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Jewellery Diversity: A Taiwanese Designer at a Finnish Brand

By Penelope Colston

Chao-Hsien Kuo, a Taiwan-born goldsmith and jewellery designer, at work in her atelier in Lahti, Finland. As a designer for Lapponia, Finland’s best-known jewellery label at an international level, Kuo's work comes with a challenge: she must produce marketable pieces that are true to her artistic vision while embracing that of the brand.
 
Touko Hujanen
Chao-Hsien Kuo, a Taiwan-born goldsmith and jewellery designer, at work in her atelier in Lahti, Finland. As a designer for Lapponia, Finland’s best-known jewellery label at an international level, Kuo's work comes with a challenge: she must produce marketable pieces that are true to her artistic vision while embracing that of the brand.

LAHTI, Finland — Thousands of miles from her homeland, in a place known for its long and brutal winters, inspiration has come easily to Chao-Hsien Kuo, a goldsmith and jewellery designer who moved here from Taiwan in 2000.

“I’m looking at everything from a different point of view. I get excited about snow,” said Kuo, who lives and has an atelier here, about 65 miles north of Helsinki. “It’s so normal for people here but for me, there’s always excitement when I look at it.”

As a designer for Lapponia, Finland’s best-known jewellery label at an international level, her work comes with a challenge: She must produce marketable pieces that are true to her artistic vision while embracing that of the brand, realised in the 1960s by the Finnish sculptor and jewellery designer Bjorn Weckstrom.

Kuo, 44, joined Lapponia in 2006 as its first female designer. It has since employed a second foreign-born woman as a designer, Liesbeth Busman of Holland. The women were selected to bring softer, more feminine lines to Lapponia, whose style had long been associated with the masculine, sculpture-like forms conceived by Weckstrom.

Now 82, Weckstrom no longer has a formal role in the company. However, Lapponia encourages new designers to meet with him and to closely study his work, as well as that of the European men who previously designed for it, including Poul Havgaard, a Dane who earned acclaim in the 1970s working with Pierre Cardin. He died in 2011.

“These newer designers have to be talented in the sense that they understand the tradition of Lapponia design,” said Riitta Huuhtanen, chief executive of Kalevala Koru Oy, a Finnish company that owns Lapponia. “They can’t just copy it, of course, but they must be able to bring something about that understanding into their own designs.”

Touko HujanenA necklace and brooch by Chao-Hsien Kuo, a Taiwan-born goldsmith and jewellery designer.
A necklace and brooch by Chao-Hsien Kuo, a Taiwan-born goldsmith and jewellery designer.

Designing for Lapponia has afforded Kuo a chance to focus more diligently on her time-consuming private work, a series of intricate pieces in which she uses Keum-boo, a painstaking ancient Korean technique. It involves depleting silver with several applications of acid, until the silver has a snow-white finish, and then gilding it with 24-karat gold foil.

“It is definitely quality time for me, to be with myself, creating these works that may or may not be sold, but that are important to me,” said Kuo, who describes the gold and silver pieces she produces for Lapponia as “a simpler version of my artistic work.”

Lapponia was started in 1960 by Pekka Anttila, a Helsinki silversmith. Weckstrom joined him in 1963, producing a small line of chunky, modernist pieces whose unconventional designs were inspired by the frozen lakes and snowy landscapes in Finnish nature. The collection led to Weckstrom’s reputation as a pioneer in avant-garde and experimental jewellery.

“I wanted jewellery to be not just a symbol of wealth; I wanted it to be a symbol of culture and art,” said Weckstrom, who lives in Helsinki and Pisa, Italy. “The rich people were staying with their diamonds. The middle classes were the ones who wanted something different and new.”

By 1970, his work had won several global jewellery awards and in 1977, Carrie Fisher wore his Planetoid Valleys necklace in her role as Princess Leia in the final scene of the first “Star Wars” film, still considered Lapponia’s greatest moment of fame.

Touko HujanenA necklace by Chao-Hsien Kuo.
A necklace by Chao-Hsien Kuo.

The brand still sells Weckstrom’s designs on its website and at retailers worldwide. While his vintage pieces remain highly collectible — easily selling at auction for several thousand dollars and more — the Lapponia of today produces jewellery for a wider customer base at a lower price. (Kalevala Koru Oy, which doesn’t break out Lapponia’s results, reported total sales of 13.7 million euros, or $16.2 million, for its 2017 fiscal year, the 12 months ending in March.)

In the competitive global market, the company has sought to maintain its image as a modern, environmentally conscious Finnish brand: Its pieces are handmade from recycled metals in an energy-efficient studio in Helsinki.

“It is reproducing many of the best-seller pieces from the 1970s, in addition to delivering new designs created by current designers,” said Ana Palmeirim-Vayrynen, whose blog, finlandjewelry.com, is devoted to contemporary and unconventional jewellery. “They reflect its artistic identity while maintaining its relevancy in today’s competitive market.”

Weckstrom said he had at times felt disappointed as Lapponia evolved into a more commercial brand that has, in his mind at least, put profit and overhead costs ahead of artistic innovation and quality. While he does not agree with every design decision it has made, he praised the work of Kuo, who he said had been a valuable addition.

“Chao is making very good jewellery,” he said. “I wouldn’t say she’s so inspired by my style. But she’s good, and she’s been a fresh input for Lapponia.”

Touko Hujanen
 

Kuo — who is of Taiwanese heritage and uses Korean techniques in her work — described her designs, which are inspired by flowers, trees and plants, as “more Scandinavian or Finnish than Asian.” An idea might come while walking to her atelier, or at a family summer house she visits with her husband, Eero, with whom she produces jewellery for a separate line called Chao & Eero.

Kuo did not immediately find her footing as a Lapponia designer. Her first collection, a series inspired by bamboo, had lukewarm success. Her second collection, Summer Romance, of petal-shaped textured gold and silver pieces has sold relatively well in Lapponia’s largest markets of Germany, Holland and Britain, Huuhtanen said. (The collection’s bracelet in gold, for example, is priced at 2,898 euros.)

For Summer Romance, Kuo took inspiration from dandelions, and how their summertime hues delight in contrast with Finland’s long, dark winters.

Huuhtanen discovered Kuo while working with Design Forum Finland, a Finnish design organization. “I think she has really developed her design language for Lapponia based on the feedback she’s got from the market,” Huuhtanen said. “And I think one big influencer here has also been Bjorn. He exchanges ideas and discussions with all our designers.”

Kuo came to the job prepared: In addition to earning design-related degrees in the United States and Finland, and a goldsmith degree at the Institute of Design in Lahti, she studied commercial design in Taiwan, where she also designed watches.

The experience, she said, taught her how to navigate the often-tricky territory where art and commerce intersect.

“It’s like, how do you design the piece that you want?” she said. “But it still has to be designed in a way that they can produce it, so there are always compromises to be made.

“And also of course, the company has to be able to make money.”