Embraced by a new generation as an exciting means of creative expression, jewellery making has evolved to become more innovative over the past decade. Talented individuals enjoying strong ties with Belgium – such as Heaven Tanudiredja or Natalia Brilli – have helped rethink what jewellery could be, moving the craft away from its traditional roots into more experimental grounds. With her collection “talitali by Zhao Li”, Antwerp-based Zhao Li focuses on the small creatures she cherishes: bugs, beetles and spiders. Born in Beijing in 1983, she adds playfulness and vibrancy to the local jewellery scene.

Photography courtesy of Zhao Li

Did you study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp?

Yes, I did. I graduated with a BA in Jewellery Design and Metalworking in 2009 and got my MA in July last year.

Why did you choose Antwerp to study?

The school has a very good reputation and, of course, I knew about the Antwerp Six. I started doing fashion in the 1st year to realize I was more into the finer details and craftsmanship. I also wanted to do more research on materials and my teacher suggested I do jewellery instead. I started the course in 2006.

Did you have any other options apart from Antwerp?

I would have loved to study in Paris. For me, Chanel and Dior are references, especially when it comes to Haute Couture. It’d be fascinating to work there and gain some professional experience within a larger company.

I love adding a conceptual layer to jewellery making, it’s something that truly drives me.

Why is jewellery so important for you and what does it bring you creatively?

One thing I learnt from the Academy was to focus on the concept and research behind a product. I love adding a conceptual layer to jewellery making, it’s something that truly drives me. I love learning about new techniques as well.

What materials do you like to use in your collections?

The main material I use at the moment is this medical plastic I get through a Belgian healthcare company called Orfit. They basically give me the material for free and I get involved in workshops with schools. I could do anything I wanted with the plastic and remember showing my first pieces to the factory’s owner and his daughter. They both loved it and ended up sponsoring me for my final year project. I’m still using their plastic now.

When did you launch “talitali by Zhao Li”?

I launched the line a year ago and am happy with the way it’s evolving.

Being creative is one thing, but turning it into a business is another.

What are the challenges you face as a young designer?

It takes time for people to notice your work and understand what you are about. You cannot just rely on your own brand and have to work on several projects at once. I work with Heaven Tanudiredja in Antwerp and enjoy our collaboration. When you come out of school, you don’t know anything about the business and have to learn from scratch. Being creative is one thing, but turning it into a business is another.

Where does your passion for animals come from?

It’s funny, because I always get very strong reactions from people, particularly when it comes to insects. Some of them do not seem to be that popular… You would not believe how many adults are terrified of spiders for instance, even when they’re made out of plastic! While I was experimenting with materials, I noticed how beautifully the plastic merged with textiles. I needed something to create a strong contrast between the shapes and materials used. Animals came to mind very naturally, I cannot say it’s something I planned in advance.

Did you like the paradox between the sweet feel of your pieces and the way insects can be perceived?

Yes, definitely. I wanted to work on that contradiction throughout the collection. My aim was not to scare anyone, you know, but it’s nice to see people react to what I do.

Which textiles work best when combined with plastic?

I love using lace. It’s easy to work with and striking at the same time.  I have to melt the plastic first and press the lace on top of it. As lace has many holes, you get this bubble effect on my jewellery, which I really like.

For me, luxury has more to do with creativity, innovation and emotion.

What is luxury for you?

For me, luxury is not about using expensive materials only. In jewellery, many designers are obsessed with diamonds, gold or expensive stones, but luxury can be precious for different reasons. It has more to do with creativity, innovation and emotion. I guess luxury is a very relative notion.

What do you think of artists experimenting with jewellery at the moment?

It’s great. I have exhibited my work in several galleries already and like working with contemporary jewellery pieces. The idea of limited, artistic jewellery appeals to me as well.

Do you think jewellery can be envisaged as an art form?

Yes, I do. There’s this big trend at the moment with contemporary jewellery artists, which I find very interesting. I love the way jewellery has become much more interdisciplinary, dealing with several creative fields at once.

What are the advantages of working and living in Belgium?

Belgium has a great location within Europe. You can easily go to Paris, London or Amsterdam. It’s a very creative country, too, especially when it comes to the fashion world. A lot of things happen here. The best thing is quality of life and the fact that things are still affordable, compared to other major cities. I like the peaceful atmosphere, too.

Do you find people support each other in the business?

Yes, they do. You get to meet a lot of designers here and exchanging ideas with them is not difficult. The Flanders Fashion Institute really helped me, too, and I’m grateful for it. To be honest, I have no intention to move elsewhere. I love it here.