The Chinese have in recent years become the world’s biggest buyers of luxury goods, but when it comes to creating homegrown brands they lag behind their European counterparts. The past decade, however, has seen a growing number of Chinese-inspired labels hit the global stage, from Hermès-owned, Shanghai-based Shang Xia to Taiwanese fashion house Shiatzy Chen. Also in the van of this burgeoning group is Hong Kong-based jeweller Qeelin.
Founded in 2004 by local designer Dennis Chan and French entrepreneur Guillaume Brochard, the brand has since then been rivalling the established jewellers of Paris’s Place Vendôme with its whimsical yet modern creations that reference various facets of Chinese culture. In 2012, history was made when luxury-goods behemoth Kering, which also owns established players such as Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Bottega Veneta, acquired a major stake.
“The ambition in the beginning was to open a small shop featuring beautifully made objects with interesting designs,” says Chan, wearing a bright-red suit and Gucci loafers that perfectly match the decor of Qeelin’s new store at Elements.
“When we started to grow,” says Chan, “the vision became different, as I wanted to bring our story and products to more people. Kering came at the right time and helps us open a lot more doors.”
Since the beginning Chan has had a passion for product design. A graduate of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s highly regarded School of Design, he began his career in London. After returning to Hong Kong in the late 1980s he worked with renowned product designer Ken Shimasaki, before setting up his own design consultancy. His work brought him numerous local and international accolades, including awards from the Chartered Society of Designers, Japan’s G-Mark, the Singapore Design Awards and Maison & Objet of Paris.
“I already had my own designer brand creating different products that were selling in more than 50 countries, but I still had a dream to create a real brand with a lasting concept and vision. For as long as I can remember I had a passion for watches and jewellery. I loved how a small object could symbolise so much, be it culture, art, architecture or society at the time. You aren’t just buying a product, but the creator’s concept, a spirit,” he explains.
The idea for Qeelin came about after Chan took a life-changing trip to China’s legendary Silk Road in the late 1990s. A few years later he approached entrepreneur Guillaume Brochard, who had previously worked at watch brand TAG Heuer, to help bring his vision to life.
“After living in the UK, I realised how so many countries treasure their own culture,” Chan says, “unlike Hong Kong people who don’t know much about [their] roots. Living abroad made me more curious and after that trip I discovered how dramatic, powerful and meaningful Chinese culture is.
“My next thought was, ‘Why haven’t we ever had a brand inspired by this culture?’ When people talk about China it’s always about the old – the architecture, the Imperial Palace, the Ming Dynasty – there’s nothing modern or current. I wanted to bring something new to the world,” he says.
Chan’s first design for Qeelin was the now-iconic Wulu, which was based on the Chinese wu lou (bitter gourd) symbol, which is believed to bring good luck. It’s a common sight in city temples or outside local shopfronts, but Chan made it modern with a more graphic, geometric shape and minimalist lines. It wasn’t long before Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung was photographed wearing a gold-and-diamond-studded Wulu necklace at Cannes Film Festival, causing a sensation (she would later star in the brand’s advertising campaigns).
“The idea was to transform something traditional with a modern touch. Some people would recognise the Wulu – it also appears in Japanese and Indian cultures – but others who don’t are still attracted to the design itself. It can resonate with anyone,” says Chan.
Over the next decade Chan drew inspiration from various mythical and superstitious Chinese symbols to create contemporary, beautifully made jewels. Some of the most memorable creations include the Bo Bo charm – which means “precious” in Chinese – based on the beloved panda (to celebrate her 10th anniversary in September she was reincarnated in the form of Sun Wukong, the mythological Monkey King). Ling Long, meanwhile, is a collection of earrings and pendants featuring bells, which are traditionally used to ward off evil and summon good luck. Another favourite, Qin Qin, depicts kissing goldfish that are believed to bring abundance, harmony and love.
And while each collection pays homage to some element of Chinese heritage, they also encapsulate a fun and whimsical spirit that any luxury connoisseur would appreciate, be it in the Wang Wang collection, which pays tribute to dogs, or the Roobot, featuring colourful diamond-studded robots. Therein lies the brand’s allure.
“Qeelin is about design and emotion,” says Chan. “Many of our customers are attracted to our craftsmanship and attention to detail. There are so many well-articulated elements and as a result every jewel is playful. The Bo Bo, for example, can move – you can even change his outfit. The Lotus ring opens up like a flower in bloom. The Ling Long bell comes with a diamond moving around inside. It’s not just jewellery – it has spirit.
“At the same time our jewels elicit emotion in customers. For example, in China you’re often given a bracelet with a Yu Yi lock as a kid. Now, 30 years later, you see it at our boutique, but transformed into a beautiful piece of jewellery. It reminds you of your childhood, it strikes sentiment. That’s why we’re different from other jewellery brands,” he says.
Qeelin’s Chinese roots may form the foundation of the brand, but its outlook is definitely global. In addition to six stores in Hong Kong, the company has boutiques in France, China, the Philippines and Korea, and is in multi-brand stores in the United States. With Kering now firmly on board, there are plans to reinforce its presence in Paris and expand in Asia in the next year.
“From day one we were always international, not local,” Chan continues. “Our Chinese customers really treasure the culture and they’ve never encountered a brand that’s so modern and international, but with a Chinese spirit. For the rest of the world it’s equally appealing, as customers tend to interpret the product their own way – they’re coming to the brand from a design point of view.”
Chan may have plenty more creative ideas for future collections – “I have over a thousand designs in my archive waiting,” he jokes – but the focus right now is to add new styles to existing collections. He also has hopes to build a much broader product base in the future.
“We’ve created many objects in the past that we don’t sell, such as glasses, perfume and handbags. It’s sort of an open secret in the industry I want to do more, so it’s just a matter of time. Whatever we do, we’ll never offer traditional luxury. People today don’t want to spend their money on the usual designer brands – they’re looking for brands with character,” he says.
And although Kering’s new leadership has resulted in some changes – Brochard has left – the vision for Qeelin is even more focused than before.
“We want to create a voice for contemporary Chinese design. I cannot say we’ve built Asia’s first luxury brand, but if you ask a lot of people they really feel pride that we’ve created such a successful brand like Qeelin from Asia. There’s an integrity that they resonate with,” says Chan.