Cover Photo: Carter Smith for Hong Kong Tatler

Cindy Chao, as multifaceted and vibrant as the magnificent art jewels she creates, is marking 15 years in the business. She reflects on the initial hardships of her journey, the landmarks of success and the very special person who has inspired her fierce determination right from the beginning

As a team flown in from around the world go about their busyness in a grand salon of a 17th-century chateau in Normandy, surrounded by gilded rococo carvings, Louis XV furniture, lavish tapestries, marble columns, bronze busts and crystal chandeliers, they’re dancing to the tune of renowned New York-based photographer Carter Smith. At the centre of the activity, looking calm and unflappable on one of the hottest days of summer, is Cindy Chao, dressed in black couture delivered personally by French designer Stéphane Rolland. 

The reason for this day-long photographic exercise, if one needs a reason to laud one of the world’s great jewellers, is that Cindy is celebrating a major landmark: the 15th anniversary of the founding of her brand, Cindy Chao: The Art Jewel. While she’s long been recognised as one of the industry greats, with a string of remarkable achievements to her name, Cindy’s journey, like most inspiring tales, has involved many incredible setbacks and sacrifices along the way to success.

Her Way To Success

“Success did not come by easily,” she says. “There were tears, lots of them, that’s for sure. It took a lot to get where I am today. Starting a business alone can be brutal, and being a single mum while doing so—it’s like a candle burning at both ends. Very few, if anyone, recognised me when I was starting my career; they didn’t give me the time of day. But I was committed to succeeding and made a considerable investment.

“At the time, though, the concept of ‘art jewels’ was not something people understood and bought into, so sales were slow and cash flow was the main concern. We were racing against time every day. Finally I had no choice but to sell my house in order to survive. But never once did I feel like giving up; I spent days on end crouched at my desk, creating.”

Concerned that the demands of her fledgling business meant she was unable to provide the stability and quality time her young son required, Cindy sent him to boarding school overseas. “I looked at my son one day and realised that I was failing to provide him with the care he deserved. And while it pained me to send him away, I knew in my heart that it was the right decision. I recall vividly when I dropped him off at his dormitory. Despite my best efforts to stay calm and look cool, I burst into tears the moment I turned my back.

“After I paid his first tuition fees, there was only US$860 left in my account. My sister then turned to me and asked, ‘How about his tuition fees next year? Can you even afford it?’ But I was resolute. I didn’t have time to think about tomorrow, nor did I have the time to look back and wonder what I could have done differently. From that point on, the only way to go was forward, like a horse in blinders just looking ahead. I was determined not to stop till I succeeded—and when I felt I had reached my goal, I would aim even higher.”

She soon achieved that goal and more—and she continues to reach higher.

From being strapped for cash, working out of her living room with only her younger sister and an assistant to help, today Cindy has beautiful showrooms in the most expensive districts in Taipei and Hong Kong, and her pieces are sought by art and jewellery connoisseurs and A-list celebrities. Her Black Label Masterpieces and White Label Collection have sold through prestigious auctions and have been exhibited at Beijing’s Today Art Museum, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and Washington DC’s Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

In 2018, Cindy was invited to participate for the first time at Masterpiece London, where her Peony brooch won the Outstanding Object award. In March this year she made her debut at the prestigious European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) in Maastricht, where she unveiled her 2019 Black Label Masterpieces, and then participated at Masterpiece London in June, where she won an award for her Masterpiece IX Winter Leaves necklace. The cherry on top was when surprise guest Julia Roberts walked on stage at this year’s Academy Awards wearing a suite of Cindy’s jewellery, which Roberts personally chose over pieces by other big industry names.

See also: Jewellery Designer Cindy Chao Makes Her Masterpiece London Debut

My grandfather was a perfectionist; he taught me the importance of perseverance and attention to detail.—Cindy Chao

Family Legacy

Between takes during our shoot, Cindy explores the chateau, marvelling at the antique furniture and sculptures in the extravagant salons. A beautiful antique mahogany writing desk catches her eye and she comments that she can imagine herself creating wax mouldings for her jewellery on it.

While she appears completely comfortable all glammed up and wearing couture, she says she is happiest in a worn-out shirt without make-up and crouched over her workbench. Even after all the success she’s earned, her love for her craft and her drive to take her designs to the next level never wane.

This passion, I discover, comes in part from a desire to continue her family legacy. Cindy grew up surrounded by creativity, with an architect for a grandfather and a sculptor for a father. Her grandfather designed temples across Taiwan, many of which are now national monuments. As well as inheriting his artistic talent, Cindy also acquired his work ethic.

“My grandfather was a perfectionist. He taught me the importance of perseverance and attention to detail,” she says. “I remember how he didn’t stop until he got the perfect shade he wanted. He was mixing paint for hours. He even got annoyed at me when I told him that people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. He persisted and, true enough, got the result he wanted. I look back to that moment and realise it was then that I learned the value of perseverance—and, imagine, he didn’t have the technology we have now.

“As I watched him try to solve the problem on his own, I also learned that the creative process can be a lonely one,” Cindy continues. “I came to the conclusion that this is how true art is born. The path is a rough and difficult one, and the creator is most likely on his or her own. And all one can do is to believe in oneself even when no one else will. This has been my mindset over the past decade.” 

Ambitions And Achievements 

I ask what is next for Cindy Chao. If she’d been asked this question in 2016, she responds, it would have been to participate at Tefaf, but she’s already accomplished that. “I’d say what’s next is the next greater, more incredible thing. Something bigger, something harder to accomplish. I look back at what we have achieved as a brand—from being a part of Christie’s New York in 2007 and the Paris Biennale in 2016 to Masterpiece London in 2018 and Tefaf Maastricht in 2019—and realise that at some point in my career I considered all of them my Everest. But we achieved them and just aimed higher. 

“It’s similar to conquering mountain peaks one after another; one’s ambition grows with experience, and one looks forward to a greater challenge. I’m well aware that the path towards the higher peaks takes stamina—a lot of it. And I know I have what it takes. These are important milestones for my brand but also lifetime experiences for me as an individual.”

As we move in the sweltering heat through the chateau and out into its expansive gardens taking the shots we have planned, I watch Cindy with astonishment and admiration. She’s in the moment but at the same time has an intensity and restlessness that I’m sure indicates she’s planning her next big move or visualising her next big piece.


The Mother-Child Bond

I’m curious to understand what drives such tireless zeal. Surely it’s not just fame or money; it must be something more precious. “People know me as an artist, as a businesswoman, an entrepreneur—and an Iron Lady even,” she says with a laugh. “But few are aware of my personal journey and the real driving force behind my dreams, and that is my son. He is by far my most prized achievement and biggest source of inspiration. 

At the age of nine he went abroad with a teddy bear and Lego toys in his backpack. I lived in fear during those early years. Every day I dreaded losing my business and failing to pay his tuition fees, and I missed him terribly.

At the age of 18, he graduated as the student body president, an honoured student and valedictorian. “At his graduation ceremony, he patted my shoulder and said, ‘Well done, Mum, you did it. This diploma is as much yours as it is mine and I could not be prouder to say that I’m Cindy Chao’s son.’ With that, I knew everything we had gone through together to get where we are today was not in vain. He is my biggest cheerleader and continues to push me to dream big.”

And therein lies the true beauty of Cindy Chao’s jewels: behind the grand visions, painstaking, meticulous craftsmanship and the unrelenting desire for perfection lies the inspiration of a mother’s enduring love for her child.

See also: Jeweller Cindy Chao Discusses Legacy, Celebrities And Her Debut At TEFAF

  • PhotographyCarter Smith
  • StylingCorey Ng
  • Stylist's AssistantSara Graorac
  • Make-up AssistantIan Lee
  • HairCaile Noble and Jérôme Blanco Martin
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