Michelle Ong is not the type to flash her jewellery. When the co-founder and creative director of Carnet, a jewellery house in Hong Kong, turns up, she is jewel free – but her handbag is full of treasures. “That one was inspired by leaves,” she says of a palm-sized, multi-fronded, diamond-set brooch. It is rose cut, with each tiny stone laid in a delicate facet, a style popular in Victorian times and now a recurring feature in Ong’s work. As I inspect the brooch the hidden hinges within allow the leaves to move against each other and the diamonds gleam softly.
Ong was one of the first Hong Kong jewellers to carve out an international reputation. Her customers today include Lucy Liu, Glenn Close and Kate Winslet, all film stars (Michael Jackson also bought her gems). She characterises her design style as both bold and feminine. “I think that big can be quiet. Big doesn’t have to shout.”
Her parents were prominent and sociable doctors. As a child she remembers being fascinated by the jewellery that party guests wore to her parents’ house. She studied sociology at university in Toronto – “I never thought I would do that as a living” – and, though she had no formal training as a designer, got an apprenticeship with Siu Man Cheuk, a gem dealer. “He was old school,” she says. “That is where I learned about stones, and their properties.”
During this time she became increasingly drawn to the idea of crafting jewellery from the stones she was learning about. She sketched some earrings, “a floral design, a pair of abstract, diamond hoop earrings, something that was not in vogue at the time”, and had them made to wear herself. As soon as she wore them, people immediately started asking if they could buy them. That was the encouragement she needed. At the time, Hong Kong was an established manufacturing centre, known for carving, stone-cutting and polishing. But little jewellery was designed or made there. So Ong set up a business, along with Avi Nagar, an Israeli gem dealer: he would find the stones and she would design the jewellery. They founded their first brand, Dorera, in 1985, and then launched Carnet in 1998.
Ong’s work, especially her diamond and jade jewels, soon became known among local clients. By the mid-1990s she was getting recognition outside Hong Kong too. She has brought Western techniques and influences together with Asian inspiration. Her recurring motifs include dragons and the traditional “five elements” of Chinese philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Her work appeals to a growing client base from mainland China: “There’s an increasing pride in national heritage – cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation.” She is influenced by Western designs too. A fascination for vintage French fabrics inspired her to create cuffs and necklaces in diamonds, which resemble 19th-century organdy and lace. She shows me an egg-shaped jewel with lacework made from diamond-dappled silver and gold set with a cherry-sized Burmese ruby. She got the idea, she says, from the structure of a painting by Piero della Francesca, an Italian renaissance artist, that hangs in Milan’s Brera gallery.
Each piece is made at Carnet’s 11-person workshop in Hong Kong. Recently she has started using titanium: “Now I can control any curve, shape or volume of a jewel, giving them a sculptural quality and bringing subjects like flowers to life.” She enjoys crafting by hand: “It’s not always perfect. I like the concept of perfection in imperfection.”
Her work is now commanding high prices across the world. One private collector recently paid $6m for three anenome brooches mounted with Burmese rubies and blue sapphires surrounded by diamonds, set in platinum. She is particularly proud that she has a strong female client base: “A lot of women clients are buying a lot of investment pieces; there is no man buying for them. They are very independent women who know what they want.” Ong smiles. She knows she could be describing herself.•