Stars of the Orient

Jewellery by Bao Bao Wan

Stars of the Orient

Anyone keen to add sparkle to their festive gift-giving should look East to the creations of Asia’s ascendant jewellers. We meet five designers who are going global with a deft mix of East and West.

Connections are important in the fast-emerging fine-jewellery market of mainland China. Designer Bao Bao Wan ticks all the boxes. The granddaughter of a former chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, she grew up close to the centre of political power in Beijing, but soon left for art college in New York. She then studied existentialism in Paris where she became a leading socialite. Her appearance as the first-ever Chinese debutante at the Crillon Ball cemented her unique position bridging two cultures.

Bao Bao Wan

Not surprisingly, such a contrast has become the leitmotif of her life and work. After studying gemology in Hong Kong, she set up her brand eight years ago. She immediately gained a following for her bold style, mixing Oriental motifs—including pagodas and fans—with Western design, such as pavé or tassels of gemstone beads. But the final style is more of a European take on chinoiserie, perhaps inspired by her love affair with Paris. She has designed collections for everyone from Forevermark to Swarovski and has a more accessible collection popular in the West, where she is now one of the best-known mainland Chinese designers.

Wan is one of a growing band of Far Eastern fine jewellery designers making their mark in the global market. Taiwan-born designer Cindy Chao is known for her Black Label Masterpieces, which last year included the exceptional “Ballerina Butterfly”. Designed in collaboration with actress Sarah Jessica Parker, it was sold to benefit the New York City Ballet. That such a piece could sell so well so far from the city it was benefiting says a great deal about the Far East fine jewellery market and the rising number of designers who come from that region.

Chao is a true citizen of the world, spending her time in Hong Kong, New York and Geneva. Other designers are equally global. As well as a China-based Wan, Wendy Yue from Hong Kong and Sarah Ho, raised in Macau and working in London, also have distinctive styles and approaches while enjoying growing interest and success in both East and West. Hong Kong-born Michelle Ong, meanwhile, is known for her Carnet collection with its top-quality stones and craft. her admirers include Paris-based Joel Rosenthal (JAR), famously one of the most reclusive and exacting jewellers.

Most of the designers start in the East, as the region is now a major consumer of fine jewellery, accounting for 30 per cent of global sales. Over the past decade, the Asian market has been the fastest growing: the Hong Kong and Singapore markets are extremely sophisticated, but China is catching up fast.

“Not so long ago, the Chinese wouldn’t buy anything that anyone else had owned,” says Lee Siegelson, a top New York dealer in vintage jewellery. “Now they love it if something was once owned by somebody famous and there are pictures to prove it.”

Chinese shoppers and purchasers, particularly, seem to buy pieces as an investment and Far East auction rooms are clocking up record prices for large, exceptional stones. The new wave of Asian designers are adept at incorporating such rarities into their imaginative designs that are executed to the highest standards, whether made in Europe or the Far East.

Chao’s style is perhaps the most avant-garde. Her Masterpieces involve organic, irregular, almost sculptural shapes encrusted with pavé diamonds of varied shapes and colours, set around extraordinary gems and often made in lightweight titanium as well as gold. with such pieces, the backs are often gem-set, too. They are handmade in Geneva, while her more accessible White Label range (from $10,000) is made and sold in Hong Kong, although each piece can still take up to 18 months to complete.

Her view is that “today’s world is small… Asian design style has become part of global culture. Although the Asian market has taken off in the past 20 years, Asian jewellers still have to prove the quality of their design and craft to sell in the West.”

Wendy Yue

Wendy Yue

Jewellery by Wendy Yue

Michelle Ong would agree, although her style is very different. She consciously mixes elements from both cultures, but both are always subsidiary to her overall vision. “No boundaries is conductive to good design,” she says. “My jewellery reflects my personal aesthetic—things I find beautiful from the East, West, natural world or the beauty of a special gem. Then I add something unexpected, but always wearable and feminine.”

Over 25 years, Ong has established a worldwide clientele for her creations, which can take years for her atelier in Hong Kong to complete. She is a perfectionist with an eye for the finest detail. She never lets practical difficulties stand in her way, exhorting her craftsmen to extraordinary feats in creating pieces that are often complex and jewel-filled yet exceedingly light. She established her own workshop because, she says, “I’m a control freak. I need to see every stage and detail and discuss it with the craftsmen, all of whom we’ve chosen for their superb skill. We even cut our stones and re-cut others to fit perfectly and evenly.”

She makes no distinction between Eastern and Western influences “because Oriental style has been part of Western culture for centuries”.

She often adds an abstract twist to natural inspiration—a stylised, slightly art deco-style sapphire pendant has a web of diamond stems as if viewed from below, while yellow diamonds suggested the curling ribbon on a gift box that she turned into fluid earrings.

Wendy Yue, meanwhile, is a Hong Kong designer who maintains a low profile, preferring to let her jewellery speak for her. She went to Vienna as a student and has travelled ever since. Inspired by exotic corners of the world and their wildlife, as well as her home country, her work has a universal appeal. From an elephant surrounded by jungle to a heron dipping for fish in an opal pond, each piece seems to tell a story. She does not always choose the most obvious animals—monkeys and frogs are portrayed with charm and humour—and she is known for her imaginative use of mixed coloured pavé stones, along with more traditional gems such as jade and coral. her work is perhaps the most obviously Oriental in inspiration, but this is no bar to her success in the West.

Jewellery by Sarah Ho

For one Far East designer the process has worked well in reverse. Sarah Ho was born in Hong Kong to a British mother and brought up in Macau, but went to study in London, where she has been ever since. She has built a successful business in Europe with her SHO Jewellery brand and has also set up a subsidiary company in Macau. Ho is acutely aware of the East-West elements in her make-up and uses them to her advantage. “It comes naturally to mix influences that tell the story of my life and people seem intrigued,” she says.

Her Coin collection is a playful series of interconnecting circles in coloured pavé stones, but is based on the distinctive design of ancient Chinese coins. The range is a hit in Asia for its connotations of luck and fortune—and Western-style design. Paradis, using almost Baroque curves with Oriental gold lattice work to create a bird of paradise motif, is another winner in both markets.

Ho’s business is on the cusp of expansion—she works with artisan jewellers in Italy and Hong Kong. To get this far, she says, has taken hard work and determination. This is true of all five designers and is surely—along with talent—the secret of their success.

by Avril Groom