HONG KONG — Like a diamond ring in the West, the enduring accessory for a Chinese bride is a pair of dragon and phoenix bangles in 24-karat gold, the buttery-yellow version of the precious metal so loved in Asia.
But should love not last, she could liquidate her gold jewelry in a highly transparent and efficient manner in ways that diamonds cannot match.
“Twenty-four carat gold is considered a form of international currency, because it is accepted around the world,” said Kent Wong, managing director of Chow Tai Fook Jewelry in Hong Kong, which introduced the standardization of 999.9 pure gold jewelry in 1984. “Because gold jewelry is sold by weight, customers can sell their gold back to the jeweler, which is common practice in Chinese society.”
Mr. Wong explained that the price of each piece is calculated from the international gold price, based on the gold’s weight, plus the store’s 2 percent commission and a design fee. “As the daily gold price is displayed conspicuously in the shop, there is a high transparency and clear information,” he said.
The fact that such resale is so easy — along with the introduction of popular motifs like Disney’s “Frozen” and Hello Kitty and improved filament craftsmanship (similar to Florentine style design), as well as burnishing, lathing and buffing techniques — has buoyed sales to China’s rapidly growing middle class, the prized market that retailers around the world hope to capture.
“Wedding jewelry contributes more than 40 percent of our business, but we want to develop innovative jewelry to appeal to young customers,” Mr. Wong said. “We work with Korean pop stars such as G-Dragon and Lee Min Ho to launch collections targeting young customers.” It is not unusual in one of Chow Tai Fook’s more than 300 stores in Hong Kong, mainland China and Southeast Asia to find 24-karat pendants with the likeness of Marvel Comic characters or necklaces featuring plump, smiling pigs, a fertility symbol popular with brides.
Previously, the limited design potential of 24-karat gold made it more often a choice for wedding and birthday gifts, rather than personal jewelry. The metal in its pure form is very soft, so soft that it can be easily bent, making intricate designs impossible. So, in the past, jewelers generally concentrated on styles involving auspicious Chinese themes, such as the peach for longevity, flower for prosperity and, of course, the dragon and phoenix for wedded bliss.
In recent years, the development of electro-forming technology to increase the hardness of gold has enabled jewelers such as Chow Tai Fook to set gemstones like rubies, emerald and jadeite in 24-karat pieces, enriching designs and creating much more costly pieces.
Gold prices now are hovering around $1,090 per troy ounce, the lowest price so far this year. In general, prices have been declining since a peak almost two years ago. (Like a currency exchange, there is a selling price and a buying price.)
In Hong Kong, gold is traded in tael, or a little more than 1.2 troy ounces. A pair of bangles, each using a tael of gold and created in a dragon and phoenix motif from a simple mold but with a hand-finished design would be priced at around 25,415 Hong Kong dollars ($3,280), which includes the store’s 2 percent commission and a 690-dollar design fee.
A customer who decided to sell that jewelry back to the store on the same day, as gold prices fluctuate, would walk out with about 20,490 dollars.
“Our customers won’t need to bring their receipt back, as our maker’s mark is clearly stamped on each piece,” said Hung Lam, a salesman at Chow Sang Sang, another popular gold trader.
Mr. Wong acknowledges that 24-karat gold jewelry appeals almost exclusively to Chinese customers.
“We do have some non-Chinese customers, but their appetite for gold jewelry is not comparable to Chinese,” he said, adding that the Chinese also prefer their gold to have a saturated, almost gaudy gold tone.
“With technology these days, we are able to change the color of 24-karat gold to a rose tint, but Chinese want their gold to look exactly like a gold bar, because this is what it looked like for hundreds of years,” he said. “This style appeals to Chinese because it’s part of our heritage, whereas for foreigners, they don’t have the same sense of historical reference.”
Chow Tai Fook has a gold crafting plant in Shunde, a city in Guangdong Province, with six artists producing designs rendered by 3,000 craftsmen working with simple tools such as torches, small chisels and picks.
Zhang Zhi Rong, or Master Zhang as he is known, is one of the company’s artists who can both design and make his own jewelry.
Holding a bangle with a buffed surface, Mr. Zhang used a thin black marker to draw a design of dragons and phoenix onto the surface before beginning to carve into the gold. He also frequently works with gold wires, which he twists and bends into intricate designs, often with a floral pattern.
“We have some commissions and people want special pieces, especially as birthday gifts to elderly relatives,” Mr. Zhang said. “The older generation prefers gold over any kind of precious stones, as the color is considered auspicious and it brings them good luck.”
While Chow Tai Fook’s business is focused on Asia, the Shanghai-based gold company Lao Feng Xiang is betting that Westerners can learn to love the Asian style.
Last year, Lao Feng Xiang opened its first store in the United States — on Fifth Avenue in the midst of international designer boutiques and five-star hotels. “I think if established foreign brands can penetrate the Chinese market, there is no reason why a Chinese brand cannot do the same,” said Wang Eng-sheng, a company spokesman.
The brand is among the oldest in China, started in 1848 in Shanghai and now with more than 2,000 stores throughout the country. This year, it opened two locations in Hong Kong, and it also has a store in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“We have had plans for international expansion for the past 10 years, and we started showing at the Las Vegas Jewelry and Watch Show eight years ago,” Mr. Wang said. “We are a very well- funded state-owned enterprise, and we have a dream to bring Chinese artistic vision to the world.”
Its overseas customer base still is largely composed of expatriate Chinese and tourists from mainland China. But “we are adding a new merchandise mix to include 24-karat gold set with jade, colored stones and diamonds to create a broader appeal,” Mr. Wang said. “For 24-karat gold jewelry we also follow Hong Kong’s standards of using .9999 pure gold, and our pricing is competitive with Hong Kong retailers.”
Historically, 24-karat gold was popular in the West during Byzantine periods, and now some Western designers, such as Cevherun in Istanbul, have been creating period-inspired jewelry.
The designers behind Cevherun, Cevat Genc and Ugur Tas, craft pieces by hand using sheets of gold or wire, and even incorporate Roman and Byzantine objects, such as pieces of old coins.
“Twenty-four-karat gold has a storied past, since the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire, perhaps the only consistent thread that ran through these civilizations was their used of pure gold for jewelry and adornment,” Mr. Genc said. “It’s seeing a resurgence by jewelers like ourselves coming out of Istanbul with fresh ideas in ancient techniques.”
Cevherun, which is sold in the United States through the online retailer plukka.com, uses 999.5 gold. “It’s a soft metal but it’s incredibly tough and ductile, and gold has a luster that does not fade,” Mr. Genc said. “Many of our techniques are the same since ancient times, because the natural properties of gold haven’t changed.”
Their African Sun disc earrings, ($2,850), are made by winding very thin gold wire together (the company does not use molds). If placed closed to high heat, the earrings might even melt a bit.
“Working with gold is alchemy, and we want to make objects that will stand the test of time,” Mr. Genc said. “Kings and queens from Cleopatra to Sultan Suleiman have adorned themselves with it. It has always been and is still a form of currency and precious in its history and process. We are so drawn to it for all these reasons.”