While both her parents were in the jewellery wholesale business — her father focused on gemstones and her mother on jade and pearls — Anna Hu never expected to be involved in the same trade. Born in Taiwan and educated in the US, she dreamt of a career as a cellist until shoulder tendonitis cut short her hopes. “I was devastated and suffering from a sense of loss, when my father suggested I apply for a GIA (Gemological Institute of America) course in New York. I fell in love with jewellery design right after my first class. I realised that while one window closed, another had opened. I wasn’t a performer anymore; I was a composer,” she recalls.
After gaining her GIA qualification, Hu studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology as well as Parsons School of Design and Columbia University, before landing her first job as an intern at Christie’s jewellery department in New York. She moved on to Van Cleef & Arpels, working in its special jewellery department, where she coordinated between the design workshop and private clients, before joining Harry Winston to do merchandising and inventories. But as she approached 30, Hu started feeling that she “needed to write my own song and find my own voice”.
“At the time, Plaza Hotel in New York had space for a small boutique and my mentor, Maurice Galli, who was the head designer at Harry Winston, encouraged me to go for it,” she says. Since founding her namesake company in 2007, Hu has focused on creating exclusive high jewellery characterised by a bold scale and sense of movement.
These have quickly become collectables at auctions. Francois Curiel, Chairman of Christie’s Europe and Asia and Head of Christie’s Global Luxury Division, describes Hu’s work as offering a “unique equilibrium of proportion, construction, colour and dazzle”; while Yvonne Chu, Acting Head of Department, Jewellery, Sotheby’s, praises the artist for her ability to transform top-quality gemstones into “inspirational jewellery masterpieces”.
Hu says: “I’m really creating my jewellery as if I’m composing a piece of music, treating every single stone like a musical note. It can be at the sonata or symphony level — there will always be a beautiful melodic line and colour harmonies.”
She likens some of her pieces to the music of Rachmaninov, which she describes as “very romantic with lot of intensity”, or Schubert, whose music carries “a twisted nostalgia and sentimental tone”.
But her cultural references, often infused with oriental aesthetics, go beyond music. Her Siren’s Aria ring, featuring a 22.82- ct emerald surrounded by a swirl of Paraiba tourmalines, was inspired by Hokusai’s woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, while her elaborate Monet Water Lily necklace is an ode to the impressionist painter’s colourful garden.
Hu has a weakness for blue Kashmir sapphires and often incorporates them into her designs — and she does so relatively easily, given that many of her pieces are related to the ocean and waves.
In October, Sotheby’s Hong Kong offered five new pieces created by Hu as part of its Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite Autumn Sale. These specially commissioned pieces were inspired by the musical and cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, and part of the sales proceeds went to Silkroad, a charity founded by Yo-Yo Ma, who has always inspired Hu. The star creation, Dunhuang Pipa Necklace, sold for US$5.78 million ($7.89 million), setting a new record for the jeweller at an auction. It featured a stunning 100.02-ct fancy intense yellow diamond. Hu says she was inspired by the Unesco-listed Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes in China’s Gansu province and the imagery of a lady dancing while playing the pipa (a four-stringed Chinese lute).
Not wanting to be “too literal by creating something figurative”, Hu drew on the fluidity of the dancer’s movements and shaped the diamond necklace into a stylised ribbon that held a pipa (represented by the sizeable central diamond). She admits it was one of the most technically challenging jewels she’s ever done — the diamond pipa can be worn as a separate brooch and an earring. Like all her pieces, this was produced in an atelier in Paris.
Also on sale at Sotheby’s was her Blue Magpie brooch, which features sapphire birds kissing above a tiny golden nest that bears a beautiful conch pearl. Hu describes this as her personal favourite of the collection. “This was inspired by the motif on the traditional Chinese blue-and- white porcelain plate and by paintings created by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary who served at the imperial Chinese court.” It sold for US$254,920, slightly above the estimated price of between US$190,000 and US$225,000. In fact, all five pieces were sold, priced within or exceeding estimates.
Hu, who divides her time between New York and Monaco, points out that the collaboration with Sotheby’s started out as a “duet”, with each bringing its own voice, but crescendoed into a fascinating firework in her head.
“This capsule collection is an abstract of over 100 ideas and concepts,” she explains. We can hardly wait for more.