Meet the ‘Da Vinci Code’ jeweler turned philanthropist

Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most successful jewelers, Michelle Ong’s rise to global recognition has seen her overcome a lack of formal training in the art of jewelry making and the challenges of starting a business in the heart of colonial-era Hong Kong. She’s made pieces for Michael Jackson, Kate Winslet and Tom Hanks, and has had her jewelry placed in the iconic movie “The Da Vinci Code.”

Yet, when a major U.S. magazine described her as “a hero of philanthropy,” Ong was surprised. She didn’t even know that she was on anyone’s radar.

“I think the purpose (of philanthropy) is to create initiatives that have a lasting impact, and I think, nowadays, philanthropy should be proactive and not only passive giving. I think it should be a connector,” Ong told Tania Bryer on CNBC Meets: Defining Values in Hong Kong.

“That’s why I had this name for the foundation: First Initiative.” A lack of support for young people pursuing art in China led her to open the First Initiative Foundation in 2010. After establishing her jewelry reputation in Hong Kong, Ong wanted to tackle the “traditional Chinese” reluctance in making a living from the arts.

“Hong Kong is a diversely talented community, and, as we all know, talents need support and nurture,” Ong said.

“And in the traditional Chinese way, they think, ‘Oh, you can never find a living doing arts,’ and I think that we have been proven wrong, and I think this is an area that I think we need to give a lot of support.”

Her foundation offers sponsorship for young musical artists to play a piece on stage and have their work critiqued by an artist. Mentorship programs give children the chance to showcase their musical talent abroad, including a chance to visit the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.

“When I see the grin on their faces, it’s worth all the work,” Ong said.

But she doesn’t stop there. Using her connections across the world, she managed to locate a large-scale Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that was exhibited to raise money for the foundation. Ong has thrown herself into fundraisers involving Hong Kong’s top chefs and collaborations with classic composers to raise support for Hong Kong’s young upcoming artists.

The foundation bears the hallmarks of Hong Kong’s political and cultural legacy as a bridge between China and the rest of the world. Indeed, she likens her programs as a connector.

“Hopefully, we are a bridge. We are not inward looking, but we try to connect to the world, too.”

The philanthropist and bespoke jewelry maker is a product of both the East and the West — of Hong Kong’s colonial past and modern day China. That comes across in the jewelry she produces. From delicate pear shapes to Chinese dragon designs, Ong’s refined jewelry reflects a combination of cultural influences.

“My design is a product of my environment and my experiences,” Ong said. Still, she said, “it wasn’t a conscious effort to combine East and West.”

Ong likes to steer clear of animals because, when they translate into jewelry, she believes they’re “not very exciting.”

“But the one thing I love to do is dragons. In western culture the dragon is very fierce, and ferocious, and for the Chinese culture it’s very benevolent.”

The success of Carnet, her jewelry making business in Hong Kong, is largely attributable to her passion for perfection, planning and detail. Her designs are intricate, detailed and “quiet,” as she puts it in her own words.

“I think it’s feminine, and it’s bold at the same time. It sounds a bit contradictory, but you can wear jewelry and yet be quiet.”

Ong is one of the most sought-after jewelry designers in the world, with her reach going beyond Hong Kong. Michael Jackson bought one of her pieces, and, in more recent years, she has attracted Hollywood royalty: Actresses Kate Winslet and Glenn Close wore her pieces on the red carpet. Ong recalled visiting Winslet’s home and having “great fun,” but said working on red carpet pieces isn’t really for her.

Ong captured international attention in 2007 when she was asked to create jewelry pieces for the film adaptation of “The Da Vinci Code.” Film directors had approached her and told her to wait for instructions. Instead, she sketched her ideas for the Fleur-de-lis cross key, a prominent jewel in the film. Ong was immediately hired.

“It was really an eye-opener,” she said. “When you see the scenes they had, you couldn’t tell, when you saw the movie, which was a prop and which was the real thing. So, it was really fun.”

In a film laden with jewelry, Ong designed the Fleur-de-lis cross key, made of steel, platinum and 18 karat gold, and also designed a black diamond crucifix pin. Then, the movie’s star came calling.

“Tom Hanks wrote to me afterwards to say can he have a pin, because he always thought it was very lovely. So he contacted me, via the prop master, to see whether he could have a pin. I said, well, I was more than happy.”

“Afterwards, he wrote me a very nice note, saying that ‘now I felt I am a member of the secret society.’”

Ong said she has always been a “dreamer.”

“I was always sensitive to beautiful things, but saying that, growing up in such an environment, I know what is devotion and commitment because I grew up with this.”

Both her artistic prowess and route to becoming one of the world’s top jewelry designers have been unexpected, if not unorthodox. Both of Ong’s parents were doctors in Hong Kong. The jewelry designer took inspiration from her mother, a gynecologist who worked long hours delivering babies.

“I saw how much satisfaction she got from it. So that was an inspiration for me,” said Ong.

“My parents thought I was a bit odd because they were medical people and scientists, and yet they’ve got this dreamer on their hands.”

And yet, Ong’s parents gave her the “freedom to explore” her own interests.

Ong studied sociology at the University of Toronto. Moving to Canada hadn’t been too difficult for her, she said, because she had already experienced the “juxtaposition of East and West” in Hong Kong — still a British colony when Ong was growing up.

On returning to Hong Kong after graduation, she stumbled into the jewelry business when a family friend who imported diamonds asked her to learn the art of jewelry designing.

Ong had no formal training as a jewelry designer, yet she felt that gave her the boost to think that “nothing is impossible.”

“In a way, there are no boundaries, and I was there to experiment. I was there to try.”

Another key to Ong’s success was forming a partnership with Hong Kong-based Israeli gem dealer Avi Nagar. The two launched Dorera in 1985, and, after a number of years of self-learning and honing her jewelry making skills, Ong had finally found her signature style. In 1998, the business was reborn into Carnet.

While her business partner sources stones and handles the commercial side, Ong is free to focus on expressing her artistic side. Still, she said the both of them “strive for perfection” in creating the best pins, brooches, cufflinks, rings, bracelets and earrings.

Her intricate designs have won clients from around the world, but she is adamant that jewelry must fit the personality of a wearer.

“I think the most important aspect for people buying my jewelry is that they should choose something that is relevant to their lifestyle because I want it to be worn. So, that’s a very essential part of having jewelry.”

A perfectionist in the workshop and always “very sensitive to beautiful things,” Ong said she did not have a Facebook account or use any social media. With children of her own and facing the modern age, she’s willing to compromise and listen to further her own education.

“I think it’s very important that we can’t stop learning from people. Whether it’s the younger generation or your same generation, if we don’t move forward we will go backwards.”

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