If you happen to see Barry Lau strolling along the beach at Repulse Bay in the middle of the afternoon, don't be deceived! To the casual observer, it might appear that he is enjoying a day off but, in fact, he is more than likely to be hard at work. That's because Mr Lau is a chief designer for jewellery retailer MaBelle, and is the first to admit that the best creations require a flash of inspiration of the kind that rarely occurs in the office.
"You see something and it sets off an idea," he explains. "For example, the Xmas 'Circle of Love' collection was based on a concept inspired by the natural world. It included a pendant shaped like a leaf, with a diamond to represent a raindrop, and other pieces which drew on the same theme."
Once he has something in mind, Mr Lau will sketch it out and think it through by himself before presenting it to the marketing and sales departments and gauging their reaction. If positive, it then takes around a week to complete the technical design aspects, after which the factory in China will make samples, and manufacturing techniques will be finalised. The original concept is then expanded and used as the basis of a specific promotional campaign to tie in with the coming season, current trends or, perhaps, Mother's Day.
Since Mabelle currently has 46 stores in Hong Kong and a further 12 on the mainland, there is inevitably a degree of commercial pressure to get things right. There will be six or seven new collections a year besides individual or personalised items. Consequently, Mr Lau keeps a close eye on what is selling and on what influences fashion. This may involve checking magazines, visiting competitors' shops and attending fashion shows. To illustrate the impact this has on his work, he points out that this year's "in" colour is pink, there are more low-cut women's styles, and that geometric shapes are favoured. Therefore, he will plan to incorporate more "rose" gold in his designs, make longer pendants and necklaces, and use more circles, triangles and squares in his concepts.
The best creations require a flash of inspiration
Mr Lau still remembers how, as a young boy, his mother often took him to see the jewellery shops in Chung On Street in Tsuen Wan. This made such an impression that, after completing Form Five and realising he had no great interest in further academic studies, he decided around 12 years ago to take practical steps to get into the business. Initially, this involved working as a salesperson for a retail chain selling gold, while also attending evening classes as part of a three-year course in professional jewellery design. This covered technical drawing, workshop techniques and the importance of presentation in putting across a design concept.
To make use of these skills and gain commercial experience, Mr Lau moved on to work for an optical company, Swank International. "That was the quickest way to get a designing job," he says. "Since there were no professional design courses for the optical industry, it was relatively easy to apply for the job and to start creating new collections."
He quickly came to understand the constraints imposed by cost factors, available materials and the limited time for factory production.
Continuing to study part-time, Mr Lau took courses to master the appropriate software and computer skills and signed up in 1997 for the now discontinued two-year jewellery design programme at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. His break came with the chance to join the first of a series of small jewellery companies, mainly located in Hung Hom and Tsim Sha Tsui. These taught him how to work hard and, more importantly, provided the opportunity to design different styles for different markets. He also learned the need for a collaborative and practical approach.
"Sometimes a design can look very beautiful, but may not work if it is too heavy or requires too much work," he notes. "Most jewellery is for mass production, so we need to be aware of the number of 'positions' in the full manufacturing process."
Joining MaBelle last year allowed Mr Lau to fulfil a long-term ambition. He had watched the company's progress for around 10 years and guessed that their approach to business would enable them to build a "jewellery kingdom" and also afford a degree of creative freedom. Two additional people are now needed for the small design team, and Mr Lau emphasises they should have a passion for the work rather than being motivated by money.
"If you are more interested in the value of diamonds than in the designs you can create with them, you can't expect to get on in this area," he concludes.
Nowadays, MaBelle has its own factory in South China and stores located in major mainland cities. Mr Lau tries to visit the factory on a regular basis in order to keep in close touch with the technical side of the business and to be aware of any changes in the manufacturing process.
It is also essential for any designer to understand the styles and products preferred by mainland Chinese customers.