By  on July 28, 2014

When it comes to fine jewelry, Hong Kong is obsessed — there are more jewelry stores per square mile than any other city in the world — and this obsession has paid off for many top international jewelers. Now it’s also fueling local jewelers, who are forging their own footprint in and out of the city.

The island’s seven million residents have long been heavy investors in the sector, particularly in gold, which is regarded as a hedge against inflation, while precious and semiprecious stones are believed to ward off bad luck.

All the big-name luxury players — Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, Piaget, Chanel, Chaumet, Graff, Boucheron, Tiffany and Adler, among many others — have an established presence in Hong Kong, and flourish alongside more local manufacturers and retailers, like Chow Tai Fook, which is China’s largest jewelry retailer.

According to research from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, the city’s jewelry industry is dominated by the precious-jewelry sector, and its development has been facilitated by the expansion of the local market, including sales to tourists. Gem-set jewelry, especially diamonds set in 18-karat or 14-karat yellow or white gold, remains the most popular category among locals and tourists alike.

Precious metal jewelry production comprises 96.8 percent of total manufacturing output, which amounted to almost 57 billion Hong Kong dollars (about $7.3 billion) in 2013, a growth of 7 percent from 53 billion Hong Kong dollars (about $6.8 billion) in 2012.

Some of Hong Kong’s jewelry production is earmarked for the domestic market but most is for export, the majority destined for the U.S. and EU, which remain the dominant markets for precious jewelry, accounting for some 48 percent of Hong Kong’s exports in 2013.

Despite the overall growth, recently there has been some falloff in the local jewelry sector, which accounts for almost a quarter of Hong Kong retail sales. According to the Hong Kong Retail Management Association, as of May, year-over-year jewelry sales dropped 24.5 percent, and retailers were discounting heavily to make up in volume what they could not in value.

Caroline Mak Sui-king, chairwoman of HKRMA, said recent political tensions in Hong Kong may have impacted retail sales negatively. On July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, a pro-democracy protest saw thousands of Hong Kong citizens march through the city. Several luxury stores along the prime shopping district of Central chose to close for the day.

Mak said, however, that the July 1 demonstration is a regular occurrence every year, but that the planned Occupy Central demonstration could be cause for concern. “If all of Central is occupied, it will definitely impact [retail],” she said.

Mainland Chinese tourist arrivals have boosted retail sales. According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, in 2012, overall overnight visitors spent 17.6 billion Hong Kong dollars ($2.27 billion) on jewelry, which accounted for 18 percent of their total shopping spend; as for those from the Chinese mainland, their share was higher, at 20 percent.

Here are three Hong Kong-based jewelers that have chosen to forge an independent path, controlling their own production and distribution to create distinctive jewelry that veers from the traditional styles currently on offer in the market.

NIIN

“It was always my nickname growing up,” said Jeanine Hsu of the name she chose for her eco-friendly jewelry line. “It also means ‘of course’ — or some similar affirmative word in the Finnish language, which I quite like.”

Hsu, born in Hong Kong to an Austrian mother and Chinese father, launched Niin in Hong Kong in 2009. She started working in the fashion industry in London after graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2001; she began selling her jewelry in a stall in Portobello Market during her free time. “It was always about natural materials and the handcrafted aspect of jewelry,” she said, “but it didn’t quite become a viable business until I based myself in Asia. I spent a lot of time building relationships with workshops.”

A furniture factory, for instance, provided her with off-cuts and even driftwood, which she combined with healing crystals and other stones. Her Sienna collection blends sustainably harvested petrified wood with jasper stones, while Azteca uses abalone shells set against wood or stone.

She hopes that through her jewelry, she can express an appreciation for nature, that every material has value.

“Just because people say diamonds are valuable, it doesn’t mean that wood or shell have no value. Also, now, the idea is to become a more conscious designer, to think about the environment in a way that goes beyond just buying and consuming that don’t really have a story behind it.”

What Hsu tries to achieve with Niin — the combination of natural and sustainable elements with stones and metals — was, in a way, quite a change for the women of Hong Kong, whose love of bright, sparkly and expensive jewelry is well-documented.

“The traditional idea of jewelry here is about adorning the body. With Niin, it’s more about your viewpoint on beauty, because what I do is mix unusual things to create a style that you can wear dressed up or not.”

This approach, she added, also allows for individuality. “In Hong Kong, it used to be about the brand, so there was a lot of sameness in what people were wearing,” she explained. “They would buy the same thing from head-to-toe. I feel that a lot of women now find it really nice to have something unique and more special, and something that tells a story. So they could be wearing branded diamond earrings, but a ring from us, which may not be as valuable as such, but it’s still beautiful.”

Respecting the environment is an important part of Niin’s ethos, which the World Wildlife Fund recognized when it tapped the brand to create the Gaia bracelet in collaboration with another designer, Marissa Fung Shaw, to raise environmental awareness. The bracelets came with different pendants, each representing a separate environmental concern.

Recently, Niin teamed up with Cuipo, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based group dedicated to preserving prime rainforest. “Each piece of Niin jewelry purchased now saves one square meter of rainforest,” Hsu said. That extends to the boutiques in the 13 countries where Niin is stocked, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, the U.K., Monaco, Thailand and Australia, as well as at selected Four Seasons Hotels around the world.

The Niin customer embraces a wide demographic. “They are mainly well-traveled ladies,” she said, even girls as young as eight, thanks to the Gaia bracelet produced in collaboration with the wildlife fund.

With prices ranging from $350 to $1,000, customers tend to be “working women or those with higher spending power, who are conscious about what they are buying and often quite bold in style.”

NEXT: Youmna and Carnet >>

YOUMNA

Youmna Hostelet, a longtime Hong Kong resident of French-Lebanese origin, is the creative force behind the jewelry brand Youmna, a hot label among the city’s most stylish set.

She used to have a retail showroom in Central, which she opened in 2007, but closed in 2011 because of the high rent. Today, she hosts seasonal exclusive trunk-show-style events in a private residence to showcase her line.

“I don’t tend to keep stock,” she said. “My collection, which is available only in precious metals and precious or semi-precious stones, is really made up of samples and I keep only stock for smaller pieces, for rings that are going to sell well or I know do well, ear studs…all the things that are easy-going. But I take orders for the bigger pieces. Then I take measurements before I actually produce the pieces. A lot of my designs need to be measured so that the rings fit just so, or the cuff is not too wide or too narrow.

“Depending on the intricacy of the piece, it can take from two to four weeks to make.”

She has been using the same workshop on Hong Kong island for more than 20 years.

Hostelet calls her jewelry the equivalent of a capsule wardrobe: “I am selling style. I feel like I am doing the jewelry equivalent of the white shirt, the little black dress.…I’m giving customers the staples of their jewelry wardrobe so they are always ‘with it,’ edgy, elegant and well-put-together without trying to match things.”

With prices starting at 6,000 Hong Kong dollars ($775) for plain gold ear studs from the Pastille collection and going up to 220,000 Hong Kong dollars ($28,400) for the Harlequin yellow gold necklace with diamonds, Hostelet says her clients, which range from European expatriates to sophisticated, Western-educated Asians — who comprise 30 to 40 percent — can be divided into two types.

“Either they don’t like jewelry and for the first time they see jewelry they are happy to wear because it’s simple and elegant, or, it’s women who like jewelry and tend to buy from the usual big names, and now they want more individuality, and in the end they become collectors of my designs.”

The most popular items, she said, tend to be the Pastille ear studs, which are very wearable — “women tend to have them in every color” — as well as Gladiator cuffs, “which make a powerful statement.” Her crosses — “really my interpretation of a cross, and not a cross, strictly speaking” — also sell well.

Hostelet recently started dabbling in sterling silver, creating the Bloom collection of cut silver flowers appliquéd onto cuffs and earrings and rings. “I work with sterling silver exactly the same way I do with gold.”

CARNET

Hong Kong native Michelle Ong, cofounder and creative director of fine-jewelry atelier Carnet, designs and produces jewelry of such quality and intricacy that one might assume it is from a famous French house and not a local Hong Kong brand.

“I think being an independent jeweler, rather than a larger brand-based jeweler, has worked well for Carnet,” explained Ong, who sells to private clients and participates in prestigious major jewelry exhibitions around the world, such as Masterpiece in London earlier this year. “It allows me to pursue my own creative vision and standards.”

Her clientele is both international and local, “who collect my pieces and appreciate my jewelry.” Retail prices start at about $20,000.

Being an independent jeweler gives Ong control over every aspect of the creation of each piece, “from inception to completion,” and “to focus on what’s important to me — making perfect pieces in the tradition of the high jeweler’s art.”

With her office in the Central District located steps from her atelier, she is able to “personally check every piece to make sure it’s wearable and absolutely what I envisioned.”

Describing one of her most elaborate pieces, the Organdy Diamond necklace, which took two years to bring from idea to reality, Ong said, “I wanted to make an important piece in the tradition of high jewelry, but with a feminine fluidity — a lightness and soft brilliance infused with elegance. A ‘fabric’ of diamonds, in effect.”

She used rose-cut diamonds for this piece. “I have developed special cutting and illusion settings for Carnet. I needed to collect all the right diamonds for the necklace before I could begin work. One of my diamond cutters worked full-time on the necklace to ensure perfect matching cut, brilliance and color.

“An important aspect for me always is how the piece lays, that it accentuates the beautiful lines of a woman’s neck, shoulders and décolleté, that it radiates light to the face. So for this piece, each line of diamonds had to be perfectly placed for the maximum effect.”

Mainland Chinese are becoming a significant segment of the market, she noted. “It’s definitely a market growing in appreciation of high jewelry. I find the clients who seek out Carnet to be similar in their qualities, no matter where they come from.”

She said she designs “accessible pieces representing a simple elegance, whether for new or regular clients. I have a selection of Day to Night Carnet that includes my pavéd single and multihoop earrings. I love a bit of sparkle next to a woman’s face.” She cited the Shades of Diamonds dangling multihoops and Wonderful Wave Earrings as examples of Carnet’s accessible feminine, wearable and bejeweled style.

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