Michelle Liao of MICHL Jewellery is a Cape Town based maker, currently focused on creating beautiful, sophisticated pieces of Jewellery. I recently had the privilege of shooting some of her most recent pieces that will be going up in her online store and thought it would be good to catch up and hear a little more about her story.
Here’s what Michelle had to say:
“I stumbled upon jewellery making in 2005 when I first met Safia Salaam, the HOD of the jewellery department at Ruth Prowse School of Art. I had wanted her to quote me on making a ring with a piece of jade that I had inherited from my grandma’s wedding ring, and she very casually said that I should attend her part-time class on Tuesday evening and she’ll teach me how to make it myself! Totally intrigued by her offer, I attended my first jewellery making class the following week, without knowing that would be my first small step into my new career.
At the time when I met Safia, I had just started my career as an events and projects manager for a prominent Cape Town based company. For the next ten years, I continued to climb the corporate ladder, but always enjoyed doing jewellery on Tuesday nights as my creative outlet and a way to escape from my 9-5 daily stress.
In 2012, I decided it was time for me to take the plunge and embark on a career change, quit my job and enroll to study Jewellery Design and Manufacture at Ruth Prowse. Since graduating at the end of 2014, I’ve been an Emerging Creative at Design Indaba Expo in 2015, participated in 3 international jewellery shows, and I now teach at Ruth Prowse.“
Having moved to South Africa from Taiwan in the early 90’s, how and why did you land up in Cape Town?
My parents were offered an employment opportunity by a big Taiwanese investor in South Africa, so we all moved to the country. When we first arrived in South Africa, we lived in East London, and after graduating high school I went to study business management at University of Port Elizabeth. As I finished varsity, my parents decided to move to Cape Town to pursue new business opportunities, so shortly after I graduated from varsity, I moved to Cape Town too.
Your “My Africa” collection stands out in particular at the moment. Tell us about this and some of your other projects?
The My Africa collection is something that will always be very close to my heart. It started with the brass and telephone wire accessories collection (See more here) as the body of work for my graduate show at Ruth Prowse School of Art. In 2016, off the back of an invitation to participate in a group show, Collect Handmade, I got to create the beautiful afro combs, which I had always wanted to add to the collection. I love the combination of gold plated brass with an alternative material such as horns, ceramics and colorful telephone wire, so I think those will always be my ‘signature’ materials.
As a designer maker, I definitely draw a lot of inspiration from my Asian heritage and also from the very cosmopolitan African environment I live in. I am a visual person, so I have to see and feel things around me in order to be inspired. I love listening to stories too, so a trip to the Karoo and a conversation with a local farmer about the humble ‘sterretjiebos’ can go on to inspire me to create the Nature Afro comb for my collection.
What is on the horizon at the moment is the potential opportunity to participate in an international jewellery show in September. So between show preparation and teaching, I am hardly finding time to do much else.
Can you tell us more about the materials that you work with?
I am classically trained to work with precious materials such as silver, gold and stones, so I will always enjoy working with those materials. I also love working with brass, for its color, and it’s cost effective enough for me to create big pieces with less pinch on the pocket. Telephone wires come in an amazing array of colours, and it’s quite versatile to work with, so that will always be my favorite alternative medium.
My knowledge and skills in working with various metals has allowed me to create unique and contemporary African style accessories, as well as, framed artworks, like the Afro combs from the My Africa collection. Being able to cross between creating jewellery and artwork is definitely the kind of space I would like to play in.
You’ve had pieces in a few exhibitions lately, what’s been happening there?
Participating in exhibitions is a really wonderful way to connect with your peers and with your audience. If I could give one piece of advice to upcoming artists and jewellers, it would be to find ways to participate in exhibitions or shows. It pushes you to create work for the shows and helps to set goals and milestones for your brand.
I love doing international shows for the opportunity to travel and to get a sense of how we compare to other international designers. My favorite show to participate in is called Bijorhca Paris. It takes place twice a year and buyers from all over the world visit the show for various seasons. Through the shows, I’ve had the opportunity to engage and sell to buyers from Paris and Italy. Buyers from Portugal and Spain also seem to like the combination of brass and telephone wire a lot, so hopefully I will find a great buyer from that region of Europe at the next show in September.
Locally, I love doing the Design Indaba every year. As the premium show featuring all things new and wonderful in South African creativity, to get an annual invitation from Design Indaba to exhibit at the show’s pop-up gallery is a wonderful affirmation of the curator’s love for my work. Participating at Design Indaba each year also forces me to create new things each year, so it is a win win for me every time.
What’s next for MICHL?
The Asian competitive nature in me is fighting to install the ‘in it to win it’ spirit, but in my heart I just want to make what makes me happy and if the judges happen to love my work, that would be an awesome bonus.
I am also hoping to participate in the Bijorhca show again in September, so there is lots of preparation there if I pass the selection process.
You can find more MICHL Jewellery on MICHL Facebook and MICHL Instagram.
Client: Michelle Liao
Studio Lighting: Moses Chisale
Photographer: Graham Wiles