Serena Chen (陳禹潔) draws on her background as a shoe designer and her time spent studying metalworking in Sweden to create eye-catching jewelry using layered suede strips and bold shapes.
On first glance, Chen’s designs, with their bright colors and playful motifs like birds, clouds and rainbows, seem whimsical and childlike, but closer inspection reveals delicate details like thin ribbons of suede, which are carefully packed together in metal settings so that only their edges are revealed, creating a striped effect. Each piece of the brand’s jewelry, which includes pendants, rings, earrings, cufflinks and brooches, is handmade by Chen in her Keelung studio.
Chen started her fashion career as an administrative assistant at a women’s footwear company before working her way up to a design position. Her duties included a stint in Shanghai, where she supervised a team of 18 shoemakers.
But Chen eventually grew disillusioned with the constraints of creating mass-market shoes.
“I lost interest, so I decided to leave my job and go to Europe for a short holiday,” Chen says. While in Sweden, Chen met the father of her then-boyfriend, who kept a silversmithing workbench in his house and taught Chen how to make sterling silver rings. Following his suggestion, Chen entered a year-long metal working course at Konstfack (also known as the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design) in Stockholm.
After returning to Taiwan in 2005, Chen worked at a jewelry company, but after about three years of producing simple, traditional designs, ennui set in once again.
“It felt just the same as when I was still making shoes,” says Chen. In 2009, she decided to launch Serena Chen jewelry and spent about three months brainstorming how to create a signature style by drawing on her experience using unconventional materials in her studies at Konstfack, which included a class project called Hated Materials.
Students were told to bring a material they disliked working with to class. Chen brought plastic shopping bags because she could not stand the rustling sound they make. Her professor then announced that each student had to experiment with the items for three weeks.
“At first I panicked because I did not know what to do with it,” Chen says. She shredded the plastic, mixed it with glue, twisted it and then finally heated the material until it melted slightly. The results were round “stones” with colors and marble-like, striped designs that echo her current Serena Chen brand.
One day, while figuring out how to build pieces of suede up into a sturdy, three-dimensional shape, Chen decided to start using the material in place of enamel to create colorful pendants, earrings and rings.
“I remembered that I loved playing with leather and suede when I was a shoe designer,” Chen says.
For each piece, Chen begins by making a metal frame out of brass or sterling silver. Then she layers the suede inside strip by strip with a sharp awl. While developing the technique, Chen says she often missed and stabbed herself in the fingers, drawing blood, but now she can watch television while working on her jewelry. The most time-consuming part of the process is creating and polishing the metal components by hand, which can take up to two hours per item. Aside from electroplating, which she outsources to a workshop, Chen makes each of the pieces by herself.