The display in any jewellery store window is a source of wonder, not just for the obvious allure it possesses, but also for the precision and intricate design work that goes into every single piece on show.
With over 25 years in the business, Vickie Li, chief jewellery designer for Luk Fook Jewellery, still marvels at the beauty of the materials she works with every day, but is quick to point out that the job is all about hard work and dedication, not superficial glamour.
On leaving school in the late 70's, Ms Li got a job as a trainee jewellery designer. "Back then, the salary wasn't even enough to cover my transport expenses," she recalls. However, the experience gained in different workshops and production plants soon proved to be invaluable. "Without that kind of experience, you won't understand how the business works and won't know how to deal with customers," she explains. "You pick up the necessary skills bit by bit, provided you have the intuition, willingness and ability to learn."
Over the course of the next 15 years, she gradually worked her way up the career ladder before deciding to move to Luk Fook. The company was expanding and, when it listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 1997, it made perfect sense to form its own in-house design team. Today, Ms Li heads a team of six designers in Hong Kong, while also overseeing the activities of the mainland design team.
"It takes time to develop knowledge and polish your skills"
So far, she has received over 30 international and local awards and has helped the company win a further 100. One of her favourite collections, "Leaves", won the top award at the first Greater China Trophy for International Jadeite Jewellery Design in 2002.
Of all the precious stones and metals she works with, jade remains Ms Li's favourite. "It has such class, dimensions and potential," she says. "Diamonds are always a favourite, but different stones or metals all have their unique characteristics."
Each item in what is now an impressive portfolio reveals a little about her personality. "I love things that appear natural and convey a sense of freedom," she says.
As a designer, Ms Li has learned how to balance artistic and practical considerations. This is important whether she is working on a piece for a competition or launching a collection based on a brand-new design concept. "Great ideas and artistic flair can win you a prize, but launching a product line for the retail market is a different story," she notes. "You must know how to adjust, so as to make something which will sell and is affordable." This may involve incorporating some of the elements used in a competition piece, but modifying them or doing them in miniature in order to create market demand while keeping costs under control. "The spirit of the piece should remain," Ms Li emphasises.
Her basic method is always to have paper and pencil to hand in case inspiration strikes. "For each piece, there is a story and, especially in a competition, you need to explain your ideas and concepts," she says. Composing poetry may also be part of the process. "Poems are the basis of some of my works," Ms Li says "That adds something extra and I always look forward to seeing the finished product."
Some designs take a day to complete, others require as long as a month and, if there are mechanical elements, modifications will be needed.
In Ms Li's experience, there is no such thing as overnight success or a typical career path in jewellery design. "It takes time to develop knowledge and polish your skills," she says. "When your designs start to win attention and attract customers for the company, then you'll know you're going somewhere." She points out that anyone hoping to join the profession must be hard working, humble and resilient. Besides that, a passion for the job, an outgoing personality, creativity, and an understanding of the market are generally considered more important than academic qualifications.
"A jewellery designer doesn't sit in front of the computer doing drawings," Ms Li says. "We also work closely with craftsmen in the workshop or factory."
For those who succeed, there is great job satisfaction and, every once in a while, after a new design has been launched and publicised, it will spark a major trend. "It's a thrill to see my concepts and designs being copied," Ms Li says. "It really proves something has been done well."
As personal incomes in China continue to climb and spending habits change, Ms Li believes there will be plenty of opportunities for Hong Kong jewellery designers to work in the mainland. Currently, there are over 250 Luk Fook retail outlets in China. "The China market is huge and there is growing interest in different designs and materials," Ms Li says. "Many factors can affect the demand for particular products. For example, people in the north may not opt for necklaces because they always wear turtlenecks." Knowing what will sell involves extensive research into Chinese culture and demographics, as well as attention to the general fashion trends.