Modern Masters: How Feng J Originated the Floating Set for Painterly Style

When a technique does not exist to bring your vision to life, you must either change direction or invent something new. Fortunately for those of us with a love of jewellery, Chinese artist Feng J chose the latter approach and introduced the world to the ‘Floating Set’ in 2017. Here, I speak to David Tsui, a business partner of the house of Feng J, to discuss the principles that guide this modern master jeweller who has recently exhibited new creations in Design Miami/Podium Shanghai.

This is not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last time I write about the Floating Set – the name for a technique and gemstone placement style that’s distinctively Feng J. Almost all jewellery designers strive to curate their own form of artistry that becomes an instantly recognisable signature. Feng J found this in 2017 when she combined double rose-cut gemstones slices with a delicate, almost invisible, prong setting to create the appearance of ‘floating’ stones. If you did not have the pictures for reference, I might describe the aesthetic to you as akin to a stained-glass window that magically holds together, even once the lead frame is removed. There’s an impossibility to it – a magic – that never fails to draw the viewer in.

Of course, the Floating Set isn’t just defined by a setting technique, it’s also the ethereal lightness associated with such thinly cut gemstones (some are just 1-1.2mm in thickness), the tonal colour palette on display and the elegance that results when these factors are combined. Harmonised colours and jigsaw-like patterns of stones are what separates a true Feng J piece from the various others who have attempted to imitate her technique… after all, as the saying goes “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.

Blue Anthurium earrings by Feng J

This year, the jeweller is celebrating its fifth anniversary and enjoying some well-deserved moments in the spotlight. It recently relocated the Maison Feng J to the Capella Hotel – a recognisable landmark at the former French Concession in Shanghai, which has all the hallmarks of a luxury establishment. For David Tsui, the business partner of Feng J, this is a time for reflecting upon the origins of the Floating Set and reaffirming what makes it so valuable in the world of high jewellery. He says: “The Floating Set is a pure expression of Feng’s design style, which is ‘painting with gemstones’. Feng was born into an artistic family and her great-grandfather was a court painter of the later Qing Dynasty, so this informs the DNA of her brand.”

Once she has the spark of an idea, Feng must find the right combinations of double rose-cut gemstones to bring it to life. These gemstones have soft, light-reflecting facets on both sides and their thinness means that even the most subtle shifts in colour, tone and saturation can be taken advantage of. When combined, these gems have a watercolour-like effect and a quality like a paintbrush gently skimming a canvas. David Tsui relates this to Impressionism or perhaps its cousin, Pointillism and the great artist Georges Seurat. Only when all the colours and shapes are combined does a complete image come into focus. He says “Feng always wants to find a way to express her painting style through jewellery. Like paints on a palette, she wants to play with light, shadow and colour and showcase numerous subtle colour changes… this is what led Feng to the double rose-cut, which she achieved with a European cutting partner.”

Feng J 'A Conversation of Anthurium' brooch with 'Floating Set' double rose-cut gemstones

To understand Feng’s style, we must put aside the ‘commercial’ approach to gemstones, where larger carat weights and more saturated colours lead to higher desirability. Driven by her artistic instincts, Feng has naturally been drawn to more nuanced colours, tonal shifts and gradients that aren’t reliant on the market’s assessment of what’s valuable. In fact, Feng is known to say “I love grey colour gemstones,” which embodies her love of subtle colour variations and finding beauty in the diversity of gems that aren’t typically prized by stone dealers. 

David says: “Feng worked with her chosen cutter to explore a more mature way of cutting stones. These slimline gemstones are more artistic and lightweight. In the future, Feng will have her own matrix – a personal collection – of coloured double rose-cut gemstones that she can use as a library to build her creations. For now, she custom-cuts each gemstone rough to suit the piece she is working on.”

Under her gaze, popular gemstones like emerald, ruby and sapphire reveal new facets of their personalities. “This kind of cutting totally changes the feeling of a stone,” explains David. “It’s emerald, but not emerald. It’s ruby, but not ruby. Each gemstone is so slim, the fire is different, and the reflections are soft and feminine. On top of this, Feng loves spinel and uses a lot of this gemstone for her designs.”

Master jeweller Feng J

When these cut gemstones are spread across her workbench, Feng must find the ideal place for each one, ensuring it sits perfectly alongside its neighbour, creates a colour graduation and aids in creating a recognisable shape, such as a feather, leaf or flower. David continues: “The Floating Set is like a jigsaw puzzle. Feng needs to predict the combination of stone pieces to shape a perfect outline and structure to form a painting-like jewellery piece. Each stone is given a number because she needs to try many ways to merge them to form a painting – it is a very complicated and time-consuming process. If it fails, you need to redo everything from the start. The Floating Set isn’t just about the technical metal setting, it is about the ‘art of predicting’ where gemstones should be placed and how they will combine together.”

The house of Feng J produces a maximum of 40 pieces annually and, occasionally, they come up for auction. Many of them are an abstract interpretation of nature, incorporating Floating Set gemstones and electroplated and pastel-hued gold. Personally, I find it fascinating how much instinct and intuition goes into the creation of a jewel. The intelligence of the Floating Set, its origin story, artistry and the beautiful pieces it leads to are no doubt why Feng has been described as a young master and the “future of high jewellery”.  

Send enquiry about featured jewellery.


Read related articles