Long Read


A seed was planted

The school I went to was conservative and I did my best fit in but while I wasn’t very strong academically, I did excel in the arts.  I’ve never really acknowledged how instrumental that time was for me and how fundamental the encouragement from my art teachers was in going to art school, but I think being creative mattered the most to me as a child.  Just being able to create using the things available to me in Hong Kong shaped who I’ve become.  My Dad was a banker, my mum a homemaker and I have one older brother. I spent my childhood in Hong Kong and the German School I went to had a thing for excursions so we went to China a lot in the 1980’s and 90’s which has helped me appreciate now, how far China has come.  The vast leap forward in the Chinese cultural landscape still amazes me and I think my creative style has manifested into a combination of East and West.  The work I do is so minimal that it feels neutral somehow becoming something entirely new.

I had my first encounter with jewelry when I was six or seven.  I strung a random selection of plant seeds and pearls together to form a bracelet. I didn’t think much of it at the time but my mum took it to her local jeweller and had it made up in real pearls and gold beads.  I was immediately taken with the results.  I went on to study furniture and product design but the scale felt wrong so I started taking jewelry courses and the minute detail so captivated me, I never looked back.  Central St. Martin’s came to Hong Kong looking for students and they offered me a place on the foundation year jewelry course.  I also studied at the RCA who taught me to be unique and find my own voice.  F.I.T. encouraged my commercial mindset and was more business orientated, focusing on the kind of client you might sell to and working backwards from there.  Each institution had their benefits and honed my skillset to a finely chiseled point.  I feel fortunate to have experienced a multitude of systems.


And it grew

Once I’d graduated I went straight out into the industry.  Even though I was a first generation jeweller, I feel I had an advantage being Chinese from Hong Kong because we are among the top importers and exporters of diamonds and gemstones globally. There are jewellers up and down the block and culturally, we see gold and diamonds as an investment as well as something luxurious to be celebrated.  I moved to New York and was lucky enough to be mentored by Meeling Wong a kind of jewelry fairy godmother who helped me evaluate my collections and guide me through the American wholesale market.  Later in my career I met Victoria Lam, who had valuable experience in the heritage brands Verdura and David Webb and who helped me curate my work. Having mentors has been such a huge help because we all need someone to bounce ideas off and have that vital reality check.

I don’t think it’s important to get recognition early on.  It took me a while to build up press and interest in my collections and in the meantime, I got as much experience as possible in all aspects of the business.  I learned that there were many nuances to working in the trade and designing with commodities like gold and silver and the only way to appreciate those nuances was through hard core work experience.  For me that meant ainternships with Shaun Leane, Lara Bohinc and Phillip Treacy and I became Associate Creative Director for Alexis Bittar.  I spent time watching how each designer ran their studio and business, how they interacted with different companies and what jobs behind the scenes actually existed.  So many parts of the industry are hidden behind this magic curtain that you only get to lift when you’re in-house.


To be re-born

In 2011 I decided to start my own design house.  I had been working as an accessory’s designer in-house for fashion brand Blane de Chine back in Hong Kong for three years and when my contract finished, I realised I had saved enough to create my first proper collection. It was a series of one of a kind rock crystal and sterling silver pieces called Maharaja.  I didn’t have the money to create a full collection but I wanted to experiment with exaggerated proportions so I opted for size over volume.  It was all custom-cut rock crystal which I chose for its inclusions because I wanted it to looked aged. I found out the hard way that it’s actually very difficult to get cutters to use rock crystal with fractures and fissures as they prefer perfection but I persevered. I also insisted the pieces be transformable and worn in different ways.  It was a real learning curve.

Alexis Bittar liked the collection and hired me to work for him but after a year I was itching to work on my own jewelry again.  While collectors had bought some of it, my pricing was insane because I had gone down the purist route with all those custom-cut stones and unique designs.  Because of the rock crystal, the collection was seen as accessory in the semi-fine category and that wasn’t a thing back then.  Retailers didn’t have a place for it because it wasn’t quite fine but it was too expensive for the accessories section.  It was also so unusual that old inventory was hard to move and retailers always wanted something new.  I went back to the drawing board.  My second collection called Vertigo was smaller, fine, in 18k gold and diamonds and perfect for wholesale.  Both collections were extreme in their own way but they allowed the real me to fully emerge.


Brands, brands, brands

I realised that designing for other brands involved a specific business need.  Brands would approach me with a brief – the collection needs to hit a certain price point, a certain category or it needs a certain identity.  I love working with brands and solving design dilemmas.  The more focused and detailed the brief, the better and having a good budget for launching the collections into the marketplace is also a key part of it.  I am like an invisible force in this process.  It’s not about me at all unless my name is attached but that’s more about collaborations which are different.  Usually though, it’s all about the brand and it can be very secretive.  There are some companies I’ve worked for, I cannot even mention by name but I’ve worked with many others including Shanghai Tang whose Creative Director Joanne Ooi hired me to design a small line of accessories before I attended the RCA. After the RCA I designed for Blanc de Chine, then I did a project with Georg Jensen who approached me through Meeling Wong but in 2015, I got THE call from Tiffany & Co and that changed everything.


The Tiffany experience

I was beavering away on my own collections and after seeing my work in the press and on social media, they reached out.  I went in and met their Creative Head, then did a project for them which they liked so much they asked me to go full time.  It all happened very quickly.  Getting the job at Tiffany’s was definitely a career highlight, thrilling in fact and the timing was right.  I didn’t want to keep on investing in my own business for the moment and designing for other companies was definitely more stable.  The Tiffany experience allowed me to be part of every single aspect of the high jewellery eco-system, including idea conception, gemstone selection, production, sitting with clients and launching the collections in what was a monumental learning curve.  I now understood what it was like to work for one of the most powerful jewelry houses in the world with an impact on the global market, trends and style.  It was phenomenal and such a big machine. The challenge for me, lay in its many levels of discussion and approval for every piece plus the sheer scale of operations.

Tiffany is a brand of such historical significance, especially in New York City.  It’s an intrinsic part of American design history which hit me when I joined and became part of its culture.  They designed the Great Seal of the United States that still appears on the dollar bill for example. It was wonderful to see clients, who could have anything in the world but still became overwhelmed with Tiffany’s Blue Book creations.  It came to an end after three years for many reasons. One was that after being away from Hong Kong for fourteen years – seven years in London, and then another seven in New York, I felt it was time to go back to Hong Kong and spend more time with my parents. I was also invited to work with other brands and show my own collection at Gem Genève in Geneva.  The time also felt right to re-visit my own work in earnest.


Older and wiser

I’ve definitely learned a lot from the brands I’ve been involved with, not least of all adopting similar ways of working. I now merchandise my collections properly before producing pieces, rather than working from impulse as I was doing before.  My back-office operations are better.  I know there will always be next season so I don’t have to launch everything in one go. I am more realistic about what people are looking for from a designer brand.  I know I can’t be everything to everyone and because of that my clients are comfortably niche. Vertigo was created for the mass market and wholesale orientated but I learned the hard way that the wholesale model really isn’t for me.  The lucky few with financial backing maybe, but you need serious financial backup.

My work is esoteric and more niche than that.  I love to play with two opposing entities to create an ‘opposites attract’ tension. An example of this is the Diamond Knife Edge Cuff and Knife Edge Rings which have a minimal silhouette with one side pavé using different sizes of diamonds for maximum impact. My rose-cut diamond earrings play with geometric circular patterns in 18 karat gold with a matte grey finish. They are quite masculine, modernist and minimal, juxtaposed against exposed rose-cuts with an interior diamond sleeve as softer, more feminine energy. I see myself as a designer rather than a jeweller or an artist.  I trained at the bench but it took me ages to make anything which wasn’t financially viable.  I enjoy the process of designing a lot more than the craft of making but I have such admiration for those at the coalface of high jewelry craftsmanship. Knowing how much pressure to apply to a single prong holding a worryingly expensive and fragile stone like an emerald or slice of Jade is definitely not for me. If my journey has taught me anything, it’s to listen to my inner voice.


In black and white

As a designer, I think graphically which is why my palette is often monochromatic.  It allows me to focus on lines and patterns which has always has been the case, even in art school.  I also have a deep, abiding love for pearls. The lustre of pearls contrasts wonderfully with reverse set diamonds to create the tension of opposites I mentioned earlier.  That beautiful soft pearl lustre combined with the harsh sparkle of diamonds is sublime.  Pearls are still underrated in my view and I’d love to see a modernisation of their image.  I have a cuff called Tentacle with a huge centre South Sea Pearl set into a spiral of brilliant diamonds which was a technical challenge because of the two-way curve.  Pearl’s don’t have to be dusty.  They can be bold, exciting and flamboyant. I produce around 60 pieces a year with my workshops in Hong Kong and I sell direct to my clients.   With this kind of jewellery and price point, people want to interact with me as the designer and build trust.  I get a lot of collectors though word of mouth or through existing clients and it’s an organic growth.

I don’t currently work with any retailers and I think my experience with wholesale put me off plus I prefer to explain my work directly.  I also think my customers appreciate the lack of retail mark-up.  I am a one-man-band however and that can be hard because my time and resources are limited.  I’m careful now regarding who I work with and how.  I do take commissions but usually with people I’ve worked with before, not clients who I don’t know because there has to be so much back and forth, especially if I mount something special like an heirloom. The care and attention needed is intense so I try not to do too many commissions in a single year.  I have to pace myself and guard my energy but I also find it difficult to say no because being creative, my instinct is to jump into anything new and exciting.  I always underestimate how long anything new will actually take.


All that glitters

One project that was worth every moment of hard work was a ten-piece fancy diamond capsule collection I designed for Sotheby’s Diamonds in 2020.  I met Patti Wong, International Chairman of Sotheby’s in New York and we reconnected when I came back to Hong Kong.  I had wanted to work with them forever so was ecstatic when I was commissioned.  To experiment and push the boundaries using rare, flawless diamonds was a real privilege and I wanted to really challenge myself.  I used seed pods and the natural world as design inspiration. There was a ring we created called Cocoon Rosé which had a beautiful 4.50ct D flawless rose-cut diamond encased in a pod of reverse cut diamond pavé set in platinum.  At Tiffany’s I was working under the umbrella of the Blue Book but this was the first high jewellery collection with my name attached. It was such an honor to use stones of this quality and get this level of support.  Sotheby’s Diamonds is also more agile as a business so there were fewer hoops to jump through to get things made.  There was a lot of back and forth over what was and what wasn’t possible, the technical aspects of setting and detailing but it was a very fluid collaboration.

The pieces don’t go up for auction but remain in their permanent retail collection, sold through their offices in Hong Kong, New York, London and on their website.  Viewings are by private appointment.  I think it’s encouraging for designers like me to have these opportunities.  Normally, when you design for a brand they own all the rights including any new iteration down the line which is part of the contract.  You’re a gun for hire essentially but you have access to all their resources and can make something at a level very hard to access independently.  I’d love to work with more Chinese heritage brands too.  In the West there are so many heritage brands that have cultural significance but in the East I’d like to push the technical boundaries which doesn’t happen as much in Asia.  I’d love to work on themes around innovation, new finishes and metalwork techniques because I feel like there is so much that hasn’t been explored here, such as how diamonds are set and different kinds of faceting.  Chow Tai Fook are the biggest jewellers in China and I am now working with them on several projects, the first of which will be released in 2024.


Cultural identity

In recent years the Western media has definitely become more aware of Chinese design talent which has given designers a platform and confidence to showcase their work as a medium and expression of our culture.  Traditionally, Chinese jewelry was permitted only for the ruling class so as history went on, the kind of jewelry made available to the masses was really about the intrinsic value of the jade and solid gold. Jewelry had a certain role to play and design was not as important as the materials involved. As China developed, and as Asia has developed into a more sophisticated economy that changed and I think taste also changed.  A shift occurred where design was finally valued, breeding a new generation of designers. Communism forbade the wearing of jewelry as bourgeois and it was considered redundant but in time, it became relevant as an art form and as an actual career.

I’m going to be forty this year and I think the next generation will look at jewellery in a much more casual way.  Gone are the days of galas and the balls.  I mean, yes, they still exist but less frequently, as our lifestyle has become more casual.  A collector still may want to be wear a million-dollar ring during the day in a modern and tasteful way but the idea of elegance has changed.  I don’t create in a knowingly Chinese way, I create from my experience as part of a global modernist movement and aesthetic.  There are a lot of Asian designers who demonstrate a heavy cultural influence but my work is more universal than that. It’s ironic, because during Covid Hong Kong was in very strict lockdown but I could not have been busier which I wasn’t expecting at all. Clients who were usually hard to get hold of were suddenly at home and going on buying sprees.  I couldn’t keep up with the demand. Many raided their jewelry collections and wanted different mounts or re-designs so I was very, very fortunate because my business expanded.  People in Hong Kong are very resourceful so even in lockdown there was still a trickle of work being produced, it was just much slower. Something that usually took three months would take four or six.


The future is transparent

Working with all the brands I have, I think transparency is becoming more important in the industry as a whole.  It’s already happening with the bigger companies who are ensuring their supply of diamonds and other gemstones follow human rights and global guidelines.  A transparent mark-up is now the strategy used by a quite a few new startups online and I do think this trend will continue as luxury houses find new ways to communicate value in innovative ways.  The most important thing for me going forward as a designer is creativity – being able to design, create and work across multiple disciplines.  Not just on my own but to collaborate with others using pioneering ideas because it’s not so easy to innovate in an industry so steeped in generations of tradition.  Sometimes a diamond cutter isn’t open to trying new cuts for example but slowly I’m meeting the next generation of cutters and artisans and I do feel there is a shift in mindset with them willing to explore and come on that journey with me.

I also think we have to communicate the amount of work and energy that goes into creating a jewel with collectors.  Even though I don’t physically make the piece, it’s not just about designing something on paper and then passing it to the bench.  Each gemstone may need to be cut differently, the girdle may need to be thick or thin, the pavilion of the stone may be lopsided. If it’s a coloured diamond, I may need to frame it with a contrasting stone, so matching pink and green diamonds which means I then have to find the right green diamond.  The fit and comfortability may require work etc.  It is a time consuming and intricate process which clients sometimes don’t foresee. There are a lot of tricks of the trade that jewellers quite often use but they often involve other people who are busy because of how good they are.  I’m all for designers being open about that, about who has contributed to the creation of the jewel because that is part of it.  Like fashion designers who talk about the specialist feather haute couture houses they employ or fabric designers or specialist bead workers, we should be open about where our resources come from.  Transparency has to be fully embraced by everyone to really be authentic.  The other thing is you don’t have to choose between your own work and designing for others.  The two can comfortably support each other in terms of experience and finance.  Timing is often the key.  Just do what feels right.


Written by Melanie Grant for The Goldsmiths’ Company on 10th November 2022.




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