Published: 10:04, July 5, 2024
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Romancing the store
By Gennady Oreshkin

Designers of high jewelry and luxury watches everywhere seem to be in love with Chinese cultural heritage and folklore. Gennady Oreshkin reports.

This bamboo necklace by the Hong Kong brand Qeelin is an example of exquisite craftsmanship that involves chiseling pieces of jadeite into fine, cylindrical shapes. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Jewelry inspired by Chinese cultural heritage and folklore continues to shine on the international stage. The Hong Kong brand Carnet, for example, is behind the bauhinia-shaped brooch made out of diamonds, platinum and 18K yellow gold worn by Lisa Lu in the smash-hit 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians. The film’s other star, Academy Award-winning actor Michelle Yeoh, is often seen walking the red carpet in accessories designed by Cindy Chao — butterfly brooches and emerald waterfall-shaped earrings, for instance. Wallace Chan — who frequently exhibits his works at prestigious venues such as the Karen Blixen Museum in Rungsted, Denmark and the Santa Maria Della Pieta chapel in Venice — is known for his intricately crafted gem-encrusted dragonfly and cicada brooches that seem straight out of a fairy tale.

Besides these marquee names, others like Anna Hu from Taiwan, Edmond Chin from Singapore and Hong Kong’s Austy Lee have also made their mark in the overseas market with their Chinese-heritage-and-mythology-inspired jewelry. Hu, for example, was the only jewelry artist from Asia to be invited to the European Fine Art Foundation fair in Maastricht, Netherlands, in 2022. Chin made waves with his incredibly detailed landscape brooch, depicting a pagoda-roofed structure with trees and a flowing stream, carved entirely out of jade and embellished with green tsavorite, sapphire and white diamonds. Lee, on his part, has reinvented jade. In his capable hands, what is sometimes perceived as an unexciting gemstone, favored by ladies of a certain age, takes the shape of intricately carved bangles and earrings, laden with Chinese symbolism.

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Mathilde Rondouin, an art historian and a lecturer at the L’Ecole School of Jewelry Arts in Hong Kong, says that these designers are responsible for “paving the way for more high jewelry pieces featuring fantastic dragons, koi fish and butterflies bearing Chinese symbolism”. “They have initiated new techniques and gem color associations never seen before, orienting the creations toward a different aesthetic, leading to results that are both thrilling and innovative,” she adds.

Heavy, gem-encrusted motifs inspired by Chinese mythology are the hallmarks of designs by Carnet, a Hong Kong jewelry brand founded by Michelle Ong. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Christopher Chan of the eponymous Christopher Chan Jewelry favors  dragon motifs because of the powerful stories associated with the mythological creature. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Rondouin believes that Chinese symbolism found its way into jewelry designs in the 1920s — the heyday of art deco in Europe and the United States. It was a time when many “Chinese art dealers moved to Europe and Chinese elites began traveling to the West as well”. Many of the everyday objects, clothes and jewelry they brought over to their destination countries were replete with traditional Chinese motifs. High-profile design houses such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Lacloche Frères were won over by the charm of “the peonies, chrysanthemums, phoenixes, dragons and double happiness symbols”, Rondouin says.  

“Since 2000, there has been a growing global awareness of Chinese fashion,” she continues, pointing out that the theme show at the 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala in New York was called China: Through the Looking Glass, “drawing attention to the various sartorial and ornament traditions in Chinese culture”.

Today, Chinese heritage-themed events are common in the fashion capitals of the world such as Milan and Paris. Rondouin says audiences today are better informed and “more discerning about” what constitutes Chinese-ness in a piece of jewelry as a result.  

Anna Hu’s Metamorphosis bracelet was on show at the 2022 European Fine Art Foundation fair in Maastricht, Netherlands. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Chopard’s Animal World series of watches come with images of the Chinese zodiac beasts on the dial. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Though made out of gemstones sourced from Colombia and the Caribbean islands, Austy Lee’s elaborate brooch brings to mind wild Chinese orchids. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Return of the dragon

A survey of the May-June auction season, however, suggests that the love of Chinese folklore-inspired jewelry might be limited to celebrity endorsements. Collectors continue to favor large solitaire stones as opposed to the more creative designs. Noteworthy exceptions include Cartier’s vintage Le Baiser du Dragon demi-parure pendant and earrings made with rubies and diamonds strung together in the shape of Chinese characters. The piece sold for HK$139,700 ($17,880) at Sotheby’s in April.

One of the reasons why collectors are taking their time to warm up to the new range of Chinese heritage-inspired designs in the market is that the volume of jewelry sales at auctions, on the whole, is yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. As sources in Christie’s and Sotheby’s who prefer to remain anonymous confirm, both auction houses are struggling to achieve their sales targets since the pandemic happened.

Loewe’s cabbage-shaped jade pendant, part of a series launched to mark the Lunar New Year, is a hit with the young and trendy. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
The design for this rubies and diamonds pendant and earrings set by Cartier is inspired by Chinese characters. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Academy Award-winner Michelle Yeoh often wears Cindy Chao-designed accessories to red-carpet events, with the designs referencing Chinese mythology or a traditional Chinese way of life, involving a close communion with nature. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Guri Liu, chief designer with the Hong Kong brand King Fook Jewellery, agrees that over the last few years, “customers have become more conservative when purchasing luxury items, preferring jewelry made with stones and metal with a resale value”.

However, the 2024 annual report published by the Chow Tai Fook Group — a Hong Kong-based legacy brand like King Fook Jewellery, and hence sustained by a steadfastly loyal bunch of customers — reveals that the group’s Chinese zodiac-themed products, especially gold jewelry with dragon motifs, have been “well received by the market”.

Multinational brands are incorporating elements of Chinese culture into their high jewelry range as well. Examples include Chopard’s Animal World series, featuring panda-shaped diamond brooches and luxury watches with Chinese zodiac animals on the dial as well as Harry Winston’s diamond-studded wristwatch launched to mark the year of the dragon.

The Black-Necked Crane brooch from the house of Harry Winston is made out of onyx and marquise diamonds and set in platinum. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Reinventing the green stone

Jewelry designers who are relatively new to the field seem more open to experimenting with traditional materials, designs and themes. Christopher Chan, founder of the eponymous Christopher Chan Jewelry, has created rings, bracelets and pendants with dragon motifs, though the pieces are often more slimline than their traditional counterparts. “There are powerful stories associated with the dragon — it is supposed to be a protector,” he says, explaining his fondness for the mythological creature.

The range has found favor with Chan’s clients in the mature-woman bracket, especially those looking for pieces that they hope to pass on to their progeny.

Qeelin — a Hong Kong brand founded by Dennis Chan and Guillaume Brochard and with a presence in multiple cities around the world — specializes in adapting traditional Chinese material and motifs into designs targeted at a young demographic — 20-to-35-year-olds. For instance, the pieces of jadeite — an all-time classic gemstone, perennially favored by Chinese wearers — in the bamboo necklace that’s part of the brand’s Miracle Garden collection are chiseled into fine, cylindrical shapes, as opposed to the heavy feel of traditional jade jewelry.

A gold ring from the Chuk Kam Fortune Loops Collection marketed by King Fook Jewellery. The design is a reference to Chinese knots, meant to attract prosperity.  (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Wallace Chan’s intricately crafted gem-encrusted butterflies and cicadas seem straight out of a fairytale. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Qeelin CEO Christophe Artaux believes that the piece signifies taking a different approach to designing jade jewelry, which is essential for the brand’s further growth in China and beyond.

Among the heavyweights in the business interested in adapting jade for a younger clientele is the Spanish luxury brand Loewe. To mark the Lunar New Year, the brand released a limited-edition series of jade pendants. The tiny, fragile and translucent pieces come in the shapes of a cabbage, an eggplant and a snail climbing up a pea pod, and proved to be a hit with Loewe’s target audience — the young and fashionable.

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Today, a piece of high jewelry is no longer just an accessory or a financial asset. It could also serve as a repository of tales of heritage and culture. And though the luxury market is still in the process of dealing with the setbacks caused by the pandemic, evidently that’s no reason for jewelry designers — whether they are employed by major high-profile multinational luxury brands or running their own workshops — to dip into the vast pool of Chinese heritage for ideas.