When Cindy Chao, the Taiwanese high jeweler, was appointed a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (a knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) in Paris last month, she became the first founder of a luxury jewelry firm to receive the prestigious honor, which recognizes significant contributions to the arts or literature in France.
Established in 1957, the award, which is administered by France’s minister of culture and communication counts some of the best creative minds of the past six decades among its recipients, including author Salman Rushdie, magician David Copperfield, composer Philip Glass, actress Meryl Streep and editor Glenda Bailey.
“I am deeply humbled to be recognized by such a storied institution and to be in the company of the greatest artistic luminaries of the last several decades,” Chao tells Robb Report. “The distinction brought me an even bigger responsibility to be a bridge between East and West, to facilitate a deeper cultural exchange between France and Asia.”
That Chao, best known for her ornate, gem-encrusted brooches (the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian in Washington, DC and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris each have their very own), has been welcomed into the order speaks volumes about the quality of her work, but also about the growing appreciation for jewelry as an art form.
“My art jewel is the embodiment of traditional French craftsmanship,” says Chao, who attributes her artistic leanings to being the granddaughter of an architect and the daughter of a sculptor.
Chao’s use of French jewelry techniques has been the through-line connecting her oeuvre since she founded her label, CINDY CHAO The Art Jewel, in Taipei in 2004. Shortly after opening a private showroom and design studio in the Taiwanese capital, Chao embarked on a trip to France to consult with the country’s skilled bench jewelers.
“In the beginning of my art jewel journey, I visited some of the most experienced craftsmen in France with my Black Label Masterpiece design and wax models,” Chao recalls. “They used to work with other renowned jewelry houses like JAR. Seeing a young Asian woman like me, they were uncertain about my capability at first and I spent a lot of time to convey my vision to them, convincing them of my devotion to jewelry creation. I showed them my wax sculptures, explained to them how my creative upbringing shaped me. They acknowledged my sculptural skill and gradually accepted me.”
You could say that again. For more than a dozen years, Chao’s work has served as a platform for jewelry techniques mastered by the French—including the 18th-century technique of lost wax casting known as cire perdue, titanium workmanship and exceptional gem-setting.
“What draws me to French craftsmanship is its indelible connection to history,” says Chao. “France is the origin of haute joaillerie because of its rich royal history—one can see the through-lines of history and the lasting impact of the great craftspeople in each piece.”
To celebrate her induction into the order, Chao recently unveiled three new Black Label Masterpieces, the epitome of her high jewelry creations—including two pairs of diamond-set earrings, one featuring Colombian emeralds and the other an extraordinary combination of light brown diamonds and maplewood, and an extravagant pink and orange sapphire brooch—that were all manufactured in France and highlight her love affair with French artistry.
“The superior gem-setting workmanship found among all three pieces is the perfect illustration of this historic French technique,” Chao says. “In the Morning Dew Green Vine Earrings and the Ribbon Brooch, we have created the softest organic lines by using the hardest titanium, generating a conflicting tension to depict the vibrant life in the universe.”
Chao says the pioneering combination of wood and diamonds in her new Maplewood earrings is an example of how she approaches her jewelry creations in the same way a fine artist might work with traditional raw materials such as paint and clay.
“We worked closely with experienced French goldsmiths and adapted the traditional gold crafting technique on maplewood, a new material that we never used on our art jewels, and, indeed, is seldom applied on any high jewelry,” she says. “A block of maplewood has been sculpted and hollowed out to encapsulate the 25 carats of brown diamonds. It is a bold attempt in high jewelry creation and a transformation of a traditional technique into a modern one, which proves that our high jewelry is created using the same mindset as the creation of an art piece.”
To which we can only say oui!