In the Chinese classic The Twenty-Four Filial Examplars (二十四孝), compiled and written by the Yuan dynasty scholar Guo Jujing (郭居敬), one exemplary act of parental love was from the military-man-turned-magistrate Meng Zong (孟宗), who also made literary appearances in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义). Meng Zong was so filial that no less than five stories described the selfless acts he did for his mother. Among them (and the most famous) was the incident in which he was able to move the heavens so much that he was bestowed a life-saving gift.
Meng Zong’s mother, as the story went, was suddenly seriously ill and had requested for bamboo shoot soup to make her feel better (some Chinese texts told of 笋尖湯 or soup of bamboo shoot tips). Always giving his mother what she wanted, Meng Zong set forth to look for bamboo shoots. There was, however, a problem: it was the middle of winter. Undeterred, Meng Zong continued his search, but it was to no avail. Thinking of his ill mother’s wishes unfulfilled, the fellow cried. But it was no ordinary tears of disappointment. According to one account, “tears began to fall in rivers to the ground”.
Such a watercourse must have been visible to the gods above. In no time, Meng Zong stumbled upon shoots among the bamboos and was able to gather enough to make his mother’s desired soup, which, consequently, made her well. The story not only impressed the neighbours who believed that filial resolve moved heaven to ask earth for a favour, it produced the four-character Chinese idiom 哭竹生笋 or crying to the bamboo sprouts shoots.
Silver stacked bamboo ring
Creator of the new jewellery brand Chinoiserie Blu, Way Tay, did not have to cry into bamboos to encourage the shoot of his label to sprout, but it has been a near-tears experience. The birth of C Blu (as the brand is affectionately called among members of the media) is the result of hard work, not miracles—diligence and drudgery in equal measure as Mr Tay is not a jewellery designer by profession.
Until jewellery design came a-calling, he was (and still is) a graphic designer. Mr Tay, a graduate of Massachusetts College of Arts & Design, runs a successful creative and PR agency he co-founded in 2002, yet he gives in to the passion that has consumed him for a long time: making beautiful tactile things. The journey began two years ago, meandered through courses in computer-aided design, metal-smithing, jewellery design, as well as understanding of gem stones, before coming to the naissance of C Blu.
“From young,” Mr Tay said, connecting the dots between the two-dimensionality of his prior work and the three of the present, “I was always making and building with Plasticine. In school, I took sculpting classes and made models that were derived from 2-D drawings during ‘live’ drawing classes.” The recall is made with palpable pride just as the showing of his new jewellery collection is made with considerable satisfaction—the contented father and his commendable brood.
Gold-plated silver bamboo square within a square pendant
Launched last Wednesday, C Blu’s debut is a small collection of five pieces in either rhodium- or 18k-gold-plated silver, all inspired by the panda’s favourite food: bamboo. Essentially a grass, the evergreen bamboo has 700 years of history and is sometimes the stuff of myth, which perhaps explains the endless fascination it elicits among designers.
In fact, the bamboo, although a plant of Asian origin, has been copped by European brands, such Gucci, who has made the bamboo handle and the toggle closure identifiable details of its signature bag. So successful has the bamboo been for the brand that bamboo-shaped jewellery— bangles, no less—are in store too.
The bamboo’s linearity and distinct Orientalism are especially well-suited to jewellery design and they show. From the storied American house of Tiffany to the trendy British jeweller Dinny Hall, and in China, from the Hermès-backed Shang Xia to the Richemont-owned Shanghai Tang, bamboo is not to be missed. Mr Tay is well aware of the bamboo’s popularity among designers, noting that it, too, appears in the works of Bali-based John Hardy, but he is unfazed by the possibility that it may be a design cliché. “A designer’s challenge,” he maintained, “is always to innovate from a basic concept and create something unique or unexpected. Otherwise, one can always say everything has been done.”
Chinoiserie Blu’s distinctive pieces, the square bangles
Furthermore, “the point of difference is in our design and pricing. Our pieces bridge the market and target those looking for high quality, hand-made jewellery, in limited pieces, with a very accessible price range. This is a new luxe available to all,” he enthused. Accessibility, while a necessary starting point for a competitive business and a purse-tight customer base, is, perhaps, secondary to design. C Blu’s refined pieces are striking at first encounter because they speak a relatable modern vernacular, even if the source of inspiration is as old as flowers.
The square is the main shape of the entire collection. Using this rather than the obvious and omnipresent circle could bode well for the brand. The square, to the Chinese, is, interestingly, not quite the same geometrically as it is perceived in the West. In the Chinese language, a four-sided shape is known by the basic word fang (方) and a square is known as zheng fang (正方), while the rectangle is chang fang (长方). The word zheng also means straight and denotes uprightness, both qualities associated with the bamboo.
The pieces, sensuous to the touch, are all individually handmade in Singapore of three-percent palladium-enriched sterling silver (an alloy known for its strength that, for some jewellers, is the same as that of 14k white gold, and, in the case of jewellery, appreciated for its definition and durability) to better mimic the toughness of bamboo, and rhodium-plated to maintain shine and prevent tarnishing.
Despite bamboo and the West’s unceasing love affair, Way Tay is certain his interpretation won’t cut the plant’s inherent aesthetic appeal or, conversely, exoticise its charms. “When luxury brands create products with Chinese motifs,” he laments, “they become cool and are in demand, but when local brands do the same, it takes time for the market to accept. That’s the irony.” Undaunted, he says, “I hope to re-shape the thinking and perception in this area through Chinoiserie Blu.” As with Meng Zong, the gods may just be looking kindly down from above.
Chinoiserie Blu’s debut ‘Bamboo 1 Square’ collection, from USD70, is available at chinoiserieblu.com. Photos: Jim Sim