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Thursday, October 10, 2013

‘If you have a piece of nice jewelry you should really enjoy it and wear it every day,’ Coffee with JNN: Dennis Chan of Qeelin

Dennis Chan (left) describing Qeelin's new "King & Queen" collection. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

As I walked into the sun-filled grand ballroom of Club Lusitano, a Portuguese heritage club in Hong Kong’s Central district, the Qeelin press conference was already underway. What I didn’t expect was a three course formal western style lunch that included New Zealand sole and a cheesecake with mixed berries.

On a stage speaking enthusiastically in Cantonese was Dennis Chan, the creative director and co-founder of the luxury jewelry brand. Towering over him is a model dressed in a long formal black dress wearing pieces of the just released jewelry from Qeelin’s “King & Queen” collection. Chan is dressed in a crisp black suit and white shirt with the collar unbuttoned. On his neck is a dragon pendant from the new collection. His shoes are the showstopper, a tiger-themed (I believe) print with gold-colored studs in the back. When I ask him about the shoes he just laughs and says they’re Italian and they matched his clothes.

Dennis Chan's Italian shoes. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

Afterward, Chan went from table to table with another tall model dressed in a formal full-length red dress discussing the individual pieces in rapid-fire Chinese.

Dennis Chan demonstrating Phoenix necklace at Qeelin press conference. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

When compared to its peers in the international luxury jewelry world, Qeelin is different in several ways. It’s a relatively small and young company and it’s headquartered in Asia, not Europe.

The Hong Kong-based company combines traditional Chinese themes with French craftsmanship, a design-first philosophy, the use of precious materials and a bit of whimsy. Not yet 10 years old, the brand has 14 boutiques in China, Hong Kong and Europe; and other points-of-sale in Singapore, Tokyo and Europe.

18k rose gold, diamond pavé and ruby bracelet, part of Qeelin's King & Queen collection. The ring has a dragon head (shown) and phoenix head, which represent King and Queen, respectively.

While the company has European influences and distribution, it is focused on the China and Asian markets. This is precisely why French luxury conglomerate Kering (formerly PPR) purchased a majority stake in the relatively small and little-known brand. The December, 2012, acquisition surprised many observers.

“Qeelin is a small brand, but with strong growth potential. We focus much more on the brand’s ability to grow rather than on its current size,” said Alexis Babeau, Kering managing director. “As examples, Balenciaga or Bottega Veneta were very small brands too when we bought them back in 2001. Look at them now…. Qeelin is well positioned to tap the growth potential of the Asian market.”

Qeelin Dragon and Phoenix ring (with the phoenix head shown) made of 18k yellow gold, diamond pavé and rubies.

I had finished my work at the September Hong Kong Jewellery & Gem Fair so being in the city provided me the opportunity to attend the press conference. Afterward, Chan and I sat for coffee and a short discussion about Qeelin and its future.

Chan said Hong Kong and China are Qeelin’s biggest markets; followed by Europe and Ukraine. “We have a lot of followers,” he said. “They collect everything we have.”

With the Kering acquisition, the boutique brand will have the ability to grow at a rapid pace. Chan said the company will open six to seven stores in China soon. However, he stresses that expansion won’t be rushed.

“We are expanding quite steadily, (but) we try not to expand and suddenly to be very big because it takes time for a luxury brand to grow,” the Hong Kong resident said. “But I think we have our own position in the industry … we rely a lot on design and craftsmanship and at the same time a lot of our jewelry could really touch people’s hearts.”

Chan said that the differences between Qeelin and its European brand counterparts are its advantages.

“If you look at Qeelin, you will find that it is very different,” he said. “We are not like Cartier and Van Cleef who have a long history. We’re a young brand. The interesting thing is we try to bring out the charm of Chinese design. It is traditional but it’s very much hip and fashionable.”

Phoenix necklace made of 18k white gold, diamond pave and rubies. The wings move.

Specifically, the brand creates modern, fashionable versions of traditional Chinese images. For example, its King & Queen line is based on variations of the Dragon (king) and the Phoenix (queen). The collection of rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings are made of 18k white and rose gold with diamond pavé and touches of rubies. In some cases the parts move, such as the wings on the Phoenix. The jewelry is light and lively and designed to be worn daily.

“The jewelry in my point of view shouldn't be very heavy and you should enjoy it,” he said. “Like my mom. She collects a lot of jewelry but then it always ends up in the safe. She’ll bring it out one or two times a year. If you have a piece of nice jewelry you should really enjoy it and wear it every day.”

Phoenix necklace made of 18k white gold, diamond pave and rubies. The wings move.

Chan began his career in London as a product designer before adding engineer and architect to his resume. His designs ranged from phone booths to the 33-meter high Millennium Clock Tower in Scotland.

“I really wanted to be a product designer,” he said. “In college all the lecturers tried to put me into fashion design because I got the highest marks in fashion. I’m still very much someone who falls in love with product.”

Over the years, his passion grew to include jewelry and watches and was inspired to design his own pieces based on what he felt was a gap in the marketplace.

“I became more intrigued about the world of luxury jewelry,” he said. “I love fashion and I’m a collector of watches. I started collecting jewelry as well. We couldn’t find something that has a Chinese touch but also very, very modern. It just did not exist in the market.”

While Chan has a partner (French entrepreneur Guillaume Brochard) this company is his vision. He stresses that it’s a design-first company. There is very little market research before determining new products. Nor are gems used to determine designs. And he is deeply involved in how the brand is positioned. The glass walls in the ballroom that overlook the crowded streets below were fronted by poster-sized black-and-white photographs of models dressed in Art Deco period clothing wearing Qeelin jewelry. These images were taken by Chan using 100-year-old lenses and a new version of a vintage camera.

“The pictures are very soft and different from digital,” he said.

Below is a promotional video for the new collection using the same imagery as the photography.

Chan says he gets his design ideas based on what’s around him.

“We don’t have a marketing sense,” he said. “It’s very much for me and also the friends around me. For example, at a dinner party I would notice what is lacking on my friends’ and I would feel this kind of product would fit them perfectly. That is more of the information and source when I’m designing new pieces of jewelry.”

He continued, “Unlike a lot of jewelers, we don’t start from the stones. We start from the design and then we try to find the best stone to go with the product. This is why when you look at the collection you always see a story or a design behind it, rather than seeing 10 carats of stones or big rubies and big sapphires. It doesn’t mean we don’t put attention on the stone it just means the stone serves as an enhancement of the design.”

18k white gold earring with diamond pavé and a ruby from the King & Queen collection.

There’s also a sense of fun. Chan said one collection called Ling Long, which is a bejeweled bell, is an example of this. Bells are common gifts for newborn children because the sound is thought to ward off evil spirits. In this case, the clapper of the bell is a diamond so the first sound the baby hears is the sound of a diamond.

“Qeelin is more like that,” he said. “A bit humorous, more fun, very fashionable and it’s still fine jewelry.”

Please join me on the Jewelry News Network Facebook Page, on Twitter @JewelryNewsNet and on the Forbes Web site.

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