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A Taiwanese jeweller who’s flying high

A Taiwanese jeweller who’s flying high

Cindy Chao makes one butterfly a year. Her latest design features diamonds, rubies and – curiously – silver

Cindy Chao makes one butterfly a year. Her latest design features diamonds, rubies and – curiously – silver

Melanie Grant | November 22nd 2016

Cindy Chao grew up around construction sites, watching her grandfather, a Taiwanese architect who designed temples, carve dragons and Buddhist folklore with exquisite detail. She absorbed the influences that later emerged in her own work as a jewellery designer, where she crafted more modern treasures. Chao makes around 40 pieces of jewellery a year and she aims to make fewer, better pieces as time goes on. The butterfly is her favourite motif: in Chinese mythology it represents freedom and a better future. She has created one each year since 2008. 

“In Chinese we say butterflies dance rather than fly or glide,” says Chao. Her asymmetrical designs express that movement. They are off kilter, haphazard even, as if Gaudi had created insects. The wonky beauty of her work speaks to art collectors and she became the first Asian jeweller to be in the Smithsonian. She also sold a butterfly for $1.2m at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong to raise funds for the New York City Ballet. She showed her most recent butterfly, a diamond and ruby brooch at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris this September.

Chao tested a host of metals when constructing this butterfly and decided on silver. It was a curious choice given that jewellers usually avoid silver when setting diamonds because it has a lower melting point than gold, making it soft and difficult to work with. Silver doesn’t have the status of gold or platinum either, which means that it tends to be used only by designers who consider their work to be art. For this piece Cindy wanted the base metal to be subdued and found that the velvety texture of blackened silver worked well with her stones.

To set the stones she uses a style she calls 360 pave, encrusting her work all over with gems. As a Chinese designer she might be expected to make the piece in China but craftsmanship is still superior in France. Even in France there are only two workshops she trusts to make her jewellery. The one she chose suggested binding the parts together using 1mm screws. Welding would have damaged her masterpiece. The finishing touch was 18 carat gold to edge and layer the wings.

Chao is known for remaking her pieces over and over again before she is happy.  Her clients are used to exercising patience. This piece took 10,000 hours to complete and is promised to Pierre Chen, a Taiwanese electronics billionaire and avid art collector. Taiwan has nearly 400 species of butterfly and is known as “Butterfly Island”, so Chao’s dancing insect is going home.

Ruby Butterfly Brooch 5.16 CT Burmese unheated pigeon blood ruby, 72.04 cts white diamonds, 45.90 cts rubies. Set in silver and 18k yellow gold. Price: POA

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