Olivia Shih (@oliviashihdesigns) is a contemporary jeweler, artist, and writer based in Oakland, California. Born in the United States and raised in Taiwan, she is interested in the cultural nuances that can be explored through wearable sculpture. In addition to running her eponymous jewelry business, Shih is the editorial assistant at Metalsmith and writes for both the magazine and Art Jewelry Forum.
Nestled between South Korea, China, and the Philippines is a small but vibrant island called Taiwan. I grew up in this country on a steady diet of bubble tea, beef noodle soup, and exquisite subtropical fruit. I also grew up knowing that, due to its unique geopolitical location and economy, Taiwan was and still is often caught in the political maneuverings and power struggles of others. Starting in the seventeenth century, the island was colonized by the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Japanese, and the Chinese. Although Taiwan has now grown into a fully fledged sovereign country, it continues to be a point of contention in US-China relations.
Most Taiwanese are aware of how small their country is and how fragile its young democracy can be. To survive, both as individuals and as a country, the Taiwanese cultivate both an open-minded approach to new ideas and an avid interest in acquiring knowledge abroad.
Starting in the 1960s, the government invested in human capital by providing scholarships for students to study in other countries, like the United States. After earning advanced degrees in subjects ranging from material science to agricultural science to graphic design, graduates were either required or strongly encouraged to return to the island and inject fresh talent into the economy.1
My father was one of those students. He earned his degree in California, found a job, settled down with my mother, and had three children. Due to the need for elderly family care and emerging job opportunities in Taiwan, our family eventually returned to the island, where my father worked in the semiconductor industry that now manufactures half of the world’s silicon microchips.2 When I was a high school senior, my dad advised me that, if I wanted to thrive in a world of globalization, I had to be fluent in multiple languages and cultures. The way to break through the noise was to be receptive to new ideas, to constantly soak up knowledge, and then to integrate my lived experience into an idiosyncratic skill set.
At the time, I nodded along as if I understood, but it would take over a decade for his words to sink in. Now, looking back—and in conducting interviews for this article—I see how Taiwanese jewelry and metal artists have built their careers on a similar survival playbook of open-minded exploration, education, and innovation.
In the 1970s and 80s, the first generation of art students traveled to the United States to pursue master’s degrees in jewelry and metal arts. Among the travelers was Meiing Hsu, who earned her MFA in metals at the University of Iowa under the tutelage of Professor Chunghi Choo, a Korean American artist.3
Hsu, along with artists such as Mei-Jang Wang, brought their newly acquired knowledge back to Taiwan. In 1997, Wang and Hsu were instrumental in establishing the country’s first master’s program in contemporary metals and jewelry. Both taught for many years at the Tainan National University of the Arts (TNNUA), where they built state-of-the-art studios and scripted challenging curricula for the next generation.
To widen the scope of her classes, Hsu tapped into her international network and invited numerous guest lecturers from around the world to TNNUA. Invited artists include luminaries such as Sarah Perkins (USA), Mary Lee Hu (USA), Katja Prins (Netherlands), Peter Hoogeboom (Netherlands), Monika Brugger (Germany/France), Marilyn da Silva (USA), Don Friedlich (USA), Kee-ho Yuen (Hong Kong/USA), Jiro Kamata (Japan/Germany), Michihiro Sato (Japan), Felieke van der Leest (Netherlands), and Jane Adam (UK).4
During a visit to Taiwan in 2004, Jane Adam gave an in-depth workshop on her aluminum anodizing and dyeing techniques. Mei-Fang Chiang, a student who participated in the workshop, was drawn to the light, affordable, and commonplace metal and the range of possibilities it offered. Since then, Chiang has grown her expertise in aluminum anodizing and cold connections, creating ephemeral and shifting layers of texture and color in her work. The enterprising artist continues to make both art objects and production jewelry.
Similarly, when Sarah Perkins visited Taiwan, her enamel workshop influenced Peggy Hung and Ting-Ting Tsao, who later cofounded Bomb Metal & Fry Jewelry Studio (BMFJ). Tsao shares how their artworks were selected for the 2004 and 2005 Talente Competition in Munich and “a number of Taiwanese news outlets reported on the recognition of [their] work.”5 The media exposure helped the duo launch BMFJ in 2005 and begin the sixteen-year-long journey of introducing contemporary jewelry and metals to their customers.
Part gallery, part store, and part studio, BMFJ was tucked into a quaint alleyway in the busy Datong district of Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. Through this storefront, Hung and Tsao introduced hundreds of local jewelry artists to their clients and held art exhibitions that challenged their audience with unexpected materials and techniques. These included anodized aluminum, intricate enamel plique-à-jour, multilayered porcelain, woven metal, and thin acrylic sheet that was laser cut, folded, then hand dyed.
The average person’s understanding of jewelry and metal arts in the early 2000s was confined to traditional gold wedding jewelry, watchmaking, or 24k gold sculptures of mythical creatures. Hung and Tsao believed it was their responsibility as artists and shopkeepers to entice and educate their audience. Although their personal interest lay in sculptural metal arts, they saw jewelry as a meeting point between their artistic endeavors and market demand.
“Taiwanese are open-minded people, but they are unfamiliar with the concept of contemporary jewelry,” explains Tsao. “BMFJ’s role was to talk about the beauty, wearability, and collectability of the work.” The duo supplemented their efforts by applying for government grants, which allowed them to hire writers and publish quarterly newsletters. These free newsletters were then distributed throughout Taipei.
Even though many of BMFJ’s clients were foreign tourists and business people, it was her local clients who surprised Tsao. She explains, “You might think that art collectors, architects, designers, and celebrities would be interested in contemporary jewelry, but my longtime clients were normal people.” For example, there was a 7-Eleven convenience store employee who often visited BMFJ and paid for her purchase in monthly installments. Then there was a middle-schooler who stopped by just to look over the course of ten years; she eventually purchased jewelry when she became a lawyer and had disposable income.
BMFJ’s physical location closed in 2021 because the cofounders needed a well-deserved break, but Tsao is already brainstorming on a future reopening. Ever the passionate advocate of the arts, Tsao tells me, “You don’t have to like our work, but if you never find out about contemporary jewelry or metalwork in your lifetime, that would be terribly sad.”
Around the same time that Tsao and Hung were studying in Taiwan, a wave of students traveled abroad. Yu-Chun Chen studied in Italy and worked as a teaching assistant to Giampalao Babetto. She then traveled to the Netherlands for her master’s degree at the Sandberg Instituut. Her work centers around the cross-pollination of diverse cultures; according to her artist statement, “The Eastern and the Western cultures come to a confluence in [my] work: the introvert and the extrovert, the sentimental and the rational, the tranquil and the active come together.”6
After living in Europe for over ten years, Chen returned to Taiwan and, with artist Min-Ling Hsieh, cofounded Mano, a pop-up store and gallery. During the 2010s, Mano introduced Taiwanese audiences to the work of scores of European jewelry artists, such as Ted Noten (Netherlands), Ruudt Peters (Netherlands), Ela Bauer (Poland/Netherlands), Hilde De Decker (Belgium), Jantje Fleischhut (Germany/Netherlands), Karin Seufert (Germany), Kim Buck (Denmark), and others. Mano also featured Asian artists, such as Jun Konishi (Japan), Noon Passama (Thailand), HeeJoo Kim (South Korea), and Shu-Lin Wu (Taiwan).7
Shu-Lin Wu, a Taiwanese artist who studied at the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg in France, is known for integrating Mokume Gane, a Japanese metal technique, into her porcelain jewelry. During an artist residency in Finland, she became acquainted with the Scandinavian way of life—from the respect for privacy to the appreciation of silence.8 Her porcelain work often touches on quiet matters of the heart.
In the Southern Hemisphere, Yu Fang Chi was earning her doctorate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Australia. Interested in emotional cognition, the passage of time, the environment, and societal issues, Chi uses weaving techniques in metal to map out the human experience. Unlike many of her peers, Chi decided to stay abroad and is currently a lecturer in the MFA program at RMIT University.9
Back on the island of Taiwan, a burgeoning jewelry scene was overflowing with new talent. Heng Lee—like Hung and Tsao—earned his master’s degree at TNNUA. Lee tells me that one of the visiting lecturers, Felieke van der Leest, upended his conception of what jewelry and value could be. Under the guidance of his professor Meiing Hsu, Lee developed his own distinct visual vocabulary, where he juxtaposed embroidery inspired by traditional Chinese craft with a pixelated metal outline that references our digital lives on the internet.
Hsu strongly encouraged him and other students of TNNUA to apply to local and international exhibitions and competitions. At the SIERAAD Art Fair in the Netherlands, Lee met fellow Taiwanese jewelry artists who decided to come together as a group to amplify their voices. Shortly thereafter they established Bench 886, a collective of ten Taiwanese jewelry artists. The collective crowdfunded for their travel to Munich, Germany, and exhibited at Schmuck in 2014 and 2015. Their work sold well and the reception was enthusiastic, resulting in invitations to exhibit at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h, SIERAAD Art Fair, and JOYA Contemporary Jewellery Fair.110
Each artist in Bench 886 has developed their own distinct aesthetic and innovative technique, with references to their home in Taiwan. Amal Yung-huei Chao focuses on industrial, human-made structures that are specific to Taiwanese residential architecture. In her mind, jewelry is built onto the human body just as decorative window grills and corrugated steel rooftops latch onto buildings. Chao’s work magnifies the details of everyday life that have been overlooked or taken for granted.111
Ying-Hsiu Chen, in contrast, grew up on the even-smaller island of Penghu, off the coast of mainland Taiwan. Since she spent most of her childhood on the beach, she finds inspiration in the plethora of native marine animals and plants.12Through the unusual fusing of lightweight modeling clay and nylon stockings, Chen conveys the essence of ocean life through sea anemone–like forms.
Chen, Lee, and Ying-Hsun (Zita) Hsu, who all live in the southern city of Kaohsiung, established PIN sstudio, a gallery and workshop, in 2015. For their inaugural exhibition, they invited artists Märta Mattsson and Tanel Veenre, whom they’d met at Schmuck. PIN sstudio also offers classes such as enameling and basic metal fabrication.
Lee explains that, although PIN sstudio was turning a small profit, business growth was slow and customer cultivation was extremely time consuming. The three artists felt burnt out and decided to pivot their careers to center financial stability. After running the gallery and working as a substitute teacher for several years, Lee is now an art teacher at an experimental elementary and middle school that encourages hands-on learning. On his days off, he still teaches enameling workshops at PIN sstudio and exhibits his work internationally.13
Earning a living from making contemporary jewelry can be challenging in Taiwan, but artists are still devoted to the field and continue to traverse the globe to acquire knowledge. Pei Wu studied architecture in Taiwan before traveling to the United Kingdom and Germany to study jewelry and lapidary, respectively. In one of her artist statements, Wu says that her architecture training was “human-centric” in that her instructors emphasized designing space for working and living. That approach can be seen in her jewelry in how she sculpts organic curves in stone, metal, and resin. Wu’s 2020 series Parent, Past Life, Teddy Bear focuses on the complex relationship between parent and child—the push and pull, the enveloping softness of family, and the unbearable pressure of parental expectations.14
Jean Lin’s work also narrates a soft and untenable existence. Having studied in Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, Lin developed a unique technique of rebuilding crushed eggshells into wearable forms and objects. The artist’s use of eggshells stems from her interest in life and death and the existential chicken-and-egg question.15
On an even-smaller material scale, Hsiao Ai Wang utilizes grains of sand to construct her fantastical flora and landscapes. Wang earned her BFA degree in Jewelry and Metal Arts at the California College of the Arts and participated in residencies in Japan and Finland, then started her career creating enameled objects and immersive environments based on spirituality and emotion. “Spirituality is a very intimate, personal experience,” she shares. “I’m also someone who is full of emotions, and I’m constantly conversing with myself. When my emotions overflow, they bleed into my art.”16
Having always wanted to visit Tibet, where daily life and spirituality are intertwined, Wang embarked on a month-long visit to Tibet in 2018. There she was introduced by a mutual friend to local artists and was asked to share her personal understanding of contemporary art and its vocabulary, materials, and techniques. As part of the exchange, artist Tsultrim Nobu taught her Tibetan sand painting with intricate metal linework. Bringing what she’d learned back with her to Taiwan, Wang developed a series of work using colored sand, epoxy resin, and metal wire and sheet. She explains: “This technique allows me to work in a looser way on a larger scale, where before my enamel work was restricted by the size of my kiln.”
For the past seven years, Wang has been living in the mountains of Puli, a small town near the center of the island, where she lives a “low-cost, low-desire” life and spends most days in the studio or volunteering at a nearby monastery. In Puli she is immersed in clouds and lush greenery, which gave rise to the themes of cloud children and maternal mountains in her sand paintings.
Wang has also created work based on native Taiwanese flora. By accident she came across a book about Portuguese explorers traveling to Taiwan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and became fascinated by their detailed records of plants. The plant names often include formosan, which refers to the name the explorers called Taiwan: Ilha Formosa (beautiful island).
Although Wang’s sand paintings have sold well at art and design fairs in Taiwan, she is always looking to diversify her skill set. Wang has temporarily moved into the city of Kaohsiung to learn from and work at a factory that bids on government contracts and constructs public art made of steel. She hopes to one day translate her own work into a monumental scale and to find her footing in the public art field.
Taiwan might be a small country, but its outlook is expansive. Its jewelry and metal artists are both introspective and highly aware of the geopolitical landscape they exist within. Educators at university jewelry and metal programs are committed to instilling a mastery of the craft in their students—in addition to encouraging them to develop their own signature aesthetic and novel skill sets.17 These artists take risks in committing to their endeavors, and adapt to shifting circumstances when needed. And despite the many, many miles they’ve accumulated when traveling across the globe in pursuit of knowledge, they maintain a deep and personal connection to home.
1. Yih-Cheng Shih, interview with the author, June 28, 2022.↩
2. Julian E. Barnes, “How the Computer Chip Shortage Could Incite a U.S. Conflict With China,” New York Times, January 26, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/us/politics/computer-chip-shortage-taiwan.html.↩
3. “Metalwork Special Report: An Interpretation of the Collection [at the New Taipei City Gold Museum] and a Concise History of Contemporary Metalwork,” accessed June 26, 2022, https://bit.ly/TaiwaneseMetalwork.↩.
4. Meiing Hsu, interview with the author, May 4, 2022.↩
5. All quotes by Ting-Ting Tsao are from a virtual interview with the author, April 15, 2022.↩
6. Yu-Chun Chen, artist statement, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.manomanman.com/yu-chun-chen.↩
7. Mano, “Projects,” accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.manomanman.com.↩
8. Susan Cummins, “Peter Hoogeboom and Shu-Lin Wu: Greenware, Crockery, Chinawear,” Art Jewelry Forum, May 29, 2014, https://artjewelryforum.org/interviews/peter-hoogeboom-and-shu-lin-wu-greenware-crockery-chinawear.↩8.
9. Yu Fang Chi, “About,” accessed July 1, 2022, http://yufangchi.com/cv.php.↩9.
10. Heng Lee, virtual interview with the author, June 22, 2022.↩10.
11. Amal Yung-huei Chao, “About,” accessed July 1, 2022, http://www.amalchao.com/about-1.↩11.
12. Bench 886, “Artists,” accessed July 1, 2022, https://bench886studio.weebly.com/artists.html.↩12.
13. Heng Lee, virtual interview with the author, June 22, 2022.↩13.
14. Pei Wu, “Parent, Past Life, Teddy Bear,” accessed July 2, 2022, https://www.peiwujewellery.com/2020-parent-past-life-teddy-bear.↩14.
15. Jean Lin, “The Eggs,” accessed July 2, 2022, https://chuntrend.wixsite.com/jeanlin/1st.↩15.
16. All quotes from Hsiao Ai Wang are from a virtual interview with the author, June 26, 2022.↩16.
17. Meiing Hsu, virtual interview with the author, May 4, 2022.↩17.