Constructing a legacy: In conversation with Francesca Grima

“I only design jewellery that I would want to wear myself and I lead an incredibly casual lifestyle.” says Francesca Grima, creative director of Grima Jewellery the fabled house that was founded by her father Andrew Grima in 1952 and he ran until his death in 2007. Casual is of course relative; now based full-time in London, a childhood in Switzerland and travelling as her parents’ de facto plus one meant hers was a lifestyle with a front row seat to the vanguard of late 20th century design creativity. Yet, from the start of our conversation it is clear that Grima is as far away as one could imagine from the creative heiress cliché that we have grown accustomed to hearing and reading about. She qualifies her statements with exemplum; not for her the trailing off sentence that is often indicative of foggy thinking. And in many ways it is reflective of her lifelong love of architecture, where design rationale and building methodology are of equal import to aesthetics and feelings elicited by the finished product. Her pieces, like her late father’s possess a singularity of vision, and simultaneously challenge and expand notions of what we can wear and indeed how we can wear it. As she elucidates further “rather than in the 80s where everyone enjoyed going to a dinner party and someone saying, ‘oh darling you have the same necklace as I do’ nowadays it is more about having unique pieces and the sense of discovery.” For Grima, holding close to a particular design brief is made complex by her twin roles as keeper of a heritage house’s flame and Firestarter in the 21st century.

Francesca Grima wears Nicholas Oakwell Couture, Image: Simon Melber
Francesca Grima wears Nicholas Oakwell Couture, Image: Simon Melber

When You’re the daughter of the Father of Modern Jewellery

“My mother and I both run the company and we both design.” Grima explains. Her mother Jojo is a scion of the Cullinan family, the South African mining dynasty best known for discovering the 3,106 carat Cullinan Diamond. Jewellery was and indeed still is an implicit part of the family’s day to day and she notes “having parents who worked in the business meant they never really switched off. Sitting around the dinner table they’d be talking business and I even had to tell them from time to time can we please talk about something else because aged six I didn’t really want to hear about the clients and the problems.” However, this immersive education, meant that Grima possessed a comprehensive knowledge of the mechanics of maintaining and growing a family business, where relationship building is as important as creating unforgettable pieces for highly visually literate clientele. Furthermore, she quickly discovered that it was imperative that one’s own clearly formed design language was the sine qua non of operating in the rarefied world of luxury.

Citrine Ring, Yellow Sapphire Ring, Citrine and Diamond Ring, Yellow Gold and Carre Diamond Ring, All by Andrew Grima. Image: Courtesy of F Grima
Citrine Ring, Yellow Sapphire Ring, Citrine and Diamond Ring, Yellow Gold and Carre Diamond Ring, All by Andrew Grima. Image: Courtesy of F Grima
Brooch Pendant Set with Natural Pearls, diamonds and white gold by Jojo Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Brooch Pendant Set with Natural Pearls, diamonds and white gold by Jojo Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima

Andrew Grima’s sobriquet – and also the title of a book published in 2020 celebrating his career – was ‘the father of modern jewellery’. And whilst hyperbole of this kind is frequent in jewellery circles, in this instance it is no overstatement. Many aspects of the contemporary jewellers’ tool kit – the use of textured precious metal, the elevation of semi-precious stones, adventurous proportions and conceptually playful pieces can be traced to particular pieces he designed and ideas he realized. A pioneer of ‘the jewellery retail destination’, his first shopfront in London’s gentleman’s mecca Jermyn Street – designed by his architect brothers with a staircase by Ove & Arup – was feted as an experience in and of itself when it opened in 1966. In possession of ‘Old Hollywood’ good looks, he was also ahead of the curve regarding the notion of being one’s own brand ambassador; a fixture at the smartest events internationally, his celebrity status was immortalized in a starring role in a Campari soda advertisement. His most googled piece is a carved ruby brooch given by the Duke of Edinburgh to his wife, and he remains the highest recipient of De Beers Diamonds International Awards by any jeweller. His legacy, such was its breadth and depth could have been overwhelming for his daughter, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” However, rather than said crown becoming a creative millstone, she has chosen to wear it lightly. “I think my father because he was such an original would definitely want me to be an original and not to look back too much on the archives when it comes to designing, which I don’t do.” The net result is that whilst vintage Andrew Grima is often a hymnal to nature in all its forms, and the pieces designed by her mother Jojo act as poetic companion pieces to that design thesis, Francesca Grima’s design language in contrast is guided by a quest to make bold statements that are underpinned by minimalistic principles. Extrapolating on the theme, she adds “I’m very much inspired by product designers such as Dieter Rams who designed for Braun, he always said simple is better.”

Yellow Gold and Lodolite Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Lodolite Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Quartz and Yellow Gold Cuff by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Quartz and Yellow Gold Cuff by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

This is not to say that she arrived at this point speedily; reminiscing “My earlier body of work – oh my God I sound so pretentious” she says laughing “was very organic I would almost call it frilly which is terrible, but they would definitely not be my style anymore.” The clues to Grima’s continued design prompts are there in the work, and for those who prefer to decipher clues on jeweller’s Instagram handles, her timeline. “I am mostly inspired by artists or architecture. I photograph a lot and there are always shapes and textures that I come across in my photographic walks and that’s what inspires me for the simple gold pieces.” Brutalism masterpieces such as Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London’s Kensal Green and George Marsh’s CentrePoint also in London are captured on her handle alongside classic cars and works of contemporary art that have particularly moved her. It is thus unsurprising that she feels comfortable viewing herself as a jewellery-artist. “When I look at a piece of art, I want the art to give me some emotion. I think I would like the person who wears one of my pieces to feel a sense of happiness by wearing it.” Grima recognizes that energetic exchanges be they in the built environment or on the body are constantly happening and her pieces act as a conduit to such exchanges. One recent piece that speaks to this is the Dot Ring which was part of Vivienne Becker and Phillips Auction House New Modernism exhibition. “So I’ve always been a fan of Yoyoi Kusama’s work and I have been wanting to do something that is inspired by her for quite a long time… then I came across this white agate and I thought it’s an opaque stone it needs a ‘pop’ design that is very graphic hence the dots.” Francesca is not a maker herself, “we use all the same goldsmiths I mean obviously there are some who have passed on now, but we still have goldsmiths who worked with my father and understand our process” In the instance of the Dot Ring her determination for a specific vision resulted in a temporary impasse but ultimately favourable result. “The goldsmith said, ‘Ok, I will just set those gold dots on top of the agate’ and I said ‘no, no, no it needs to be tactile, so you need to actually carve into the agate, so that the gold dots are flush and if you run your fingers over it feels good.’” Choosing not to surrender to compromised tactility is illustrative of how resoluteness and rigour often begets work that is consistently memorable. Francesca’s edict of optimized wearability is especially tested when making rings, as hands are in constant use and display but this did not deter her. Furthermore, it was not enough for the piece to be a visual paean to Kusama it was also a thematic one, a piece that points to abstract surrealism but is also reflective of two female freethinking artists choosing first and foremost to work and present their work on their own terms.

Coral, Yellow Gold and Diamond Brooch by Francesca Grima. Image Coutesy of F. Grima
Coral, Yellow Gold and Diamond Brooch by Francesca Grima. Image Coutesy of F. Grima
Dot Ring by Francesca Grima, White Agate and Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Dot Ring by Francesca Grima, White Agate and Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

Romancing the Stone

Who or indeed what determines a piece’s worth? One could limit one’s response based on the trading prices on the global metal exchanges and diamond bourses or one could add factors such as trends, the maison or house making the jewellery itself or the reputation of the artist involved in its design. Unusual gemstone choices were a key differentiator of Andrew Grima’s work and central to his initial success, and explorations in materialism continue to be part of Francesca’s own work. “The strange thing is the stones that my father used in the 60s and 70s had no intrinsic value then… tourmaline crystals you can’t find anymore, so they have actually become precious stones, so that’s quite interesting.” As well as the aforementioned tourmalines, aquamarines, moonstones and quartz were treated with equal reverence to diamonds by Andrew and it is an approach shared by Francesca whose principal intention when working with gemstones is “to highlight the stone and it’s beauty and make it the protagonist.” Casting gemstones as leading ladies in a supporting cast of metallic forms also highlights a historic and cultural aspect around wearing jewellery; when curative and spiritual powers were attributed to certain gemstones. It is a notion that still endures, even when not explicitly alluded to; as certain pieces and heirlooms become part of an individual or if inherited, the family’s talismanic armory. In her making process Grima asserts that “the stone just really needs to speak to you”, before she will consider making something with it and in a direct riposte to people treating jewellery like chips in a casino she notes “if someone shows interest in a piece and says ‘how many carats is this tourmaline?’, I will kind of know from then that they haven’t understood what we do.” In many ways there is a schism within the jewellery world that has been percolating for decades. On one side those who live for the high value, super large and rare gemstones that even before they are made into anything fetch for the tens of millions at auction, and those who are more interested in the artistic landscape, conceptual concerns and in some cases spiritual or social commentary a jewellery designer or artist is making with completed pieces. This is not to say it is a clear binary, with many houses’ bodies of work and clientele overlapping between the two concerns. However, for independent houses, where one sits on the cultural divide is important from an operational perspective. With Grima the remit is clear as Francesca concludes “what we do is not at all about the intrinsic value of the piece. It is about creating and selling wearable art and sculpture.”

Blue Topaz, Yellow Gold and Diamond Ring by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Blue Topaz, Yellow Gold and Diamond Ring by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Dioptase mounted in yellow gold and framed by baguette diamonds ring by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Dioptase mounted in yellow gold and framed by baguette diamonds ring by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Textured Wire Bangle by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Textured Wire Bangle by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

Assessing the contribution of the house of Grima to the contemporary jewellery landscape is a task that has been tackled most recently by William Grant magisterial monograph. Grima was also included in Mary Anne Wingfield’s Modern British Jewellery Designers, which contextualises the rise of many independent houses in the United Kingdom and how factors such as the price of gold, two royal jewellery loving ladies (Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret) and the challenging and in some cases dismantling of cultural and socioeconomic norms paved the way for radical jewellery design and its avid consumption. But not everyone who was ‘white hot cool’ survived this particular zeitgeist and Francesca notes “What I find when I look at jewellers of my father’s generation who haven’t been I will use the word as successful, is that with my father’s jewellery he somehow got all the proportions right.” To illustrate her point she references a citrine and diamond brooch of his design, “It is so stunning and it shows this organic movement and flow which just came so naturally to him.” For her part, Francesca has made many a piece which posits a stone as the main event but with her minimalistic approach. “I designed a pyrite ring a few years ago, which was really simple. It was a huge pyrite and then a block of diamonds that were mimicking the pyrite crystals.” Another personal favourite of hers is an ammonite necklace which she adds “just encapsulates everything I love at the moment. Which is sort of that brutalist design, very simple, just highlighting the stone, making it the protagonist and just really easy to wear.”

Textured Gold Wire, Citrine and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Textured Gold Wire, Citrine and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Pyrite and Diamond Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Pyrite and Diamond Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Ammonite Necklace by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Ammonite Necklace by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima

The design techniques pioneered by Andrew Grima have been well documented especially his use of textured gold wire and his love of nature. But the thread that seems most relevant, and what acutely binds his and Francesca’s world beyond consanguinity is the mandate to make wearing treasure in one’s everyday standard but still with romance at its heart. On the landing page of the company’s website sneakers are adorned with vintage brooches and a basic singlet elevated with a tanzanite and diamond brooch as one does when one can. There is an insouciance but also a tacit permission to enjoy your jewellery as and how you wish, not to be dictated by its value or the importance of the event or the caliber of people who will appreciate what you are wearing. Because if not now when?

Earrings and Brooch Set in gold textured wire, natural pearls and diamonds by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Earrings and Brooch Set in gold textured wire, natural pearls and diamonds by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Gold Textured Wire and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Gold Textured Wire and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Tanzanite, Gold Textured Wire anad Diamond Brooch by Jojo Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Tanzanite, Gold Textured Wire anad Diamond Brooch by Jojo Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

Heirlooms, Heritage and the Future Present

Heritage houses still run by the familial founders often rise and fall on the next generation of custodians. Economic factors and unsustainable expansions can also take their toll. One contemporary peer, Kutchinsky was ultimately bought out in 1991 by Moussaieff Jewellers and many others from the 1960s and 70s have stopped producing with their work only appearing on specialist jewellery websites or at auction. In many ways Grima under the co-steer of Francesca and her mother Jojo have the perfect mix of a direct link to the founder and a creative lead who is very much in touch with how modern clients enjoy their luxury. With contemporary conversations so closely aligned to traceability of gemstones few companies can attest as Francesca does “We have stone dealers who are actually the children of stone dealers who worked with my father, so the trust is there implicitly.” Furthermore, Francesca’s agility on social media platforms has meant the company is able to adapt to the 24/7 concierge service expectation that has proliferated the art, design and jewellery worlds. “I think that is where the responsibility lies in terms of innovating and bringing the company forward… If I put a photograph up on Instagram I respond to every message. And that’s what I love and maybe it is because I am a bit of a control freak, but I will see it through to purchase and I also do all the bookkeeping and the photography.” Personally grueling and potentially exhausting as this model might be, it allows for the family to cut through the middlemen and the PR machines and speak directly to the consumer. They also get to control their narrative, and in an age where authenticity is prized, it makes their brand enduringly compelling. For those who seek to have a private commission, an intimate atelier appointment awaits them where the client will be attended to without a jot of the snooty energy that is sometimes associated with high jewellery houses, it is an important consideration, especially as conversations around spaces being truly inclusive continue.

Disco Ring by Francesca Grima, Yellow Gold, Diamonds, Malachite. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Disco Ring by Francesca Grima, Yellow Gold, Diamonds, Malachite. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Orange Peel Ring by Andrew Grima, Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Orange Peel Ring by Andrew Grima, Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

However, it is not only Grima’s business savvy coupled with her social media and tech proficiencies and informality that bodes well for the company but also her ability to like her father create contemporary future classics. She says laughing “Timeless classics are something that are very difficult to design because you don’t really know you are designing them.” Indeed, it is a truism most evocatively witnessed in her own father’s About Time series of watches for Omega, a 55-timepiece collaboration that in the making in 1969 wasn’t foreseen either by himself or the watchmakers as creations that would birth a devoted and cult following independent of either brand. Owning one shows a different level of horology appreciation, and when pushed Francesca cites the ‘Elegance’ watch as her personal favourite. However, returning to her own oeuvre her numerous explorations in agate possess the elements of classics already in the making, as she dares to create a seemingly oxymoronic distillation of bold minimalism; an artist unafraid to continue returning to a medium and in each iteration discovering it anew. “I think it is the range of colours in agate that I am drawn to. I love when it’s frosted…as you don’t really have to add much to make it really beautiful…Also you can make a ring that is fully agate without having to be too worried about it breaking, which you can’t really do with another stone.” Her pragmatic approach is ever present but is a godsend for those new to jewellery collecting who might not even be aware of stone durability as a consideration when purchasing a piece.

Elegance Watch. Andrew Grima for Omega. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Elegance Watch. Andrew Grima for Omega. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Frosted Agate Ring with White Gold and Diamonds by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Frosted Agate Ring with White Gold and Diamonds by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima

Grima does not see jewellery as a competition with an expectation for certain performative measures to ensure long term success. “I like us being different. I like us being niche and exclusive. And I don’t see how getting our jewellery on a celebrity is going to make us a bigger success if you know what I mean.” Perhaps, one might argue she is speaking from a place of privilege, a heritage house that has ridden the sartorial and economic waves with aplomb. But one only need observe how every heritage behemoth house has been quick to sign up a celebrity as ‘collaborator’ to see just how brave this approach is. When asked whether commercial success or artistic relevance are her principle driver, Grima responds without hesitation “100% artistic relevance”. She fearlessly elegantly pushes conversations around value and collectability. “I do believe one should look at a piece of jewellery as a work of art. You don’t question the price of a canvas when you buy a painting so why would you do that with a piece of jewellery?” In our peak consumerist information saturated age, when we are all in danger of to quote Oscar Wilde ‘knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing” proposing that jewellery speak for itself, no hashtags and hefty price tags bandied about in public as justification, becomes a radical act that places art as the highest conderation. But it is also a potent act of love, for the craft, for the ideation and process that comes in the making and for the clients who dare to put their heads above the parapet of what is expected and wear only what truly speaks to them. Principles that still bring profit are great, set in an unusual gemstone or none at all, they become truly luxurious.

Lychee Brooch by Andrew Grima. Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Lychee Brooch by Andrew Grima. Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Lodolite and Diamond Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Lodolite and Diamond Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

And Then There Is Feng J: High Jewellery with a Different Locus

How does one get to speak to Feng J, one of high jewellery’s hottest properties, when time zones, an ever-expanding client list and perhaps most pertinent of all you don’t share a lingua franca? You wait for the calm before the Christmas storm but after a glorious success at Design Miami to set upon a time. Next, you negotiate a late-night call to Shanghai. Then you ensure that David Tsui, Feng’s Mandarin speaking business partner (who previously worked for advertising giant Ogilvy in New York) is on the call too in an interpreter capacity, allowing for our three way conversation, to take on a rhythm of its own and are always meticulously referenced with a Feng piece, a vivid anecdote or a witty sidebar from Tsui himself. And finally, prior and after the call itself, one returns intermittently to an Instagram page and website awash with otherworldly pieces with exquisite craftsmanship and an obsessive (in the best way) level of detail. Because at the heart of Feng’s story is a commitment to pushing the proverbial envelope; cost, time and established norms be damned, after all, this is how singular aesthetic voices and legends are made.

Feng J wears Coeur En Rouge Earrings Lacquer on Silver, Rubies and Red Spinels,  Image Courtesy of Feng J
Feng J wears Coeur En Rouge Earrings Lacquer on Silver, Rubies and Red Spinels, Image Courtesy of Feng J

Journeying and trusting in the Destination

“As a person I have always thought about having the highest standards and being in the locations that reflect that I am operating at the highest standards. For financial people you would go to Wall Street in New York and for High Jewellery the only place is Paris…. I needed to be there to see the good things, the good people and start in a good place.” Feng J is an intentional creative and unapologetically so. The high-jewellery artist founded her eponymous brand Feng J Haute Joaillerie in 2016 and conscious of the opportunities and historical cultural lodestars of that world chose to insert herself in the heart of it, in this instance with an atelier in the Place Vendôme. Somewhat intriguingly, jewellery was not her chosen career, she explains; “My dream was to study sport’s car design, I applied to a very famous school in California, the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena. But there was a problem with my visa and it was rejected to the US. So, I decided to shift my direction to London, and I went to Central Saint Martin’s to study jewellery design for my masters followed by gemology in Gubelin in Switzerland.” Car design’s loss was ultimately jewellery’s gain but Feng’s artistic and creative background is more varied still: her great-grandfather was a court painter during the Qing Dynasty and her first degree was in furniture and production design at China Academy of Art, with Wang Shu, China’s only Pritzker Architecture Prize winner as her tutor. These seemingly disparate threads come together in Feng’s unique design language which she describes as ‘painting with gemstones’ and in her creating a setting technique to realise her complex designs.
Proudly Chinese and seemingly strongly influenced by her classical jewellery education, Feng who is originally from Hangzhou, felt it essential that her atelier in Shanghai act as the physical headquarters for the brand. Tsui interjects with a laugh that “Shanghai’s nickname is the Paris of the Orient.” But when explaining her choice of location Feng adds “Yes, Shanghai is very Parisian. And the atelier is in the city’s French Concession which is very interesting as it echoes our Paris location. But it’s larger. The building is five floors and we put a lot of paintings, sculpture and installations in this house showcasing the best of Chinese artistic creativity and pieces bought on my travels too. We also have the atelier the studio and some of the production.” Whilst the global luxury epicentre has tilted east with many Western brands openly acknowledging that sales from Asia are the lifeblood from which they survive, Feng’s decision to make her Shanghai location such a powerful destination place in and of itself is indicative of an agenda that seeks to expand the spaces and places we expect luxury to emanate from. Presenting her nation’s cultural and artistic excellence is not only “a little dream within my career I am happy to share” but also “very meaningful as we are a brand from mainland China that wants to stand on the global high jewellery stage.”

Maison Feng J: Image Courtesy of Feng J
Maison Feng J: Image Courtesy of Feng J
Flying Leaf Earrings: Diamonds, Opals. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Flying Leaf Earrings: Diamonds, Opals. Image Courtesy of Feng J

Feng’s rise has been extraordinarily swift and she is quick to note that she has not felt a victim of Sinophobia. At this point Tsui adds that from a business perspective “being Chinese now is not her big problem.” Furthermore, local and international press have embraced her work. “The Financial Times and New York Times, they all wrote features” Tsui adds. For her part Feng notes that her clientele is drawn from jewellery lovers and collectors globally. “Some are from New York some from Palm Beach and some from the Middle East and of course I have a lot of clients from mainland China and Hong Kong.” What is significant for Feng is their shared intent: “My clients buy my pieces in a way that art collectors do.” Positioning herself as a jewellery artist has been a boon. In bypassing the segments where jewellery is created with a more overt commercial aim, and thus having to be adept to thematic shapeshifting to reflect current trends and cultural conversations, Feng can focus on the things that principally interest her – her craft and artistry. She has also inadvertently created a Feng J collector community: just as those who are particularly interested in a particular artistic movement might run into each other in the various global auction rooms, Feng whose work most recently was part of the Vivienne Becker curated Woman to Woman selling auction at Phillips Hong Kong, as well as in the inaugural Design Miami, Shanghai Show in November 2021, has become an inevitable part of the jewellery artist landscape.

Calla Lily Ring, Emerald, Yellow Sapphires, Tsavorites, Diamonds. Part of Woman To Woman Exhibition. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Calla Lily Ring, Emerald, Yellow Sapphires, Tsavorites, Diamonds. Part of Woman To Woman Exhibition. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Blue Velvet Leaf Earrings  2.33ct Triangular Emerald and 2.09 ct emerald, double rose cut sapphires, tanzanites and irregular shaped diamonds. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Blue Velvet Leaf Earrings 2.33ct Triangular Emerald and 2.09 ct emerald, double rose cut sapphires, tanzanites and irregular shaped diamonds. Image Courtesy of Feng J

A Design Language Developed and Decoded

“From the very beginning I wasn’t looking for clients I was looking to develop my way of design. So, I developed my own design style which I call painting with gemstones. I consider it my creation.” In practical terms this meant also reimagining how the gemstones themselves were cut and set in order to realise her specific vision, something that brought her into radical thinking territory. She expands “The double rose cut is very special as it makes each piece of the gemstone very slim, it is only 1cm-1.2cm and the good thing is it can let the light come through.” This is evocatively seen in pieces such as The Coloured Ginkgo Leaf Brooch, which have a translucent quality. As with any artist, certain motifs and techniques become synonymous with an jewellery-artist’s work and Feng herself raises this. “When you mention Wallace Chan the first thing you think of is his carving of the gemstones and also the use of titanium. And when you mention Cindy Chao you will think of the architectural style, with me I’ve loved the grey colours of gemstones [and] been drawn to the idea of tonality.” Feng is a huge admirer of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi and sees similarities in his techniques and her own, adding “In Morandi’s paintings there are a lot of grey colours, but every grey colour has different hues. It is very subtle and very sensitive with me; I use the gemstones to make a coloured tone for the piece.” At this point Tsui notes with a wry chuckle “Everyone was like what the fuck? Are you crazy? Because normally in jewellery you are thinking the bigger, the more vivid a colour, the more bright the more flashing is better. Because you can sell at a very high price.” But Feng was resolute in her direction adding: “Yes, it’s crazy and it’s disruptive. But when we cut this thin, you can have a lot of patterns and colours, it is like a woman’s lipstick counter.” She also cites the American modern master Georgia O’Keefe, who was also not afraid of large scale paintings of flowers which had a saturation of similar hues.

Coloured Ginkgo Leaf Brooch: Diamonds, Purple Spinel, Opal, Topaz, Chrysoberyl, Moonstone, Tanzanite and Rock Sapphire> Image Courtesy of Feng J
Coloured Ginkgo Leaf Brooch: Diamonds, Purple Spinel, Opal, Topaz, Chrysoberyl, Moonstone, Tanzanite and Rock Sapphire> Image Courtesy of Feng J

Her most famous piece to date is the Jardin De Giverny Necklace, which in the true tradition of the highest of jewellery is multifunctional and can be worn as a bracelet and ring too. The centrepiece is a 19kt fancy pink diamond but the piece as a whole acts as a vivid exposition of Feng’s design language. Whilst in Paris, Feng visited the famed garden immortalized in Monet’s paintings and was struck by the natural beauty, and like Monet, how the light at different times of the day deeply affected the garden’s appearance. “I visited the garden in the noon time with the sun was just raised in the centre of the sky and the light was very strong and that scene left a very strong impression on me. So when I first saw the pink diamond, its lightness felt like sunshine in the middle of the sky, it is almost white, and I recalled my trip to the Jardin de Giverny [and] the rest of the necklace is the botanic, the plants in the garden.” To achieve this Feng used an assortment of gemstones: coloured sapphires, garnets, spinels, tsavorites, tanzanites, and aquamarines dance along the collar to enhance rather than detract from the sun in all its fulsome gemstone splendour. On completing the piece, Feng herself states “I felt like I had just finished a conversation with Monet. The time difference might be more than 100 years, talk less the geography distance, but I wanted to create a piece of jewellery that was an homage to impressionist painting and to create a removable garden for people’s necks.” The piece sold at Phillips auction for HKD 20,215,000 ($2,594,627) and made Feng the first mainland China designer and the youngest to achieve a multi-million dollar sale, but for her it was never about the price achieved but rather achieving her artistic vision.

Jardin De Giverny Necklace, 19kt Fancy Pink Diamond, Diamonds,: coloured sapphires, garnets, spinels, tsavorites, tanzanites, and aquamarines. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Jardin De Giverny Necklace, 19kt Fancy Pink Diamond, Diamonds,: coloured sapphires, garnets, spinels, tsavorites, tanzanites, and aquamarines. Image Courtesy of Feng J

The piece also featured one of Feng’s other hallmark techniques; floating setting. “I was thinking of a way to liberate the gemstones from the metal…[because] if you put it on a metal base the metal will block and black out the light.” To solve this quandary, which was only half solved by slicing the stones extra thin she developed an almost invisible setting technique, she elaborates “With every piece I use a tiny prong and the tiniest loop to support the structure so you need to be very accurate about the strength. If you do it the normal way you will cast the metal base but with each piece floating you need to consider the physical curve and distortion. With double rose cut stones the shape is very organic you cannot control the shape..it is almost like gambling.” The end result are pieces with curvature and character as well as notably lighter and thus easier to wear. This final factor is especially important to Feng who at 37 often thinks of making pieces that will connect with younger collectors and are uncomplicated in the wearing, and it was a central thesis to the pieces she presented at Design Miami Shanghai which included the much photographed and talked about Vie En Rose bangle. “Jewellery is not about things in your grandmother’s safe…it is about mix and match, wear your high jewellery with your sneaker.” However, insouciant approach to how her pieces are worn aside, Feng remains very much inspired by nature, with flowers and the natural world being a theme she returns to frequently, and her travels, especially prior to the Pandemic giving her ample opportunity to sketch, observe light and movement, which in turn are reflected in the finished pieces and the names she gives them.

La Vie En Rose Bangle, Diamonds, Pink Sapphires, Purple Sapphires, Pink Spinel and Ruby. Image Courtesy of Feng J
La Vie En Rose Bangle, Diamonds, Pink Sapphires, Purple Sapphires, Pink Spinel and Ruby. Image Courtesy of Feng J
La Vie En Rose Bangle in production. Image Courtesy of Feng J
La Vie En Rose Bangle in production. Image Courtesy of Feng J

Although her work points to an innate inquisitiveness, notions and the reimagining of tradition are ever present, most notably in her pieces using Chinese Lacquer, a technique that she has brought boldly into the 21st century. “The Coeur Rouge bangle that Rihanna wears is painted lacquer on silver… it is a very interesting material, very organic as it is from tree sap and of course first used in China. I chose to use it and combine it with European gemstones because I wanted to do something that was east-meets-west.” To get the finished effect, takes time and patience, “at the very beginning the colour from the lacquer is black and it is only after weeks that it changes to crimson, then to red and bright red. I guess the look also fulfills my dreams of sportscar design” she says. But jest aside Feng is always setting an internal marker between herself and her peers, adding “I always like to do innovations for high jewellery, and this also makes me different.” Not resting on her laurels is something of a theme throughout our conversation, it as if Feng sees her work as being one part custodian and propagator of her home culture and the other part modernizer in terms of methodology, usage and appreciation.

La Coeur en Rouge: Chinest Lacquer painted Silver, Rubies and Red Spinels, Image Courtesy of Feng J
La Coeur en Rouge: Chinest Lacquer painted Silver, Rubies and Red Spinels, Image Courtesy of Feng J
Rihanna wears La Coeur en Rouge Bangle, Image Courtesy of Feng J
Rihanna wears La Coeur en Rouge Bangle, Image Courtesy of Feng J

High Jewellery and the Next Gen

From the outset, Feng’s pieces have had as many younger collectors as older ones, in spite of a continued perception that high jewellery for the most part is an older client’s game. “Younger collectors’ tastes are more open. Older people will love a big stone from somewhere like Graff or Harry Winston, but the young rich love contemporary art and are more experimental…they have a wider world-view so they want something different, something unique.” Feng for her part aims to offer this in her pieces, that even when using the most opulent gemstones possess a lightness of touch. “Sometimes jewellers make with a loud voice but my pieces are not in that loud voice…I want my jewellery to give the wearer a spiritual power…it is nothing to do with any religion but I feel my pieces have a very subtle power.” It is a rubric that seems to have proven successful with celebrity clients such as Rihanna, Kylie Jenner and Victoria Song of K-Pop sensation f(x) among the many high jewellery enthusiasts who consistently seek her out.

Victoria Song wears Aqua Gingko Leaf earrings. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Victoria Song wears Aqua Gingko Leaf earrings. Image Courtesy of Feng J

However, future=proofing her business aside with Gen Y and Z buy-in, what is perhaps the most compelling reason for Feng’s speedy ascent since she founded her eponymous house five years ago is a commitment to her own aesthetic. Realising early that techniques and craft could be a potent part of the emotive storytelling that we have all become accustomed to seeing and hearing about in regards to high jewellery collections, she also actively chose to celebrate the interconnectedness of her lived experience and those of her potential collectors and ultimately wearers. China’s past and future, France’s artistic and jewellery heritage, the wonders of nature to be found in every corner of the globe and forces eliciting a kinetic energy are all part of the discourse. In turn they are observed, internally processed and a beautiful distillation is manifested in her collections. As the conversation ends one cannot help but concede that Feng may indeed be right; who needs loud when almost everything one feels hopes for and desires can be expressed in a double-rose cut painterly whisper?

Blue Anthurium Brooch, Aquamarines, Tanzanites, Purple Sapphires, Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Blue Anthurium Brooch, Aquamarines, Tanzanites, Purple Sapphires, Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Feng J

EdoEyen: Jewellery Creators and Culture Curators

“I always wanted to work with my sister because Edo and I are different in a certain way but we also have certain similarities, such as our love of fashion “ reflects Eyen Chorm who together with her sister Edo founded EdoEyen, a jewellery house that is experiencing the kind of industry buzz an army of PRs would only dream of generating, global pandemic be damned. Apart from a desire to work together – the brand’s name being a portmanteau of their first names, was a more serious aim to articulate, via the lens of jewellery, their own personal history, their country of origin Cambodia’s and weave it into their adopted home, New York. “Everything we learnt, everything we got inspiration from was from my Mum” explains Edo. Their mother was a classical dancer in the Royal Cambodian Ballet before the brutal regime change that was the Khmer Rouge and a relocation to the US saw the family build their life anew. It was the ornate pieces, worn by their mother and the other members of the classical dance corps that acted as the genesis for creating their brand. EdoEyen’s mandate goes beyond adornment, the brand acts as a conduit for the sisters to share and expound on socio-political and cultural themes and provide a space for amplification of a different and altogether more positive story of Cambodia. Edo elaborates “It was important to do something we truly care about and truly identify with and the jewellery is that because it is so strongly linked in story and style to Cambodia.”

Eyen and Edo Chorm wear the Phkachhouck 1.0 and 2.0 Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Eyen and Edo Chorm wear the Phkachhouck 1.0 and 2.0 Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Mrs Chorm wears Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Mrs Chorm wears Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Where Culture and Skyscrapers Meet

Brooklyn raised since moving to New York City in the late 80’s Eyen reminisces “there were not many Cambodians [but] we grew up watching movies and Edo learnt traditional dance…I am so jealous of that because I was still a toddler”. The Chorm household’s joyous and altogether celebratory approach to maintain links with their culture are diametrically opposed to the assumption that the country’s trauma under the Khmer Rouge was so great that anyone who fled would want to forget everything they left behind. On western perspectives they encountered growing up Edo recollects “Always they talk about the skulls, the skulls, and I get it but there is also a beautiful part of Cambodia.” Exploring and expressing this beauty as well as creating a timeless elegy to a culture that had been subsumed became a subliminal preoccupation.

Eyen and Edo Chorm Image: Courtesy of EdoEyen

The sisters are both preternaturally beautiful and possess the oft copied Downtown cool girl insouciance, something that has made them natural subjects for their own campaigns. Fashion was initially the lens in which they explored their visual language: Eyen worked as a model and Edo studied at the prestigious FIT before a career working for a global beauty behemoth. Of her fashion evolution Edo observes: “I am starting to gravitate to Versace now…I think as you get older and start to become your own person you are a little more fearless and make a little bit more of a statement.” Eyen for her part describes herself “as more Zimmerman and Alexander McQueen as I lean more to the dreamier side” Their seemingly opposing aesthetics found a home in their collections which they develop side by side “we are definitely both co-creative directors” Edo says smiling. Their first two collections are named Hand and Face and the nomenclature is a statement of intent, speaking directly of the body parts they wished customers to adorn, no further explanations required. Furthermore, they chose the road less travelled by launching with the Neang Neak ear-cuff rather than what might have been a safer choice such as a ring, or classic jewellery suite. “The reason we chose [to launch] with the Neang Neak cuff is because it is symbolic of our culture, and even when you go out now you don’t really see a lot of ear cuffs being worn” notes Eyen. By contrast, ornate pieces for the ear, hair and head are staples in traditional Cambodian jewellery. The risk was worth it as it positioned the brand as authentic and with a unique point of view.

Neang Neak Ear Cuff in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Neang Neak Ear Cuff in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Culture is the dominant theme throughout and the Kbang crown harks directly back to the Angkorian Empire; a kingdom that spanned modern day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and which was at its zenith from the 11th to 13th centuries. During those times status was denoted by the different features and ornamentation that appeared on a crown and in more contemporary times such regalia would only be worn at formal occasions such as weddings. To the Chorm sisters it was a situation worthy of a reboot and the artistic challenge of modernizing. As Edo explains “We want people to wear the jewellery out and about”. Picking up on this point Eyen adds “We are from New York and we know the fashion here and how everyone is just a risk taker. There is always a fashionista out there, a trendsetter willing to wear anything and make it bold and daring so we incorporated that New York lifestyle too.” Thus the crown was reimagined as a lightweight tiara-cum-bedecked headband, with Eyen designing a mechanism that negated the need for hair pins to keep it in place. Once completed the styling of the piece on their Intragram account irreverently and successfully removed the notion of ‘for special occasions only’. It was an approach might appear like an affected exercise, but in the Chorm sister’s hands is casually chic and genuine. Their campaign images and the New York editorial sensibility speak to the modern migrant experience; where home is a patchwork in thinking, dressing and being and where the confluence of style and identity merge between countries of origin and current locations. It creates for an atmosphere where pieces which might have felt like an act of appropriation if worn by those not sharing similar heritage metamorphose into an alluring option for all. As Eyen concludes “Whatever you want to wear just be yourself and be you.”

Edo in Kbang Crown in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Edo in Kbang Crown in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

However, it is important to note that applying a contemporary twist to a mediaeval south east Asian aesthetic is not a mere marketing differentiator. For the Chorms, EdoEyen as a brand has a multifaceted role to play both now and in the future. “We wanted to start a movement to bring Cambodian art and culture to the forefront of the fashion industry” says Edo. For Eyen, the brand’s wider remit reached the realms of manufacturing and imagination and she relates “when we first started, even the people we gave our designs to make were afraid, they were intimidated but I was thinking if back in the day in Cambodia they can make this, then I am sure in modern days we can do it too.” To the veteran hands in New York’s jewellery district the sister’s pieces appeared as flights of fancy, but solutions were always found, including upholding transparent sourcing credentials and working only with United Precious Metals. Placing culture at the centre of their messaging and product has also allowed the sisters to challenge existing jewellery orthodoxy which is anchored in a specific western European aesthetic and its accompanying normative concerns. The pieces also act as a starting point for the intellectually and visually curious to discover more about what was happening historically and currently in the area that occupies Cambodia. As well as a rich metalsmithing and textiles industry, the Angkorian empire was marked by its ambitious architectural projects, most notably the Angkor Wat which remains the largest religious structure in the world. For the Chorm sisters achieving the goal of celebrating their heritage whilst creating a relatable entry point for people to participate was key. As Edo notes “I think our culture is so under-represented and it is about time for us to do something about it.” Choosing not to lobby for a seat but rather create a place at the proverbial table has resulted in EdoEyen being a defiantly stylish riposte to historic and existing acts of erasure.

Eyen wears Neang Neak Cuff in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Eyen wears Neang Neak Cuff in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Mythical Muses and Other Inspirations

“I have always been intrigued by anything mystical and anything goddess like” reflects Eyen. Cambodian origin myths, figures from history and religious deities have all been drawn upon by the sisters in the creation and development of the pieces which in turn have always been underpinned by their mutual love of fashion. Neang Neak for instance was the Queen Consort to Preah Thong and they were co-founders of the Funan Kingdom which preceded the Angkorian Kingdom and dated back to the first century AD. Legend has it that she was a Naga Princess who led her beloved by her scarf to her own father’s underwater kingdom to ask for her hand in marriage. With a compelling back story as a demi-goddess and a princess in her own right as well as an inventor of tradition (traditional marriage rites in Cambodia include the bride leading the groom in by the scarf) it was perhaps inevitable that the brand’s first and instant break=out piece would be named after her. For the Aroubei ring, which has a serpent like form, the goddess Sovann Macha is the muse behind its creation. She was a mermaid who married the Hindu deity Hanuman and she appears in the Reamker which is a Cambodian iteration of the more famous Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. The overall effect of these stories being woven into their creations is an internal universe within the brand where a woman’s power, allure and otherworldliness are the tools that allow her to realise the inconceivable and where pieces possess a magical quality that allows wearers to tap into the same. As Eyen summarises “You are part of and not part of this world but you are enticing.”

Aroubei Ring in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Aroubei Ring in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

However, there is a political agenda woven in EdoEyen’s genesis and vision, Edo reflects “throughout my college years at FIT I felt like we were under represented. I didn’t see any influences from our culture and I always felt that didn’t make sense.” Her incredulity is valid given the rich history of the Angkorian and Funan Kingdoms, and whilst much has been written about the systemic undermining of black people, similar acts of marginalization, exploitation and prejudice have occurred for centuries towards Asian communities. Of the lack of visibility and understanding Eyen notes “lack of visibility takes a toll and so does being stuck in being or being perceived something else and trying to belong.” From lazy acts of homogenization – assuming Cambodia, Vietnam, China, South Korea and Thailand are one and the same for instance; “we want to make people aware that south east Asia is more than just one culture” Edo asserts, to western designers’ careless acts of cultural appropriation or more sinisterly positing that Asian aesthetics or philosophies are interesting and of note but not on a par with outputs that originate from Western European traditions. The sisters are clear of the scope of issues they wish to tackle and where necessary challenge. Eyen notes “I feel like a lot of my friends are starting to understand our culture now because we brought the jewellery out.” As a gateway to a complex and rich culture jewellery is a beguiling means for illustrating how conquests and migration flows, Buddhist and Hindu thought and a highly sophisticated society utilized art, architecture, design and craft as a means of self-expression and self-determination.

Gbang Crown in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Gbang Crown in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Inclusivity cuts across several metrics and one sees this most clearly on EdoEyen’s website where the same designs are offered in precious metal and gold-plated iterations. Edo explains this unusual decision further: “We wanted to start with high-end…but we know within the Cambodian community in general people aren’t as financially comfortable so we wanted to offer our fellow Cambodians a chance of shopping our products” They could have chosen to solve the cost quandary by offering a diffusion line with simplified designs but in making the decision to straddle the price points of fine and fashion jewellery as well as actively not abandon clients who would innately have affinity with the pieces they open up other questions around the democratization of luxury and what is considered art. “Our goal is to make people understand that this is fine art” says Edo but one could counter that surely art be it jewellery or created in any other medium needs to be expensive and difficult to acquire to have true value. The Chorm sisters’ decision challenges the industry to accept or at least consider that notion; one where concept, craft and execution are of equal import to the precious metals or gemstones used. More pertinently it also results in a more meaningful inclusiveness that goes beyond sloganeering.

Neang Neak Cuff in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Neang Neak Cuff in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Future Plans and Manifestations

As any social scientist will assert, culture is not static. History, current realties and future hopes and influences all play their part and for the Chorm sisters this is seen in the Phkachhouck 1.0 earrings and their updated 2.0 iteration. The earrings are in many ways the perfect distillation of the Chorm sisters taking inspiration from the two locations they call home. Inspired by Hevajra one of the main Tantric Buddhist beings, who wore earrings to render her deaf to evil words, the design which features lotus leaves but is an entirely modern imagining of what she might wear if she lived in New York city today. Edo adds “They don’t look like anything existing in Cambodian jewellery and the aesthetic is more influenced by our western upbringing.” As autodidacts the sisters do not feel bound by the jewellery rulebook and as Cambodian Americans they possess a lightness of touch when relating to their heritage, neither constrained or overwhelmed by it. “It is really fun to learn as you go along because each progression makes you feel proud” notes Edo of the duality of their situation.

Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Beyond jewellery the sisters see their product offering extending into flatware “we want to make utensils” Edo explains ”Like blessed bowls” Eyen finishes, in one of the many instances where they have completed each other’s sentences and stream of consciousness during our conversation, which took on the energy of a late night hang with friends over Zoom than a heavy discussion on culture and aesthetics. A major stockiest “like Bergdorf’s would be like hitting the jackpot to be honest” notes Edo, although their existing steady clientele is indicative that they have already happened upon a winning formula. Future collaborations with fashion brands is something they are open to. with Edo adding “Doing a Dolce and Gabbana runway would be amazing as it is always bedecked and opulent and I would just love that.” Style icon, mogul and noted jewellery collector Rihanna is Eyen’s dream client and they are currently in talks with other A listers who have are captivated by the jewellery and there seems a cosmic inevitability that it will be worn by them sooner rather than later.

Phkachhouck 2.0 Earrings in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Phkachhouck 2.0 Earrings in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

EdoEyen is in many ways a brand that is reflective of the present moment in time. The world, whether via socio cultural shifts or an internet that has made us collectively more curious about other places and said places accessible with a swipe of our fingertips has opened up avenues of discourse for brands large and small. Furthermore, the west is no longer seen as the lodestar of taste, civilization or even commerce, and attesting to this is the number of recent and successful launches of jewellery houses with founders of South East Asian heritage. “When we came into the jewellery world we wanted to create something that speaks to us and something that belongs to us and something that is our identity” says Eyen. As their line continues to expand with new pieces in development, their commitment has birthed a jewellery house that resonates and validates a community whilst making pieces that paint a more nuanced picture of Cambodia. Edo adds “Cambodia is not just about the genocide…we want to change the mindset, especially in America.” Places, like gemstones are multifaceted, and by highlighting this truism and how it relates to their home of origin and their home of choice, EdoEyen as a brand and the Chorm sisters as individuals are well positioned to play an important role in the further diversification of the global jewellery canon