Anna Hu, Custom Jeweler to the Lucky
Anna Hu (right) sat across the table from me at her shop beneath the legendary Plaza Hotel, presiding over a collection of flawless stones worth millions, arranged neatly by color like baubles in a bead shop. On my wrist I wore the bracelet version of this knot ring (below) -- probably the only one in existence. The highest volume of any item Hu has ever produced, with the exception of the linked items at Kabiri at Selfridges, is three.
"The technique is to really feel like a red string. At first, I was going to make it as a bangle, and then I thought, 'But people could copy that.' So, I converted it. The shape of the heart is stable, but [the rest] is flexible."
"Would you give it to someone who was getting married?" I asked.
"It's more of a romance-related item. I created the item because a lot of couples are so deeply in love with each other, but if the timing's not right ... before marriage, why don't we have a pre-bridal collection? We could call it 'Romance.'"
Anna Hu is a jewelry designer who came to America from Taiwan as a cello prodigy when she was 14 years old to attend Walnut Hill, a prestigious arts boarding school. She went on to The New England Conservatory of Music, but hurt her shoulder. It was then that she decided to join the family business; her father is a gems dealer. "I went to my father. It was all meant to be," she said humbly. The pain of losing her first love to an injury was palpable as she talked about the switch:
"Well, I hurt my shoulder, so what could I do?"
Apparently, a lot. Hu went on to obtain a masters degree in Art History from Parsons School of Design and a second in Arts Administration at Columbia University, as well as a Graduate Gemologist Degree from the Gemological Institute of America. She started her jewelry brand at age 29.
Hu's music background is more than evident in her work. She is inspired by music and musicians she meets, such as Madonna, for whom she has created several pieces. She listens to music while she designs, and can remember exactly what she was listening to when she looks at her completed works.
"I have to listen to music," says Hu. "Rachmaninoff, Bach, sometimes I can only listen to Pacanini ... I feel all the technical challenge, and like, convert it into jewelry." ... "I have this sense of illusion of movement. If a jewelry piece cannot move, I have to make it look as though it's moving."
Gallery: Anna Hu - One of a Kind Designer
I asked her to show me one of her favorite pieces, and she brought out this rendering of an item yet to be completed:
"This, to me, is a very intellectual piece. I'm always obsessed with the contemporary, modern art. This is derived from a famous painter, Zhang Daqian, and he does this kind of Pollock-like watercolor Chinese painting. [It's a] winter plum tree. Winter plum is always bright red. If you look at the Chinese painting, it's always abstract. It's never going to be petals, just a single, rounded dot that's bright red in front of grayish, whitish snow, with very dark black branches."
"So this is like a watercolor painting made of jewels?" I asked.
"It's quite authentic. I studied the painting very carefully before I composed the structure of the piece. The highest point of all the stones will be the ruby, the second layer will be the onyx, then will be the gray and white diamond, and I'm going to have the black diamond soaking in as the background to create a sense of depth. In painting, it's flat, but you see depth from different intensity of the color."
And the tree itself?
"Carved onyx. It will be carved from thick onyx into this shape."
When you see Hu with her palette of gems, it's no wonder she only tends to make one of each item. Every stone she uses is special -- having a father who deals gems helps; you can bet she has first dibs on some of the finest stones he sees -- and she uses them carefully and deliberately. "This the Van Gogh palette," she said, showing me some yellows and oranges surely worth more than the combined contents of my apartment. She is the only jeweler doing custom work at this level, but it's out of necessity; this level would be literally impossible to mass-produce.
Her most extravagant project took two years to create, and her most expensive was a $2 million piece with a Burma ruby, which is now under embargo and can no longer be sold. She likes the challenge of custom design. "Whoever comes to me always has a very important day like an anniversary, or getting engaged, so I feel like I'm always surrounded by happy things."
"I'm so obsessed with what I do. It's not even passion anymore, I mean, my husband saw me this morning at eight, and said 'oh my god,' because I had three cups of coffee there. And I have so many ideas. For example, I have three brooches in my mind. One is, I want to do a beautiful, abstract mermaid with flowing hair. Second is, I want to do a queen spring goddess with abstract lines. Then, I'm thinking about how two butterflies make babies, because when they make babies they have to be in a very weird position. So, three brooches from very different art history periods. I'm cuckoo right now."
Charity work keeps Hu inspired. "Well, I try to be a good Christian, and I have always felt that if you have the time, being involved with charity is like building up your own happiness. Even though I'm not that important and I have so little power, it makes me feel like a better person, and a better person has a more clean soul. If I have a clean soul, I can think of beautiful things. So, it's like spring water."
Anna Hu's goal is to create 999 haute joaillerie pieces. "It's a lucky number, and it's about 30 each year, which is very reasonable -- not ambitious yet not lazy, a conservative yet solid goal." ... "Then, I'm done. I'll travel around the world. My duty will be complete. Mission accomplished."
Not just any pieces will do, of course; and she doesn't mean duplications. "I'm talking about 999 pieces I can put in any museum in the world, any art history book in the world, and people would be like, 'Where did that come from?'"
Though she isn't in any museums yet, she views her Plaza boutique as a museum. "I cannot stand to have a tag on a piece of jewelry. I have logical problems with that. It's a museum. It's my own museum."
Visit The Plaza Hotel to see Anna Hu's works in person. Tags or not, she gets a good deal on the stones, so you'll find the prices surprisingly affordable -- and work like hers will appreciate over time. Who knows, perhaps one day, you'll be loaning your Anna Hu to The Met.