In all likelihood, many Japanese, Britons and Americans are wearing jewellery designed in Hong Kong, set with Myanmar jade or rubies, Sri Lankan sapphires or diamonds from Angola or South Africa and manufactured in Guangdong, China.
For Hong Kong, the world's third largest exporter of precious jewellery and the biggest exporter of imitation jewellery, this is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with exports last year reaching HK$14.8 billion and earnings in the first quarter worth HK$4.7 billion. The bulk of Hong Kong's jewellery is shipped to the United States, while Britain and Japan are sizeable markets.
All this wealth is created by a skilled workforce employed in 635 factories and more than 2,500 import and export companies in Hong Kong and southern Chinese cities such as Panyu - where the majority of manufacturers operate - and Shenzhen. There are 110 factories in Panyu and 30 plus in Shatoujiao. The Panyu Jewelry Manufacturers Association says the output from January to September 2002 was worth US$411 million.
More than 4,600 people were working in the precious jewellery sector, while 315 were in the imitation jewellery business as of September 2002, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council says. At the end of last year, more than 10,300 were in the import-export trade.
The industry's export orientation means that, in some jobs, earnings can reach six figures. A sales person could join at HK$8,000 a month and there are no limits to the earning power, says Aaron Shum, chairman of the Hong Kong Jewelry Manufacturers Association. "Successful sales executives can earn more than a million Hong Kong dollars a year."
Exports have been expanding every year, despite slowdowns in some periods, and the industry offers relatively good jobs. But there are no easy options. "Young people must be patient. Trees don't grow in one day. They must first find out if they are interested in the industry. There are no shortcuts and one should get to know the business," advises Dr Charles SC Chan, president of the Hong Kong Jewellery and Jade Manufacturers Association.
Newcomers start in sales to understand the trade, according to Dr Chan. As for academic credentials, he says that "a secondary school background is good enough. Few people with degrees come into the industry".
The industry needs a "few hundred" designers and sales and marketing people a year, says Mr Shum. A study has been undertaken by the association to estimate manpower requirements. "There is a demand for designers and sales and marketing people. The shortage was the result of poor government policy. Not enough people were trained. There was no proper direction. We do not need many technicians, because most companies manufacture in China," Mr Shum says. "We need more people who are trained in computer-aided design and people with English-skills and a good educational background."
Those keen to be designers should have a creative mind, he says, not necessarily high academic qualifications. As for sales people, many start as designers and progress. "Designers can be trained for management positions."
A junior designer could earn HK$6,000 and a senior designer could make HK$20,000 a month, he says. "Jewellery used to be seen as a luxury product. Not any more. It has become a part of fashion and gift industries. So, the scope of business is greater.''
There are jobs in various categories for people with relevant skills. In a survey in May-June last year, the Institute of Vocational Education (IVE) found 106 vacancies in the technologist, technician, craftsman and other categories. The study showed that there were 3,538 technical workers in the jewellery manufacturing sector, plus 7,112 in the wholesale, imports and exports segment, adding up to 10,695 in jewellery-related disciplines.
Technologists, the IVE noted, are gemologists with professional qualifications or a degree or higher diploma, while technicians are mainly designers and foremen/supervisors. It revealed that employers forecast the workforce would expand to 11,155 by June this year. The industry has adopted new technologies such as rapid prototyping and computer-aided industrial design, the study found.
As exports continue growing, the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) has eliminated tariffs for exports to China. This means, for example, the 35 percent tariff for precious metal jewellery and the 26.7 percent rate for gold and silver jewellery will not apply from 2004. Mr Shum does not expect significant benefits from CEPA. "It would take a couple of years." But he regards CEPA as a "step closer" to bringing down trade barriers and notes it will "help attract overseas investment to the jewellery sector".
He points out that China has many restrictions and barriers, such as a five percent sales tax and 17 percent value-added tax. In addition, manufacturers are not allowed to sell in China. He adds that import procedures are complicated and the industry has been lobbying China's authorities to ease restrictions. Meanwhile, Dr Chan says: "We still have to find out more details."
As for those interested in the industry, the IVE Jewellery Industry Training Centre in Kwai Chung, Hong Kong Baptist University's School of Continuing Education and the Gemological Institute of America all provide courses.