Global interest in fine jewellery by a handful of Asian designers, particularly those from Hong Kong, has increased hugely in recent years. “I think they have had more of an international standing in the past five years,” David Warren, senior international jewellery director at Christie’s auction house, tells BBC Designed. This is partly due to the designers’ “natural growth”, he says; partly because of a number of international exhibitions; and also as a result of the “power of the auction houses”, as he puts it, who champion jewellers they believe in. Among the most sought-after designers is Hong Kong-based Michelle Ong, who features in a new book, Carnet by Michelle Ong.
Other names now taking centre stage are Wallace Chan, Edmond Chin (of Etcetera), and the Taiwanese designer Cindy Chao. In a Christie’s sale of Hong Kong jewellery designers in May 2017, the lots sold for a total of $12,395,771 (£9,882,776), and an emerald and diamond Palmette necklace by Edmond Chin for Boghossian achieved a world-auction record $6m (£4,783,620) for a selection of no-oil Colombian emeralds – a rare and valuable variety of gemstone that has natural clarity and is unenhanced by oil.
The jewellery house Carnet was established in 1998 by Ong and the Hong Kong-based Israeli gem dealer Avi Nagar. Ong tells BBC Designed: “I’m inspired by a mix of my Chinese roots, Chinese cultural history and European art and design; my tastes are eclectic, ranging from 17th-and-18th-Century portraiture to Art Nouveau and Art Deco jewellery and contemporary jewels by JAR. My blackened silver lace cuffs were inspired by European portraits – I was always seduced by the glimpse of lace cuffs, painted in intricate detail. Art Deco is a template for modernism, to my mind, I love the emotive naturalism of Art Nouveau; and when it comes to Chinese art, design and culture, I can be inspired by the curve of a Ming vase, by beliefs surrounding the Chinese dragon, and by the Chinese gourd, symbol of good fortune.
“Fabrics have always fascinated me, and the idea of translating them into jewels – it’s important to me that my jewellery feels comfortable on the skin, like silk, and this has been an ongoing quest for inspiration: lace, organdie, silk, or the softness of a flower petal or autumn leaf. My most important inspirations… come from the fusion of East and West.”
Wallace Chan, meanwhile, draws on his sculpting experience. “The quality of the worksmanship is exceptionally high,” says David Warren. “And no aspect of the jewel is left undecorated. Creativity is key. In the world of jewellery it’s very difficult to be new, and there can be a lot of versions of someone else’s work in the contemporary world. But certain people stand out. Wallace Chan started out as a sculptor, and created tiny sculptures which then became jewellery.” Works such as Chan’s jadeite cicada brooch are intricately crafted, and also have a symbolic meaning – the jade cicada was a symbol of resurrection and birth in ancient China.
“Chan is exceptional in his mixing of complicated metals, and some of his pieces are feats of incredible engineering,” says Warren. “You look at them and you can’t quite explain how he has done it, they’re like puzzles. For instance, he has created a lily-pond effect with clear-rock crystals.” Butterflies are a recurring motif in Chan’s work, and the designer has become known for his close relationship with the natural world, as well as for his merging of artistry with technology. The underwater universe has long been a source of fascination in Asian culture, and is still prevalent in contemporary jewellery, such as the Sea of Joy brooch by Chan – the body of the fish is created from a piece of bright opal, with crystal set on top.
Ong was commissioned by the makers of the films Crazy Rich Asians and The Da Vinci Code
Carnet pieces have frequently been seen on the red carpet – Kate Winslet and Glenn Close are among the high-profile actors who have sported Ong’s jewels, and Jennifer Garner has worn a Carnet yellow-and white diamond brooch as a hair ornament. Ong was commissioned by the makers of the film The Da Vinci Code to create jewelled pieces that were central to the film, and her work was also seen recently in the hit romcom Crazy Rich Asians. “I love the challenge of choosing, designing the right jewels for the characters, scenes, to underline the theme and atmosphere of the films,” says the designer.
Ong is known particularly for her vibrant use of colour. As Warren puts it: “There is a strong Chinese influence, and her work is very dynamic and dramatic. They are big-scale pieces, and you can tell they are by her, which makes them even more collectable.”
The designer says: “Colour is very important to me; colour equals emotion, colour and light are the emotional keys to a jewel, and so I love coloured stones. When it comes to diamonds I believe I was one of the first modern day designer-jewellers to revive the use of rose-cut diamonds – I love their soft glimmer, the textural contrast they bring to a jewel, the silky play of light and of course I love their association with antique jewellery – their seductive luminosity reminds me of 18th-Century candlelight.”
East meets west
The floating cloud is a strong motif in Orientalist culture, evoking a celestial mood, and appears in work by Ong and others. In one Carnet necklace from 2003, the clouds are depicted with white diamonds, pink and blue sapphires and amethysts in platinum and titanium. The central stone is a richly-hued tourmaline, and seems to float like a sun in the midst of the surrounding clouds. Earth, sea and sky have traditionally been central themes of Asian art and decorative arts, and continue to feature in the region’s jewellery today.
Ong says that she has been “fascinated” by clouds since childhood. “There are so many different shapes and forms,” she says. “And fast-moving changes in formations, and moods, and so much freedom in these shapes, forms and moods for a designer. I like to distil the idea and form of a cloud to its linear essence, to use this as a silhouette – with a great deal of lyrical movement.”
The pendant calls to mind Art Deco styles – European jewellers in the 1920s were hugely influenced by Chinoiserie and motifs, including clouds and dragons, along with Indian and Persian culture. “There was a desire to bring something ‘exotic’,” says Warren. “Cartier in particular, with their jewellery boxes, drew inspiration from traditional Chinese panelling, and the addition of feet. European Art Deco jewellery was all made in the Paris workshops. Their designers were told never to copy but to use ornament as ‘inspiration’. So a Chinese or Persian wrought-iron balcony, or artwork in a gallery, could provide the inspiration for a piece of jewellery.”
Flora and fruit are also themes that appear frequently in Ong’s work, from her pomegranate brooch created with rubies depicting the seeds, to a Dhalia choker necklace, to a plum created with a pink tourmaline slice, to a sparkling Giardinetti brooch depicting a vase overflowing with multi-coloured blossoms. In fact, natural motifs recur in the work of most contemporary Hong Kong jewellers. Acorns, leaves, thistles, lilies, ferns, and white lotus – symbolising purity and enlightenment – are all popular emblems.
“I think all jewellers and jewellery designers are inspired by the natural world,” says Ong. “I’m also inspired by Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings, by the idea of a feast, a table laid for a banquet with overflowing bowls of fruit. And there is something Orientalist about depicting fruits and vegetables, like the gourd, or pomegranate, pea or bean pod, in minute, serene detail.”
So are these designers finally getting the global recognition they deserve? “Yes,” says Warren. “They are hugely talented and deserve every bit of recognition they get. They have developed their styles over the years, and now there is more recognition from the West for these so-called ‘exotic’ designs, and a sense of finding something that’s unique.” They have been particularly popular in Dubai and other parts of the Middle East, says Warren. “I look forward to seeing new talent from the region, and new creations.”
The 1920s Art Deco movement was originally influenced by Chinoiserie
An Art Deco feel is evident in much of the work by the Hong Kong designers, for instance the linear silhouette of the Cleopatra long-drop earrings by Carnet. This is perhaps no surprise, since the 1920s aesthetic movement was itself originally influenced by Chinoiserie. Vickie Sek, chairman of the jewellery department at Christie’s Asia Pacific, tells BBC Designed: “In the early 20th Century, a renewed interest in Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese art offered European artists a new source of stylistic motifs.”
During the Art Deco period, jade, a traditional staple of Chinese jewellery and decorative arts, also became popular in western jewellery. The use of carved jade in the Chinese style started in the early 20th Century, especially with Cartier, which exhibited China-inspired jewellery in New York in 1913, and throughout this era, motifs associated with the East became popular, too. As Sek explains: “[The Europeans] adapted decorative elements particular to Asian jewellery, such as jade, coral, enamels, lacquer and pearls. Designs ranged from exact copies of dragons, pagodas and Chinese characters, to more liberal interpretations of Asian themes. Designers borrowed plant and flower motifs from Persian carpets and miniatures.”
Ong says: “Jade has been a constant presence in my work… right from the beginning of Carnet when I used carved jade to depict the wings of a dragonfly. Of course, jade is embedded in Chinese culture, deeply meaningful, symbolising and invoking good fortune, but it is also a heavenly material to work with. The depth and intensity of colour, the shifting translucencies, the glossy surface – it’s wonderfully expressive for carving.”
Are we coming full circle, now that Asian designers are no longer just inspiring others, but are finally being internationally sought-after in auction, and celebrated in film and fashion? “They are getting more influential globally,” says Sek. “Their designs are unique in a way that they combine both Western and Eastern flairs, and their knowledge in gemstones is profound. Their craftsmanship is also mesmerising.” And it could be said that in Asian jewellery’s new global status there is a certain poetic justice.
Carnet by Michelle Ong is published by Thames & Hudson.
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