Meet the Asian jewelers shaping modern jewelry design
In Asia, the preferred place to find jewelry by new designers has always been the retail market, not the auction house. But an upcoming Christie's sale in Hong Kong is hoping to change all that.
As you might expect, jewels by venerable Western houses such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels will be going under the hammer at tomorrow's auction. But the sale will also feature contemporary creations by four East Asian jewelers who are shaping jewelry design today.
Among them is Adrian Cheng, executive director of the world's largest jeweler by market capitalization, Chow Tai Fook, and a key force behind the company's new, more modern direction. But the auction will also feature pieces by designers from lesser-known brands, including Hong Kong-based Michelle Ong, who designs under the brand Carnet; Singapore-born Edmond Chin, who designs for the Swiss jewelry house Boghossian and his own brand Etcetera; and Taiwanese jeweler Cindy Chao.
These jewelers' "bold and distinctive designs" are what set them apart, says Vickie Sek, head of jewelry and jadeite at Christie's Asia.
"We chose these designers because they are some of the most current and relevant contemporary designers today, with a very strong reputation among collectors," she says. "They are established as prominent leaders in their field."
Christie's has auctioned some of these designers' creations in the past, but Sek notes that they are attracting more interest from buyers. "These jewelry designers are internationally famed for their flair and design," she says.
"Our clients value quality and design above all, and [they] have an enthusiasm for both Western- and Asian-designed signed pieces."
A taste for rare stones
Among the sale's most valuable pieces is Edmond Chin's Palmette necklace, created for Boghossian, which is expected to sell for $3,600,000-5,000,000. The design features 11 rare 'no-oil' Colombian emeralds -- stones that haven't had their appearance enhanced by the addition of oil. It is believed to be the first time that such a large number of these gemstones have come to auction.
"You occasionally see one ring or earring," says Boghossian's chief executive, Albert Boghossian. "But a line of matching 'no oil' emeralds is almost non-existent -- [it is arguably] rarer than a pink or blue diamond."
Chin, who has been Boghossian's creative director for three years, is in fact a Christie's veteran. He ran the auction house's jewelry department from 1994 to 2000, collecting gems at a time when interest in Asia was still in its infancy. He says that local buyers traditionally sought antique pieces or turned to the retail market for newer work -- until he started bringing modern names to the auction house.
"As long as the pieces appealed to Asian tastes, they sold well," Chin recalls, adding how the appetite for modern Chinese gems today spans the globe.
"So I would dare to say I'm a pioneer in that field.""
As executive director of Hong Kong-based jeweler Chow Tai Fook, Adrian Cheng has his finger on the local pulse. But he has also helped the brand develop a more contemporary edge.
His designs move beyond the typical Chinese styles -- which traditionally only combine gold with diamonds -- to those mixing precious with non-precious stones.
"The silhouettes of Asian jewelry have transformed tremendously," says Cheng. "There's a trend for more creative design and use of materials."
A case in point is his piece in the Christie's sale: an abstract yet geometric gem suite (expected to sell for $25,000-38,000) that offers an explosion of color through its use of green tourmaline, rubies, sapphires, diamonds and gold.
The design takes its cue from neoplasticism, an artistic approach championed by Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian that favors simple colors and abstract form. This speaks to Cheng's other passion: contemporary art. A key player in Asia's art scene, Cheng is also the founder of K11, an avant-garde museum and retail space.
Art and architecture also underpin the work of Taiwanese jeweler Cindy Chao, who founded her eponymous brand in 2004. Hailing from an artistic family, Chao is the daughter of a sculptor and the granddaughter of a temple architect.
"I've always valued the intimacy of using one's hands to create," she says.
Her one-of-a-kind works have an organic, almost mythical quality. Many of them feature elaborate flora, fauna and landscapes, her signature motif.
She often creates her pieces using a block of wax. She makes intricate carvings into the wax and positions gemstones "at the best angles to maximize their color, fire and brilliance," she says.
The technique has roots in European jewelry-making, and Chao's mastery of the art has enabled her to recruit the best European gem-setters. She used the method to create her 'Snow Pea' ear jackets (expected to attract bids of $480,000-750,000 at Christie's) which are engineered from titanium and feature two jaw-dropping cabochon emeralds.
The use of emeralds served as a starting point for Chao's design. And this is an approach also embraced by Carnet founder Michelle Ong.
Her pear brooch ($150,000-230,000 at Christie's) bursts with colored diamonds and is topped with a diamond leaf pavé -- a collection of small, closely set gemstones.
"We have a lot of collectors and have managed to be in this field for almost 30 years without marketing. But sometimes it's nice to get exposure to a different audience," she says of her decision to participate in the Christie's sale.
With Asia's growing presence in the luxury sector, its jewelers have become increasingly sophisticated in turn. "They've improved and made a big leap forward," says Boghossian.
Buyers have expanded their horizons too. Chin notes that during his days at Christie's, collectors from Hong Kong and Taiwan dominated the sales, but now more mainland Chinese buyers are attending auctions, alongside the "rising tide" of Indian and Indonesian buyers.
"Participating in auctions is becoming more fashionable," observes Chin, whose work has set eight auction records. "There is this great amount of choice compared to retail."