The jewellery world has continuously attained greater heights in the last century with new styles, materials and innovations – not unlike the wider world of art. War, depression, boom, civil and political movements have made a lasting impact on inspiration and creativity. As social order evolved and women became more independent and assertive, so did the codes of jewellery. Designers began to explore and experiment with various themes, subject matter and even materials, leading to some of the greatest and most enduring jewellery art periods in history.
The turn of the 20th century was dominated by Art Nouveau, whose sinuous forms, eroticism and use of glass and enamel veered away from conventional archetypes. During the same time, the Garland style of diamond jewels put a creative spin on the highly feminine and delicate forms of the previous centuries.
In the following three decades, the age-defining and much-revered Art Deco movement would hold sway. Between the 1920s and ’50s, jewellery design was both innovative and glamorous with the use of dense concentrations of gemstones, while the early ’30s marked the return of gold as it had become cheaper than platinum.
The Machine Age in the early- to mid-20th century was also defined by sharp, geometric patterns (think cocktail rings). Meanwhile, the West’s obsession with the exotic cultures and aesthetics of Western Asia and the Far East brought on Orientalism. This led to the introduction of Cartier’s now-emblematic panther, whose spots were earlier depicted abstractly through black onyx and white diamonds on a 1914 watch.
Among a host of advancements in techniques and craftsmanship capabilities include progress in diamond cutting technology. The favoured cut of the time was the baguette, which paired perfectly with the emerald cut for realising the period’s distinctive angular outlines. Another significant innovation was the Mystery Setting, conceived by Van Cleef & Arpels. Gemstones were placed in a system of rails and grooves in a way that no metal was visible, imbuing the stones a velvety lustre.
As the US came into its own during the ’50s Golden Age as a force in fashion and culture, so did Tiffany & Co. It hired the eminent Jean Schlumberger from Paris to lead its high jewellery studio, creating fantastical designs inspired by nature that are loved to this day. This move would be one of the elements that contributed to the arrival of the country as a centre for jewellery making, which was historically led by Europe.
While the second half of the 20th century was not considered nearly as glorious as the first, there were still plenty of bright sparks. In the anything-goes ’70s, there was the proliferation of yellow gold as opposed to white gold and platinum, which were traditionally preferred by European high jewellers. The same decade would witness Bulgari’s explosive revival of the Tubogas gas-pipe motif and the pairing of steel and gold in such designs, which was a feat considering steel has a much higher melting temperature and far lower malleability than gold. And who could forget Cartier’s increasingly stylistic and sophisticated depictions of fauna, such as Maria Felix’s articulated, transformable crocodile necklace made-to-order in 1975?
Up until now, in these early decades of the 21st century, the boundaries of jewellery are still constantly being redefined. Ultra-contemporary pieces executed with new technologies, such as computer-aided design (CAD), X-ray imaging and 3D printing, as well as non-precious materials like wood, ceramic, aluminium and textiles, have disrupted the notions of status and artistic conventions traditional in jewellery.
Regine Ngan, Sotheby’s head of the jewellery department in Asia, explains, “Technology enables more refined workmanship. Additionally, mesh-like gold weaving, carbon, titanium, glass, resin, sustainable materials and immortal flowers have opened up more doors to express creativity and beauty through jewellery.”
A prime example of innovation is Boucheron, which is known to consistently challenge conventions. It began in 1880, when founder Frédéric Boucheron took the bold step to engrave diamonds with flowers or arabesques. Today, the house has in two recent high jewellery collections used state-of-the-art materials, such as Aerogel (a material Nasa uses to capture stardust in space) and a holographic rainbow-hued material used to coat airport runway lights.
What else could collectively define the high jewellery of this century? While there is no definitive answer yet, it seems that this brave new age will be informed by the past and the present. Says Benoît Repellin, Phillips’ worldwide head of jewellery, “Inspiration takes on different forms. We’re all shaped by our history – what came before us and what is around us. Some jewellery designers use nature as an important source of inspiration, others put the accent on colours and forms, while some look to previous periods and add a contemporary twist or reappropriate the style and language that was once used.”
Attributing the wide array of styles to a virtually connected world is Stewart Young, Bonhams’ director of jewellery and Asia’s head of jewellery: “We’re only at the first portion of the 21st century, but with the internet connecting the world, jewellery design is a mixture of everything. There are just too many out there, so I can’t tell you if one style stands out now.”
Ngan believes that individualism is at the core of it: “It’s all about surpassing traditional jewellery making. Self-expression through jewellery is what defines personal taste in the 21st century. As the pandemic eases off globally, there’s this energy and new perspective on life. Many houses are reshaping their uniqueness through their brand identity, a form of self-expression that we can relate to. Designers are now bolder and more daring with new materials and techniques.”
Size also matters, according to Musée des Arts Décoratifs’ chief curator Dominique Forest and assistant curator Karine Lacquemant: “The great creative freedom and imposing sizes of the pieces are hallmarks of the 21st century.”
A jeweller that has kept up with the times is Cartier. In its Beautés du Monde high jewellery collection, the maison presents dramatic pieces that can be interpreted as figurative or abstract, leaving the assessment to the wearer’s imagination. New colour combinations, unique cuts and unusual settings prove that the house isn’t bound by traditions.
Repellin emphasises the importance of reinvention at jewellery houses: “How will the next generation look back at the beginning of the 21st century and date the jewels? Maisons must also fit in the century and bring some contemporary vocabulary into jewellery. They need to be faithful to their history, and clients should be able to tell where the piece is coming from. Instead of just revisiting successful historic designs, maisons must participate in the history of jewellery of the 21st century.”
While there is a large pool of modern talents, there are a select few believed to be stalwarts of 21st century jewellery art. The happy fact is that they hail from all over the globe and offer a fascinating range of forms, approaches and perspectives. Aside from Bhagat, Feng J, Boghossian, Ana Khouri and Lily Gabriella, other names that experts Ngan, Repellin and Young single out are Wallace Chan, Cindy Chao, Hemmerle and Michelle Ong of Carnet. Of course, one would not discuss contemporary jewels without first mentioning JAR. Here are some of their stories.
Jewels by JAR
One jeweller at the forefront of this new era is Joel Arthur Rosenthal, or JAR. Hailed as “the Faberge of our time” by Diane von Furstenberg, the Bronx-born, Paris-based designer’s unorthodox and never-before-seen pieces have been upturning pre-conceived notions of high jewellery since the late ’70s. The New York Times described his works as “belligerent, stubborn, audacious, funny and contradictory”, while the man himself has characterised his own work as “somewhere between geometry and a bouquet of flowers”.
Inspired mostly by nature and science, JAR is known to select gems for colours over their intrinsic values and is renowned for his painterly approach with them. His knack for playing with colour and gemstones sees him turning them upside down or mixing precious stones with less conventional ones. He also introduced non-traditional materials like resin, while his quest for lighter materials led him to be the first designer to incorporate titanium in high jewellery. JAR also has a penchant for pavé with settings so finely wrought that they are virtually invisible, as well as colour gradations from subtle to vivid.
Producing just 100 to 120 pieces a year with his small team of artisans in France and Geneva, JAR only creates pieces for a small client base and doesn’t advertise. In 2013, he became the first and only living jeweller to hold a retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to this
day, his one-of-a-kind creations are highly sought-after by collectors worldwide.
Born in 1956, Fuzhou-native Wallace Chan moved to Hong Kong at age five. Growing up in extreme poverty, he dropped out of school at 11 and started working odd jobs to support his family. But it was in 1973, when Chan apprenticed as a gemstone carver, that he found his calling. Nine months later, the then 17-year-old jewellery artist founded his own gem carving workshop with a small loan from his father.
Since then, Chan has designed many tools that have enabled him to develop unique techniques, the most significant being the Wallace Cut. Inspired by double exposure photography, Chan took 13 years to perfect the technique. Executed in water with a modified dentist’s drill to minimise heat and damage, he creates an intaglio of a single, finely detailed three-dimensional face or figure on the back of a transparent gem. Combined with the faceting of the gem, this results in a surreal image of multiple reflections of the intricate artwork.
According to Chan, “a life without innovation is a life without future and security”. This led to another proprietary technique, the Wallace Chan Porcelain. Taking over seven years to conceive, the material is five times stronger than steel and boasts a rich colour, intense lustre and a contemporary spirit. A ring named New Generation, the very first piece created with Wallace Chan Porcelain, was inducted into the permanent collection of the British Museum in 2019 as the first contemporary jewellery art creation by a Chinese artist.
Chan is a master in colouring and manipulating titanium into wearable sculpted art pieces. He’s also patented a jade refining and brightening technique that sees light racing and pulsating along the material’s surface. The 66-year-old’s creations are not just a reflection of his dedication to the craft, but also his Zen Buddhist philosophy. Tales or poems from ancient Chinese folklore are Chan’s other sources of inspiration as well.
The designer adds: “It may be too early for me to define the 21st century. There are 78 years to go and only history will tell. I certainly hope to live to see the end of the century and work until my very last breath. The creative process is all I live for, and material innovation will continue to be an important part of my journey.”
Cindy Chao The Art Jewel
Grand-daughter of a famous architect and daughter of a sculptor, Cindy Chao is reputed for her statement works of art coveted by collectors. The contemporary high jewellery artisan founded Cindy Chao The Art Jewel in 2004, creating exquisite pieces that embody three essential qualities: architectural, sculptural and organic.
Highly regarded for her 19th-century cire perdue or wax-sculpting technique, a rare technique in which metals are cast from an artist’s sculpture, Chao has been dubbed by critics as an important jeweller of Nouveau New – a term that describes this century’s contemporary high jewellery movement.
“I think this is very high praise, but it also represents a heavy responsibility. How do we continue to write new chapters in the history of jewellery and become a role model for Asian society in the next few decades?” Chao asks.
Thanks to the use of the lightweight titanium and aluminium in addition to precious metals, Chao’s jewels are not only spectacular, but are articulated and extremely wearable. The 47-year-old is the first Asian jewellery artist to have pieces inducted into permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the US (2013), the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in France (2020), and the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK (2021).
Forest and Lacquemant of Musée des Arts Décoratifs have this to say: “Cindy Chao certainly embodies a renewal and continuity in the field of haute joallierie. Her naturalistic themes and the quality of her workmanship are in line with what has made the success and reputation of French jewellery.”
Explaining her creative philosophy, Chao says, “I realised that my pieces will be seen after 300 or 500 years, so the process of creation involves examining the present from the perspective of the future. Always thinking ahead of time is what defines 21st century jewellery.”
Founded in 1893, this fourth-generation family business is now helmed by Christian and Yasmin Hemmerle. It was an avant-garde ring created in 1995 by Christian’s father, Stefan, that sparked a change in the house’s stylistic trajectory. Featuring a diamond set in textured iron instead of gold or platinum, the combination of a “common” metal with a precious stone was unusual, yet the dark iron band enhanced the diamond’s sparkle. This striking modernity ushered in a new era to Hemmerle’s creative vocabulary.
The Munich jeweller distinguishes itself by creating inventive, original pieces. While minimalistic forms with strong, clean lines take centre stage, details that set the house apart include the use of threads in contrasting colours for beadwork. “We create rare jewels for the everyday that focus on design integrity and wearability. We don’t have seasonal collections, and the use of non-precious metals and materials is not tied to a specific period in time, but instead, is a common thread throughout all our creations. The family searches for special and unusual stones, sometimes waiting years to find the perfect match. Taking up to 500 hours to complete, each piece is defined by the slow-making process at our workshop, shaped through iterative sketches and then handcrafted in Hemmerle’s atelier,” elaborates Yasmin.
Among the many design elements that are distinctively Hemmerle are the innovative use of aluminium and copper, rare material combinations and unconventional settings of stones, such as reverse-set or with tension, as well as a knitted beading technique.
Christian adds: “Jewellery in our eyes is an art form that transcends time and becomes a signifier of one’s mindset and aesthetics. What we aim to achieve with our jewels is to capture the time we’re living in. Our collective experiences as a family constitute our driving force for creativity.”
Carnet designer and director Michelle Ong’s sumptuous pieces have been described as “mouth-watering” by her close friend JAR. Founded in 1985 with Israeli gem dealer Avi Nagar, Ong is hailed as one of China’s most acclaimed jewellery talents. “I think Carnet jewels were the first to truly cross-fertilise the East and West, signalling the massive new interest in jewellery in Asia. I’ve always fused Eastern influences, themes and traditions that pay homage to my roots with Western inspirations, particularly European art and the best of European craftsmanship. For this reason, Carnet jewels have an authenticity and a level of artistry that I believe sets them apart,” she explains.
Ong’s creations are distinguished by their intense femininity, hand-craftsmanship, bold scale and volumes, intricate sculptural modelling, and complex figurative forms. They include floral and fruit designs, Chinese motifs, and “lace” necklaces inspired by her love of textiles. She also has an affinity for rose-cut diamonds as they “capture the delicacy of fabrics”.
On her perspective of what 21st century jewellery art is, she says, “Colour, especially with the vast choice of gems, as well as stones that have previously been neglected and newly discovered varieties, have given jewellers an unprecedented palette of colour and light. Other hallmarks of 21st century jewellery are unfettered creativity and imagination, which go hand in hand with storytelling.” She also highlights the use of innovative technology
and new materials – notably titanium, which contributes to the rush of colour.
This story first appeared in the Oct 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.
The post What defines jewellery art in the 21st century? Experts, insiders and artists weigh in appeared first on Prestige Online - Singapore.