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Connoisseurs' Choice(HKTDC Jewellery, Vol 02,2008)

Platinum Jewellery

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GRAFF DIAMONDS (HK) LTD

Thirty times rarer than gold, platinum is the first choice of craftsmen and consumers who want the finest money can buy

Louis XVI of France set the trend by declaring the glossy silvery-white metal the only precious metal fit for a king, and his enthusiasm for platinum is shared by today's glitterati.

They appreciate the fact that platinum is a denser, more durable metal than gold or silver, has a weighty, luxurious feel and is typically 90%-95% pure while 18K or 14K gold is 75% and 58.5% pure respectively.

As a result, classic, timeless designs are preferred for platinum jewellery, which is often complemented by an array of sparkling diamonds in order to reflect the metal's high-end exclusivity.

Platinum's density means most manufacturers avoid chunkier styles that would burden the body in favour of lighter, more streamlined designs, while its hardness makes it more difficult to work than gold - yet delicate filigree designs can also be found.

This year, along with other precious metals, platinum prices have soared to historic highs, at one point pushing to nearly US$2,200 per ounce but hovering around US$2,000 an ounce more recently.

Despite the stratospheric rise, Hong Kong platinum jewellery manufacturers say sales have been holding fairly steady. "Many of our customers don't mind the price because they're already prepared to pay more for platinum," says Mandy Ho, Business Control Manager at Abba Jewellery (Mfg) Ltd, adding that some customers even ask for bigger (and costlier) platinum items because they want people to notice that they're wearing expensive jewellery.

She's not worried about the effect that further increases in platinum prices will have on sales. "People know what the market price is," Ms Ho believes. "The ones who want to buy platinum jewellery have the money for it."

Established in 1989, Abba produces a wide range of 14K and 18K gold, 900 and 950 platinum jewellery set with diamonds and precious and semiprecious gemstones.

Platinum jewellery accounts for 20% of the 3,000 pieces the company produces each month. "We're making more platinum jewellery than last year because a lot of our customers want handmade pieces," Ms Ho says. "Since there aren't that many companies in Hong Kong making platinum jewellery we don't have that much competition."

Abba's strengths are wedding rings, pendants and earrings in 900 and 950 platinum, with design cues from international brands such as Tiffany's, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.

"They lead the way, but we modify the designs and make them more Asian," Ms Ho explains. "We put a bit more detailing on and make them a bit more complicated."

One of Abba's best-sellers is a classic, eternity pendant with an invisible setting and a 10-point diamond, priced at US$1,500-3,000 FOB Hong Kong.

Unlike Abba, most of Hong Kong's 400 or so jewellery manufacturers concentrate on producing white, yellow or rose gold jewellery set with diamonds and other gemstones.

Popular categories

Only about 20 firms are currently making platinum jewellery, says Hong Kong Jewelry Manufacturers' Association Associate Chairman Sunny Chan, noting that elaborate necklaces and bridal wear are two of the most popular categories.

"Mature women over 35 years of age like platinum necklaces because they want a rich look, so you'll see big necklaces in traditional styles," Mr Chan says. "Bridal items are popular because the heavy, substantial feel of platinum makes people think that platinum, like the marriage, will last forever."

In fact, platinum bridal jewellery is quickly replacing yellow gold bands for young marrieds in many countries, according to the world's largest luxury jewellery designer website, US-based pearlmansjewelers.com.

Fully 90% of platinum jewellery sales are for bridal items, says the website's Chairman Bill Pearlman. "The change from yellow gold to platinum has been generational," he maintains. "We find that most of our traffic in bridal jewellery is platinum for people in their 30s and younger."

More than 40 elite designer brands, such as Damiani, Scott Kay, Michael B. and Ritani, sell their jewellery on his website. "The Italians and the French are always very strong in design but the Japanese also do beautiful work," he adds.

While platinum is synonymous with luxury, Mr Pearlman believes that functional, wearable platinum is where tomorrow's serious sales growth lies. "People want jewellery they can utilise," he maintains. "We think you'll see more platinum in everyday jewellery, the kind that can go with jeans or with a black dress."

Style sells

He cites straight line bracelets, studs or small drop earrings, necklaces and ring or pendant solitaires as examples of the kinds of jewellery that show platinum to its best advantage.

Japan has led the way in platinum jewellery sales for decades, with Europe and the US playing catch up, but China is the market to watch in the future.

"It was almost impossible for foreign companies to get a joint-venture licence to sell gold or silver jewellery in China in the 1990s because these were considered currencies, so when foreign companies went to China they were mainly selling platinum," Hong Kong Trade Development Council Hong Kong International Jewellery Show Organising Committee Chairman Lawrence Ma explains. "Chinese consumers developed a taste for platinum, particularly those in the northern part of the country, perhaps because of that area's proximity to Japan."

Few couples in China exchanged wedding rings five years ago but now many do and platinum rings are in demand - especially among the many Chinese tourists who flock to Hong Kong's jewellery stores such as On Shun Jewellery Co Ltd.

On Shun Jewellery has specialised in a niche market of chain necklaces made of 999.5% platinum for more than three decades, selling most in Hong Kong but also exporting a percentage to Japan.

The firm also makes .9999 gold and .999 silver necklaces, Director Anson Choi adds. "The necklaces are made of plain platinum with no gemstones, and weigh from 3.5-10 grams," she says.

On Shun Jewellery uses both Italian- and Chinese-style designs. "Although we use the same designs again and again, we sometimes add extra embossing," Ms Choi says. "People like the necklaces because they're so pure and also because they keep their value."

The necklaces sell for the market price of platinum by weight, plus a labour charge of HK$150-350. "Lately, we have shifted to making thinner chains because of the higher price of platinum," Ms Choi concedes.

Price is no problem for patrons of Graff Diamonds (HK) Ltd, where the average retail price of a 950 platinum engagement ring set with a single 3-5 carat diamond is US$400,000.

Simple settings

Known for its fabulous diamonds, the British-based firm's signature style for solitaire rings is a nearly invisible platinum setting. "We focus on the stone so we do a very simple, very light setting," says General Manager Arnaud Bastien, noting that pavm diamonds set in platinum have been a staple for more than a decade.

However, platinum is not Graff's first choice for necklaces. "Our stones are large and heavy so we are not going to make a necklace even heavier by using platinum," he explains. "We have some necklaces in platinum but generally we use white gold."

Louis XVI would be pleased to note that prospects for further development of the platinum jewellery manufacturing industry in Hong Kong are as bright as the metal he prized.

Labour in China is cost-competitive and retailers worldwide are looking at Hong Kong and Chinese mainland manufacturers to provide good-quality jewellery at competitive prices to meet the growing demand from consumers with regal tastes.

TEXT BY ANDREA PAWLYNA