By Shawna Kulpa
Grace Hui Jewelry Studios, San Jose, California
First Place, Professional Excellence (1-3 Years)
When Xuehui Liu was growing up, she dreamed not of becoming a jewelry designer, but rather a botanist. “I have always had a curiosity and a love for plants,” says Liu, who notes that even now, whenever she travels to a new place, she’ll visit local botanical gardens.
Given her love for plants, it’s not surprising that they feature as a frequent theme in her jewelry designs. Her interest has only grown as she’s read ecological reports that cite the growing disappearance of various species, many of which go extinct before being discovered or understood by humans. With that thought in mind, she set out to design a pendant/brooch and earring set that would help call attention to the destruction of the planet’s vegetation.
“I want people to realize that while they enjoy the pleasure that plants bring us, there are many plants that are not well known and need to be protected,” she says.
She came up with the Eternity of the Plant Kingdom set after studying images of flowers, particularly a number of them that are on the verge of extinction.
“I created a flower that was never discovered by humans,” says Liu, who describes her flower design as “the last one” of its kind and notes that it will “never fade, never go extinct, never disappear. It represents the eternity of the plant kingdom.”
Inspired by the orchid family in particular, Liu’s floral design features a set of three rippling petals surrounding a gem-stone-filled center. The pendant/brooch has the full flower design, while the ear-rings comprise two mirrored half blooms. Twisted, enamel-filled stamens emanate from the center of each piece.
Once Liu was happy with the flower design, she focused on choosing an enamel color scheme for the inside of the petals. She wanted her blooms to be rich in color like so many flowers in nature. Initially she tried out blue, but found the color to be “too hesitant.” Yellow was deemed to be “too bright.” Finally, she settled on red with gradual transitions to yellow and orange-red, finding the color blend “very lively and a little decisive.”
With her color scheme chosen, it was time to pick out the gemstones that would adorn the pieces. She happened to have a small collection of odd-shaped fire opals that fit her color scheme perfectly. However, she initially worried about how to integrate the irregularly shaped stones into her design.
“It took some time to solve this problem,” says Liu, who admits that, in the end, she ultimately found that she didn’t have to worry about their odd shapes.
“I found that there was no need to [try to] highlight the gems,” she explains. The stones are there to add color to the petals so Liu allowed them to blend in with their backgrounds.
She placed the largest of the fire opals at the center of the pendant and used eight other opals along the petals of the earrings. To match her color scheme, she placed two spessartine garnets at the centers of the earrings and used 10 ruby cabochons to decorate the large petals on the pendant. Small diamonds were chosen to adorn the outside rippled portions of the petals as well as to surround and accent the center stones. In addition, she selected two more spessartine garnets to serve as drops on the earrings.
While Liu admits she could have carved the designs out of wax, she opted to use CAD to save time and effort. “Carving wax is more time-consuming than CAD, and if you carve it wrong, it takes more time to remedy it,” she says. With CAD, Liu can easily change shapes and try things that could be quickly undone if needed. “I think my passion is more [for] design and color matching,” she says, noting that CAD allows her to play with multiple possibilities.
After finalizing the design, she broke the petals into pieces for casting (eight for the pendant, five for each earring) and had the parts printed. After casting them in 18k white gold, Liu polished the parts and assembled them with a laser welder. She decided to hand-fabricate the small stamens, twisting the metal in a way that fit her design before welding them to the flower core.
To complete the piece, Liu applied the enamel to the petals and stamens and set the gemstones. And with that, a new plant species was ready to be introduced to the world.