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Working within limits

Four high-jewelry designers share the setbacks and opportunities they’ve experienced during the coronavirus in Shanghai, Paris and Hong Kong
Aug 5, 2020 4:36 AM   By Francesca Fearon
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EMMANUEL TARPINWhen he’s not on an airplane, Emmanuel Tarpin is in his Paris workshop beside his craftsmen, overseeing jewelry production. The 27-year-old jeweler, who grew up in the French Alps, spent three-and-a-half years in the Van Cleef & Arpels workshop honing his technical skills before launching his own collection two years ago. He did a design collaboration with De Grisogono last year, has seen his works sell at Christie’s New York’s Magnificent Jewels auction, and won Breakthrough Designer of 2019 from Town & Country. His works now sell at elite New York jewelry dealer Siegelson.

“I don’t have a shop and love to travel to meet clients and for inspiration, so the confinement was quite frustrating, as I couldn’t share my ideas with people,” says Tarpin. So he retreated to his Paris apartment, drawing and painting the birds, insects and flowers in his rooftop garden with the precision of a botanical artist. “Often, my sketches are not about jewels; it was more about that special atmosphere during lockdown.”

Although the workshop was shut, he had tools to produce maquettes for his new sculptural designs. “And even if I didn’t have all the materials with me, I could experiment with new patinas for copper and silver to try different effects, new textures,” he adds. “Now the workshops are open again, I can work with the craftsmen, as my designs are about volume, contrast, color, texture and details, which I need to follow every step of the way.”

MR LIEOUHong Kong jeweler Nicholas Lieou “had planned for months to launch a collection with [e-commerce platform] Moda Operandi in early 2020, but it was terrible timing to launch new pieces, with the pandemic and Hong Kong still reeling from the protests,” he says. “I was unable to send any jewelry abroad for viewings, and my jeweler in [China’s Guangdong province] had to move equipment from his workshop to his house to continue working, which limited what we could produce.”

Still, Lieou says, the shutdown gave him time to reflect on his design aesthetic. “I had danced between minimalism and maximalism, but the pandemic allowed me to address what is important to me, and that is longevity: I want to design pieces that transcend time and are valid for the future. I was also able to obsess on details like polishing techniques [and develop] new patinas.” In addition, he was able to progress with a capsule collection he has designed especially for Sotheby’s Diamonds in Hong Kong.

The jeweler formally launched Mr Lieou at GemGenève in 2019. He started designing in Hong Kong 10 years ago and established Nicholas Lieou, a fine jewelry line that sold at retailers in New York and the Hamptons. However, he later shuttered it and joined Tiffany & Co. in 2015 as design director for high jewelry and custom design. Lieou’s style is both organic and graphic, rarely using color. His serene — if slightly dangerous — designs feature South Sea pearls, diamonds, and black and grey spinels.

“The pandemic has shown me the importance of keeping [my operation] small, manageable and flexible,” he says — especially since he sees the future of high jewelry becoming more private and curated. “Clients increasingly want a tailored customer experience, maybe even delivering collections to their homes to try on in privacy. It works better, as there is a higher conversion rate when clients can try on jewels with their wardrobe.” mrlieou.com

FENG-J HAUTE JOAILLERIEFeng Ji was home in Shanghai for Chinese New Year when China imposed its lockdown at the end of February. Mainland China’s first homegrown luxury jeweler is known for her impressionist-inspired floral designs, featuring rose-cut gemstones in a “floating” setting that allows light to flood in. Her most recent experiments have combined traditional red Chinese lacquer with spinel and ruby.

Although tight Covid-19 restrictions only remained in place for one month, “the lockdown meant that suppliers couldn’t ship stones to me; I couldn’t fly to my Place Vendôme atelier in Paris to finish production on the new collection; I couldn’t meet clients or launch new designs at Beijing’s Jing Art in May, which was canceled,” Feng says. Her new high-jewelry line, which launches in August, features additions to her Garden of Impressionism series and Le Gallerie, a collection with a contemporary art theme.

Fortunately, due to the staggered lockdowns, her European and US clients were able to collect their jewelry in Paris before the city mandated closing stores, while her Chinese clients have since received their orders from her Shanghai showroom. Nevertheless, she is replanning her business model in the wake of Covid-19: establishing an atelier in China with craftsmen trained by her French atelier to maintain her high standards. At present, due to Chinese travel restrictions, production is guided via iPhone video calls.

Feng is 33, and her clients tend to be millennials like herself, so maintaining contact through WeChat and social media hasn’t been a problem. “My clientele is very young for high jewelry, but the Chinese economy is growing. From that is emerging rich young people attracted to cutting-edge, unique high jewelry, but not necessarily big gemstones.” feng-j.com

AUSTY LEE ART JEWELLERYHong Kong did not implement a complete lockdown during the coronavirus period, notes local designer Austy Lee, “but customers were reluctant to leave their houses and come out shopping, and there were restrictions for gatherings of more than four people in a public place. Everything slowed down, with my Hong Kong workshop cutting back working hours, and pieces taking longer to make. However, I insisted on maintaining normal hours in my boutique in Central [even though] sales were slackening off.”

Of course, less time in the shop with clients meant Lee had more time to finalize the details of his new shop in Kowloon — his second, which opened in May. It also gave him the free time to create.

Lee has been in jewelry for 20 years, having formerly worked at Adler and Wendy Yue before launching his own business in 2017. He recently collaborated on a collection with Annoushka for the UK-based jeweler’s 10th anniversary. Lee is prolific in creating bold, psychedelic, playful pieces and far-out bespoke designs for clients. His narrative-driven Instagram posts (he has 454,000 followers) are a kaleidoscope of exotically hued gemstones in geometric, religious, gothic and naturalistic designs. During the retail lull, he says, “I am experimenting with new colors for rhodium-plated 18-karat gold and have been designing flowery pieces, which are currently my main focus.”

He is optimistic about the future of high jewelry: “Jewelry collectors are always seeking interesting, one-of-a-kind pieces, but I think it is essential that those experienced and significant jewelers, manufacturers and others in the industry put more effort into helping and supporting emerging designers and brands.” austyleeartjewellery.com
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