Buoyed by Asia’s cultural and spending influence on the global luxury market, the region’s top and emerging jewellery designers are having their moment,” says Vickie Sek, chairman of the jewellery department at Christie’s Asia. “Cultural affinity has inspired contemporary jewellers to explore unique East-meets-West aesthetics, which appeal to a wider audience.”
China is the largest jewellery market in the world, with this year’s sales already totalling almost US$18 billion, according to data provider Statista. And Asia’s designers, says Wenhao Yu, deputy chairman of jewellery at Sotheby’s Asia, have an edge—partly because of the designers’ own development of their craft, and also as a result of the “ever-increasing influence of Asia’s culture and the heightened buying power of Asian clients”.
International auction houses have also been instrumental. “By featuring designs that stand out in the Asian market, talented designers are given further international exposure, which has also enhanced their global influence,” says Yu.
While these jewellers are finally being recognised internationally, their culture has long been a source of fascination to outsiders, helping pave the way for their global prominence. Just look at the role that jade has played in the journey of Asian designers. During the art deco period, the mineral, a traditional staple of Chinese decorative arts, became particularly popular in the West. Cartier started incorporating carved jade into its designs in the early 20th century, and even exhibited a China-inspired collection in New York in 1931.
“Cartier’s Tutti Frutti collection features a bright mix of colours that were first popularised in the East,” says Yu. An explosion of carved gemstones, Tutti Frutti largely consists of pinkish-red rubies, emeralds and sapphires. “In fact, today’s use of coloured gemstones, including conch pearl, pink sapphire and Paraiba tourmaline, can be traced back to eastern aesthetics.”
Jade has been associated with Chinese jewellery for thousands of years, effectively serving as an ambassador for the country’s designers. “The international appeal of jadeite has risen considerably, with creative and contemporary interpretations appealing to younger collectors worldwide,” says Sek. Last month at its Magnificent Jewels and Important Watch auction, Christie’s presented a breathtaking pair of plump jadeite hoop earrings by an unknown designer, which sold for US$1.3 million. Supported by yellow gold set with diamonds, each earring was accentuated with a single sugarloaf-cut ruby.
Taiwanese designer Anna Hu has also created heart-stopping jewellery using jade. In 2013, her Orpheus jade ring sold for US$2.6 million at Christie’s Hong Kong, breaking the world record for a Chinese contemporary jewellery artist at auction.
“A lot of jewellery from Asia is based on stereotypes,” Hu tells me. “Things aren’t as simple as, ‘Here is a dragon; therefore it’s Chinese.’ I’m more focused on the cultural and spiritual heritage of Asia, which is something that transcends generations.”
Cases in point: Hu’s koi-inspired cufflinks, which she says can be used as feng shui symbols for good luck, and her Ma Shang Feng Hou brooches, which were commissioned by private clients to celebrate their marriages. “The brooches depict a monkey and a horse, which are Chinese zodiac signs that represent the birth years of the husband and wife of both couples,” she says.
Taiwanese jeweller Cindy Chao (Photo: Jensen Hoi)
Cindy Chao’s 2019 Black Label Masterpiece I “Aurora Butterfly” brooch (Photo: Jensen Hoi)
Cindy Chao’s 2018 Black Label Masterpiece XVII “Greenovia” brooch (Photo: Courtesy of Cindy Chao)
Asian designers are now internationally sought after themselves, both at auction and in film. Cindy Chao, who designs under Cindy Chao The Art Jewel, has also had plenty of red-carpet moments thanks to Amy Adams, Sarah Jessica Parker and Li Bingbing, among others.
Chao says that she blends her Asian heritage with a western sensibility. “When people think of Asian culture, they often associate it with motifs, such as dragons or phoenixes,” she says. “As a creator, I want my jewellery to push past these cultural boundaries.”
An example would be Chao’s Majestic Beauty fan, which she designed in 2018 in collaboration with Forevermark. The piece, complete with a detachable butterfly brooch, comes in white gold and is set with 2,399 diamonds that weigh 310.27 carats. Defined by levels of craftsmanship that can add up to 10,000 hours for a single piece, Chao’s three-dimensional creations, including her iconic bejewelled butterflies, are one-off artworks.
Hong Kong-based designer Wallace Chan (Photo: Courtesy of Wallace Chan)
Wallace Chan’s Forever Dancing Butterfly brooch (Photo: Courtesy of Wallace Chan)
The ruby and diamond-set ring by Wallace Chan that was sold by Sotheby’s Asia (Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's)
Also no stranger to auctions is Hong Kong-based Wallace Chan who became the first Asian to exhibit at the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires in 2012. At last month’s Sotheby’s Hong Kong Magnificent Jewels auction, Yu paid special attention to a ring that was crafted by Chan. “Made using titanium, the ring is centred with a really impressive 8.11-carat Burmese unheated natural ruby,” he says. “It’s such a unique and contemporary piece.”
And one not without meaning: “The red- and purple-coloured gemstones Wallace used symbolise success in Chinese culture,” says Yu.
Chan left school at the age of 13 to support his family and became a sculptor’s apprentice before setting up his own workshop. He’s now one of high jewellery’s most influential personalities. “Having grown up in Hong Kong, my mind, like the city, is a melting pot. I have always been curious and enjoyed transforming my own experiences into visual representations,” says Chan. “I am grateful for my Asian roots, which come with plenty of fascinating traditions, stories and values, but I also appreciate that I’ve been exposed to different cultures. This has helped advance my thoughts, techniques and tools.”
Chan is famous for his “Wallace cut”, in which an image is carved onto the inside of a gemstone, resulting in a three-dimensional effect. He also popularised the use of titanium and has pioneered numerous setting techniques. About 20 pieces each year are made in his workshop, and the majority are snapped up by collectors who have spent years on waiting lists.
“I want my pieces to speak to people of different cultures, backgrounds and religions, but it’s also crucial that they are made to last. I want them to be part of human history,” says Chan. Creatures with strong links to Chinese folklore frequently feature in his designs but, for Chan, it’s imperative that his work stands on its own. “I don’t want my success to be based on the fact that I’m from a specific part of the world. The quality of my work should be what justifies its prominence.”
Of that, there’s no doubt. And as Asian designs continue to contribute to the rarefied world of haute joaillerie, it seems likely they’ll dramatically shape our appreciation and experience of jewellery for years to come.