Michelle Ong’s world is filled with sensual delights, such as ripe mandarin oranges, swaying palm trees and fragile, trembling anemones.
These natural wonders aren’t real, but are created by Ong in her jewelry workshop in Hong Kong, using colored diamonds, precious gems, white gold and titanium for her 20-year-old line, called Carnet.
For the first time, the public will see Ong’s most important works at an exhibition called “;Exquisite Jewels: The Art of Carnet by Michelle Ong,” which runs until Dec. 10 at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.
Ong, a mother of three, has no formal training as a jeweler. She started creating her naturalistic designs, which sell for up to $1 million, as a hobby while working in the wholesale diamond business.
“;I was working for a family friend in Hong Kong, learning about stones but itching to do something else. Plus, I couldn’t find any jewelry to wear out to a party,” said Ong, who was in London earlier this month to promote the exhibition that kicked off Saturday. Because I have no formal training, I have no fear. I never think inside the box. I just find ways to make what I want.”
Some 100 pieces of Ong’s work from her two decades in the business will be on display, many of which are on loan from customers. The show features her pieces for day, including diamond and white gold hoop earrings and white gold, silver and diamond bangles, as well as her more extravagant looks for evening.
There is the twin mandarin orange brooch, with the fruit made from intense and fancy yellow diamonds and the leaves fashioned from white, rose-cut diamonds, and a pair of palm trees, with flexible trunks made from white and brown rose-cut diamonds.
A dragonfly brooch has wings fashioned from white diamonds, a body made from platinum and titanium, and a flexible tail made from brown diamonds.
“;It’s a big piece, but light enough to pin it on a silk blouse,” said Ong.
Her lightweight butterfly brooches can be worn at the waist, the shoulder or even in a chignon.
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“;Jewelry has to breathe, flow and have life,” said Ong. “;It can’t be static. And, most important, you have to have fun with it. It does not belong in the safe.”
Whimsy works its way into many of Ong’s designs. Her fire-breathing dragons — two mirror-image brooches made from diamonds, rubies and emeralds on a titanium and platinum base — come with tiny, individual “;flame” brooches.
“;You can pin the flames wherever you want, coming out of one dragon’s mouth or both,” she said.
Her Dancing Anemone brooch is made from diamond, tsavorite and colored stones, with a gumdrop-sized emerald tremblant in the center.
Ong, a Hong Kong native who has a degree in sociology from the University of Toronto, is no relation to Ong Beng Seng and Christina Ong of Singapore, the fashion retailers.
She said she sees her jewelry as a personal expression and almost can’t believe her hobby has turned into a career. “;I still see jewelry as an art form, not a commodity and not a business,” Ong said.
Like so many artists, Ong admits she’s not the most practical person. “;I don’t even know how to get into the office or how to open the safe. Avi takes care of all that,” she said, referring to her longtime business partner, Avi Nagar, a Hong Kong-based diamond wholesaler. “;We’ve created the business together, and I’ve been very lucky.”
Ong said one of her main priorities when crafting her jewelry, aside from beauty and flow, is comfort, which is one reason why she works with titanium. She considers it a compliment when her clients don a necklace, and by the end of an evening, forget they have it on.
She’s also finicky about the shape of her stones. Even when she and Nagar buy cut and polished diamonds, she often has her team of artisans recut them to her specifications.
“;I actually employ a full-time cutter,” said Ong. “;As far as I’m concerned, there are no shortcuts to creating what I want.”
Joel Rosenthal, the designer behind JAR with whom Ong has often been compared, calls her jewels “;mouth-watering.” In the introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, he wrote, “;Michelle Ong’s power ignores the rules of machines, of numbers, of today, bringing us a beauty so near it is here in our hand.”
Celebrities who have worn Carnet jewels on the red carpet include Kate Winslet, Jennifer Garner, Glenn Close and Teri Hatcher. Ong also created the fleur-de-lis cross key and platinum brooch for “;The Da Vinci Code.”
Ong and Nagar have no plans to wholesale any part of the collection. There is currently one Carnet shop in Hong Kong, in Charter House, and another one is set to open in December in Hong Kong’s Prince’s Building.
Ong also holds private appointments with clients in the Far East and conducts private sales worldwide.
“;This will never be a mass collection,” said Nagar, adding that prices range from about $3,000 for gold and diamond hoop earrings to $1 million for the large, colored diamond pieces.
Ong’s next designs also belong to the natural world. But this time around, she’s leaving terra firma and looking skyward.
“;I’m thinking about clouds,” said Ong. “;Just look at them. Their shapes are endless and ever-changing.”