2017 Gianmaria Buccellati Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewelry Design Showcases Jewelry Art

Art Deco-inspired necklace featuring blue sapphire, tanzanite, diamonds and enamel. An ornate pendant hangs from a chain with stations of embellished links in between the chain.
This close up of the pendant on Catherine Zheng’s Art Deco-inspired necklace showcases the blue sapphire, tanzanite, diamonds and enamel she used in her design.

Judges for the first annual Gianmaria Buccellati Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewelry Design were surprised when they saw the display of original hand-painted renderings from GIA's Jewelry Design Certificate program students on display in Tucson recently.

“The judges were so surprised. They walked in and said ‘Wow,’” Elizabeth Brehmer, director of GIA’s Jewelry Manufacturing Arts (JMA) program, said. “The renderings are really lifelike and executed at the right size and scale. They are colorful and lively and really jump off the page.

“There is a life to something that you render and paint,” she said. “There’s something very personal, organic and real about it.”

The Gianmaria Buccellati Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewelry Design competition was created to inspire and encourage beginning jewelry designers and celebrate the long history of hand-sketched and painted jewelry art for which Gianmaria Buccellati was known.

“Mr. Buccellati always protected his brand and ensured that the things that came out of his workshop were unique, special and always maintained a very high standard," Brehmer said. "Having a competition with the foundation’s name attached to it really speaks volumes to recognizing the work GIA student finalists provided for the judging.”

The competition was open to individuals who successfully completed the 2017 Jewelry Design Certificate program at any GIA school worldwide. The students' original works of art go through a couple of different gates of judging, according to Brehmer. First, they complete the course and showcase their work to their peers at each of the schools, then the paintings are submitted to a committee in Carlsbad to make sure they meet all of the standards and criteria taught at GIA. This year, 12 global design courses were offered and one student from each course at each school (Carlsbad, Hong Kong, India, New York, London, Taiwan and Thailand) was selected to participate.

Along with an original rendering, each entry had a material statement and an inspiration statement.

“The material and inspiration statements are a significant part of the concept and execution of the rendering – and are a critical part of the judging in the final round,” Brehmer said. “Their compelling inspiration stories contributed to their art.”

Woman holds a rendering with a blue ribbon with a man standing next to her.
Zheng with Larry French, chief officer of North American strategies for the Gianmaria Buccellati Foundation, who will help her plan her trip to Italy. Photo by Kevin Schumacher/GIA

Brehmer said this type of competition is important for GIA students to participate in because it gives them a chance to showcase their designs to experts in jewelry design.

“The students were so excited when the announcement about the competition was made,” Brehmer said. “There’s not another competition out in the market that allows them to showcase the skills they learn as an artist and as a designer when they go through a jewelry design program at GIA, anywhere in the world.”

A panel of five industry experts from a variety of aspects of jewelry design did the final judging the morning of the “Party at the GIA Gem Mine” alumni event in Tucson: Molly Bell, executive vice president of Rio Grande Tools & Supplies; Remy Rotenier, president of Remy Design and a jewelry designer and educator; Ginger Porcella, chief curator of the Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art; Alishan Halebian, owner of Alishan, a retail and custom design-curated company; and Victoria Gomelsky, editor-in-chief of JCK magazine.

Doug Hall, a senior instructor in GIA’s JMA program, provided an overview of GIA’s Jewelry Design Certificate program to the judges before they began the process of selecting a winner, including what students learn, how they learn it, the perspective they are asked to employ, and the techniques they use.

Brehmer said the judges were impressed by the quality of the GIA students’ work and were thrilled they could pick the renderings up to examine them and then read the student’s comments on what inspired them and the materials they would use make the piece.

“The judges said they rarely get to see original renderings and several commented on the time and effort that went into this type of work. One judge noted that it really afforded an opportunity to close a sale quicker because the customer would see what something was really going to look like,” she said. “That was an interesting dialogue between the judges, because it’s a very traditional method [painting renderings] that you can apply in today’s industry.”

A carved watermelon tourmaline pendant with an image of “Dreaming Woman

The grand prize winner of the competition – Catherine Zheng – was announced during a formal presentation at the alumni event. Her platinum and tanzanite Art Deco-style necklace impressed the judges with its elegance, beautiful rendition and the fact that it could be manufactured, Brehmer said.

Zheng, a Los Angeles area real estate broker for high-end clients, was “totally shocked” when her name was announced as the grand prize winner.

“I never thought that I'd win this competition because I know there are many students in the jewelry design course who are very talented – and a lot of them either studied art in college or they already have a jewelry industry background,” she said.

Zheng said she makes a good income in real estate, but always felt like something was missing in her life.

“I was really into art while I was in high school and I earned multiple art rewards, such as the National Award for Creative Artists and a Special Congressional Recognition in ‘An Artistic Discovery.’ My dream was to become a designer, but my family, like many traditional Asians, thought it was too risky to become an artist,” she said.

So Zheng studied finance and marketing in college and become a banker and then a real estate broker after she graduated. She said her creative art ideas kept pulling at her, however, so she signed up for the Jewelry Design Certificate program course in Carlsbad. Hall, who she calls “awesome,” was her instructor.

“Doug is a perfectionist and I really learned a lot by his high standards,” she said. “The course is only nine weeks long, but we learned so much about technique and skills during this short period of time. Not only that, the second half of the course gives the students a lot of room to be creative.”

Art Deco-inspired necklace featuring blue sapphire, tanzanite, diamonds and enamel. An ornate pendant hangs from a chain with stations of embellished links in between the chain.
Catherine Zheng’s Art Deco-inspired necklace features blue sapphire, tanzanite, diamonds and enamel. An ornate pendant hangs from a chain with stations of embellished links in between the chain.

Zheng continued to work her real estate business while she took the course.
“The challenging part was that I had to work at night after my day job and could only sleep four to six hours every day to fit it all in,” she said. “I haven't drawn for more than 10 years, but I'm very glad that I put in my best effort while studying.”

She said all of the hard work is extremely rewarding. “It really feels great to win when you didn't expect it,” she said.

Beyond the recognition Zheng received as grand prize winner, she will go on a one week all-expense paid trip to Florence to take in Renaissance art and view part of the jewelry collection of Gianmaria Buccellati housed in the Pitti Palace. She will also travel to Milan and have the opportunity to meet Mrs. Buccellati, where she will receive a plaque acknowledging her as the winner of the competition.

“I'm super excited to go to Italy. I have been there a few times before, but this is sure to be the most exciting and memorable trip,” she said. “I am very much looking forward to meeting Mrs. Buccellati.”

Zheng said winning the Gianmaria Buccellati Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewelry Design has inspired her to continue to pursue her professional jewelry design dreams – which is exactly why it was created – and she plans to study CAD/CAM design and become a GIA Graduate Gemologist in the near future.

“I'm definitely looking into starting my career as a jewelry designer or even my own line of jewelry,” she said. “This means so much to me as a beginning designer and it really gives me a lot of encouragement and faith to continue on this career path.”

Amanda J. Luke is a senior communications manager at GIA. She is the editor of the GIA Insider and Alum Connect and was the editor of The Loupe magazine.