March 2008

It’s not every day that Joel Arthur Rosenthal, aka JAR, the legendary American-in-Paris jeweler, gushes about another designer.

But here he is in print: “Ong’s jewels are mouth-watering,” he writes in the preface to “Exquisite Jewels: The Art of Carnet,” a vanity book about the seductive designs of Michelle Ong, a Hong Kongbased jeweler with a global collector following. “And they come about with a need, the demanding knowledge, and finally the delectation, that she has for food.”

Feather brooch

Rosenthal’s description, as it turns out, is spot-on. “I’m a foodie,” Ong confesses one afternoon in her boutique in Hong Kong’s Prince’s Building, a theatrically themed boudoir blanketed with black velvet displays, all the better to showcase her ethereal diamond and gemstone jewels. With her short-cropped hair, crocheted slip of a dress and long, delicate fingers, Ong has the refined mannerisms and slender build of the wellborn. It’s a wonder where her food goes.

Born into a medical family, Ong attended university in Toronto before returning to her native Hong Kong and taking a job with a family friend who happened to be a diamond wholesaler. Over time, she perfected her own design aesthetic, which embodies the intersection between Chinese and Western tastes, a defining characteristic of Hong Kong culture. As of last fall, when New York’s Bergdorf Goodman began carrying Carnet, the cross-cultural look that Ong imparts—epitomized by a playful green jade dragon brooch in a swirl of pink and blue sapphire clouds—began playing overseas. “I approach jewelry as an art form,” she says, holding aloft a diamond and platinum bib that feels like fabric on the neck. “Jewelry should be a part of you. The emphasis is on comfort.”

Jade and diamond earrings

It’s also on spectacular gemstone combinations and painstaking craftsmanship: pink sapphires surrounded by Paraiba tourmalines, yellow rose-cut diamonds set in a brooch of blackened gold, a scarflike brown diamond necklace called The Countess. “I’m still waiting for the right neck,” Ong says of the last piece. “I told my partner”—Avi Nagar, an Israeli businessman with whom she’s worked for 20 years—“I wanted to make it but that it would be difficult to sell and he said, go ahead.” Such is the strength of Ong’s following that she can create like an artist, leaving Nagar to worry about the finances. “I prepare all the dishes,” he says, smiling, “and now we invite her to eat.”