As hard luxury booms, Chinese jewelry designers push their global presence

Hard luxury items such as watches, jewelry and expensive handbags are having a renaissance this year, according to reports like Bain & Co x Altagamma’s. With luxury entering a “literally me era,” according to Federica Levato of Bain & Co., how can fine jewelry brands make the most of this opportunity?

Around 30 percent of the world’s fine jewelry is produced in and around Panyu in Guangdong, where 16,000 jewelry manufacturers and trading companies are located, says Aso Leon, a Chinese jewelry artist based in the district. Almost all those producers make private label jewelry that has been designed by brands in Europe and America for distribution in those markets. Very little of it is designed in China, with Hong Kong’s Qeelin being one of the few fine jewelry brands known overseas.

When it comes to artistic creators, there are rare exceptions like Hong Kong’s Wallace Chan and Michelle Ong of Carnet who’ve achieved international status exhibiting in galleries and auction houses around the world. Shanghai-based Feng J, the mainland’s exciting new artistic jeweler, was well received when she made her European debut at the Paris Biennale (fine art fair) in November last year and her work is finding its way into museum and private collections like that of Wallace Chan, Cindy Chao and Anna Hu before her. 

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“It is important to receive encouragement that my art style and creations are accepted so genuinely in the jewelry arena, especially for someone of my age and from mainland China,” she said at the time.

Hong Kong has fared better with its luxury jewelry creators, such as award-winning Karen Suen, who was first seen at Baselworld, the now defunct watch and jewelry fair, and has since grown an international business for her glamorous designs by exhibiting at Couture in Las Vegas, Haute Jewels Geneva and the consumer fair Doha Jewelry and Watches Exhibition, where her Paraiba tourmalines and conch pearl jewelry are highlights.

Western media quickly picked up on the talented independent designer Nicholas Lieou of Mr Lieou in Hong Kong when he showed at the GemGenéve, a business-to-business jewelry fair, in 2019. He’s since collaborated with Sotheby’s Diamonds and is currently spearheading a special project for Chow Tai Fook. 

Going global

Now, we are seeing a new wave of creatives spreading their wings and looking beyond the domestic market that has served them well through the past three years. Austy Lee, Wallis Hong, Aso Leon and A.Win Siu were all invited to show at GemGenève in May this year, where they attracted lots of attention.

Many in the media are familiar with Austy Lee’s vibrant, lushly detailed one-of-a-kind designs from his Instagram feed, but this was the first time he had exhibited outside Hong Kong where he has a loyal fan base.

Austy Lee exhibited his work at Gem Genève, a prestigious jewelry and gemstone trade show held in Geneva. Photo: Austy Lee

London-based designer brand Annoushka sells some of his pieces in Harrods, Liberty and Harvey Nichols and is his sole distributor in Europe. 

“Finally, they could see the jewelry in person and really appreciate the artistry, color combinations, materials and the storytelling of each unique piece,” says Lee, who founded his business in 2017. “We also met potential clients for future business opportunities and are already designing new pieces for them.”

Hong first presented his voluminous titanium art jewels at the same exhibition last November, resulting in six bespoke commissions over the winter.  

“At that show, many came to tell me that they had been expecting to see something new for years and were always disappointed, and so they were glad to discover me and my design language,” he says. 

Wallis Hong’s “Eternal Butterfly I” brooch (right) was inspired by his childhood memories of chasing butterflies. Photo: Wallis Hong

The Guangzhou-born creator lives in Madrid, and as a result of showing in Geneva last autumn was invited to speak at a conference at Vicenza Oro (Italy’s big goldsmiths’ fair) — the first Asian creator to speak there in the fair’s 70-year history. One of his gem-set sculptural brooches is now part of the permanent collection at the new Shenzhen Jewelry Museum. 

Presenting at Gem Genève, he says, was not only about finding new clients, although one private collector was introduced to him by the fair organizer and arrived with a large emerald and a request for him to create something new and with his identity. “I wanted to show my creativity, to open doors,” he says of exhibiting. Whereas, “to target clients, I would host private events like dinners or art fairs.”

Interestingly, the exposure in Geneva has gained the attention of Chinese diamond and jewelry brands. 

“Traditional Chinese jewelry companies share the same problem, that is, no design,” he says. “They don’t understand the younger market, nor the European aesthetic, and they are looking to me to open up a new styling proposition for them.”

“Traditional Chinese jewelry companies share the same problem, that is, no design. They don’t understand the younger market, nor the European aesthetic, and they are looking to me to open up a new styling proposition for them.”

Nurturing talent 

Leon has a traditional jewelry production background in Panyu, but as a master in the skills of molding titanium has privately been expressing his personal artistry in unique beautifully crafted gem set titanium brooches. It’s a skill he has been sharing with artist students back home and is hopeful that among the many ateliers and companies in Panyu that some young designers will emerge on the international stage from that.

Geneva was Leon’s first trip to Europe, and he was surprised at how familiar the European market is with titanium jewelry. 

Aso Leon is known as the “Prince of Titanium” in China’s jewelry industry. Photo: Aso Leon

“Being here didn’t feel any different at first, until friends and collaborators (back home) started sending me interviews and posts of my work that they had seen (in the media),” he says. “Being in the press is a new experience for me, and I am still observing and experiencing this.” 

The interest shown in Leon’s jewelry is encouraging him to look at other opportunities to exhibit in Europe, maybe again in Switzerland, or in Italy or France.

While the Chinese jewelry creators are attracting a lot of attention for the flair, boldness, and imagination of their work, Lee makes a pertinent point. 

He doesn’t think Asian designers should be characterized as a separate group. “It is about new generation designers now, and it is global,” he says. “Because of the internet, we all have access to the same information, and like the global fashion and entertainment industries, we like to mix it up. So, I don’t want people to concentrate on an Asian face doing something like this — for me it’s grouped around young people, internationally.”



Hard Luxury