African meets Asia in Michelle Liao's big, bold jewelry designs

02 February 2017 - 12:48 By Emma Jordan

With ten years' experience running the Design Indaba conference, it's not surprising that Michelle Liao has an unerring creative eye.

Diversity comb, Ndebele bracelet and Nature comb from Michl.
Diversity comb, Ndebele bracelet and Nature comb from Michl.
Image: Africa Fashion International

Originally from Taiwan, the jewellery designer moved to South Africa when she was 12 - bringing, she says, an Asian perspective.

"I love the big, bold statements of African adornment and dress," she says. "I take inspiration from this, and add an Eastern simplicity."

Under the label Michl, her jewellery is a collection of elegant lines played up with traditional elements. Silhouettes of massive Ndebele bangles are reduced to gold lines woven with telephone wire in muted and bright colours. Earrings show traces of Malian Fula gold twists.

"My jewellery is not craft, but it has craft elements," says Liao. "Everything is handmade, but there's a sophisticated element. The use of telephone wire always starts a conversation. I think it's modern, and uniquely African."


Her latest collection, a selection of hair combs, represents her mixed heritage. The Diversity comb, moulded in a distinctly traditional African shape, is playfully woven with bright colourful wire. The Nature comb is gold-plated brass decorated with white ceramic petals. This is immediately reminiscent of the traditional kanzashi hair ornaments in Taiwanese culture.

"The hair combs are not intended for use," says Liao. "They're very beautiful artefacts that can be displayed or treasured."

Liao recently returned from her second showing at the Bijorhca trade show in Paris.

"It was a wonderful networking opportunity," she says. "We were very grateful to have been able to go with the support of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Small Enterprise Development Agency.

"They identify significant trade shows for various industries and put out a call for entry for small or medium enterprises to apply to participate in the shows. The support provided by these organisations covers our flight, accommodation, exhibition stands, etc., and is invaluable."

While it takes many showings to create a network of sales at international trade shows, Liao says there was a lot of interest shown by Portuguese, Italian and French clients.

Back on home soil, she'll be part of Design Indaba Nightscape taking place concurrently with Design Indaba, March 1 to 3, at the Artscape Theatre, Cape Town.

• This article was originally published in The Times.