“Wow, wow, wow.” Cindy Sherman, dressed in head-to-toe black, all the way down to her Chanel biker boots, is sitting inside Anna Hu’s glitzy boutique at New York’s Plaza Hotel—far from her usual stomping grounds. She’s so awestruck, she’s on the verge of tears. The story begins this past May at the annual Creative Time art benefit, where Sherman, who would be the first to tell you that she’s hardly a fine jewelry aficionada, was taken with Melva Bucksbaum’s million-dollar necklace—a gigantic lotus-flower stunner, encrusted with pink diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds, designed by Hu. “That’s the first time I heard of Anna,” recalls Sherman. Turns out, one of the evening’s items up for auction was an opportunity to collaborate with Hu on a custom creation. Sherman went for it: “I shot my hand up, taking a chance but assuming that I’d be outbid.” She was, by art connoisseur Amy Phelan, to the tune of $15,000. But when word circulated that Sherman was the underbidder, Hu—who had ardently followed the photographer’s work while studying for master’s degrees at Parsons and Columbia—said she would be honored to make a second piece with Sherman. The next day Sherman matched Phelan’s bid.
Two months later, they got started. Hu showed Sherman her collection, which she launched in 2006 and divides into two categories, Western contemporary and Oriental traditionalism. Sherman was drawn to the latter, especially Hu’s fantastical snake, dragon, and frog gems. “I am a fan of insects, reptiles, and mushrooms—things from nature,” says Sherman. As for Hu, snakes are one of her favorite motifs. “In the Egyptian culture, the snake is the goddess of jewelry and the goddess of fortune,” says the jeweler, who was introduced to precious stones as a child in Taiwan by her diamond-dealer father. “It’s almost equivalent to the dragon in Chinese culture.” With that the plan was hatched: a bracelet-ring combo connected by two intertwined serpents, one in 18-karat yellow gold and the other in 18-karat white gold, both set in five carats of white, black, and yellow diamonds and garnets and dotted with pigeon-blood rubies for the eyes. (It goes without saying that the initial $15,000 grew into a much pricier commission.) The bauble is held together by an onyx and mother-of-pearl yin-yang symbol, as well as by seven flexible joints that allow the piece to bend with the knuckles. “If this was made in a jewelry house, it would take at least eight months,” explains Hu. “But I had five French artisans working late into the night to finish it.” (And just in the nick of time—it was completed at 5 a.m. the day of this story’s photo shoot.)