February 8th, 2016
The nature of my work, being so far from other major cities, is that I sometimes must write about things I haven't had an opportunity to examine firsthand. Such was the case of writing about Qeelin, a brand conceived by Hong Kong designer Dennis Chan after he found inspiration while on a 1997 trip to Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves in northwestern Gansu Province, which had been a major stop on the ancient Silk Road.
In photographs, the jewelry managed to be sophisticated, charming and whimsical takes on Chinese symbols and mythology, but photographs didn't prepare me for the ingenuity of the pieces, with their moving parts and engineering. In addition to the pure visual joy of seeing an adorable necklace featuring a panda set adrift via pink balloon, I was captivated by a necklace in the shape of a diamond cloud-encrusted snuff bottle that was also a kaleidoscope. Peer into the bottle opening and the colors of gemstones take on different shapes as the bottle shifts.
I guess it should have figured, given Chan's background in industrial design. He said that until he reached those caves, he had little interest in jewelry. Today, he considers it a great challenge to create art within such a small framework.
He had been schooled in industrial design and marketing, and was making a living as a design consultant for companies ranging from automobile manufacturers to tech giant Panasonic, but nine years of seeing others’ success with his ideas left him with a hunger to create his own brand.
What that would be, he didn’t know, until he reached those caves.
“Fifteen-hundred years ago, it was the crossroad of all trade with the West opening to the East. It was a stopover, a melting pot, and because travel was dangerous they built caves, sanctuaries that they filled with temples and artwork,” Chan said, during a phone interview from his home in Hong Kong. “Because the desert is so dry, the murals are so well-preserved and they really fascinated me. You could see how people were dressed, their hairstyles, fashion and jewelry. Here, we had this really amazing history, but I felt like no one was taking care of it.”
There, he had an epiphany that he would be the one to take China’s story to the West through jewelry, and Qeelin was born. The name is a Westernized spelling of “qilin” or “kirin,” a mythical fiery and fearsome-looking creature representative of prosperity, success and protection.
Chan introduced his first pieces in 2004, and among fans of the brand was Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung. In February 2007, Cheung was headed to the Cannes Film Festival and asked Chan if she could wear his jewelry on the red carpet. She had been nominated for a Palme d’Or Best Actress award for her role in “Clean,” also starring Nick Nolte.
When Cheung became the first Asian woman to win a Palme d’Or—for her role as a woman whose life goes into a tailspin after she is wrongfully accused of heroin possession—it not only changed her life, but Chan’s as well.
“It was very lucky. The next day everybody was talking about her dress, her jewelry, and overnight my products became famous.”
Chan leveraged that publicity by choosing to open the first Qeelin boutique in Paris at Jardin du Palais Royal later that year. There are now 25 Qeelin boutiques worldwide, but only recently has the brand begun to move into the United States.
Timed to the beginning of the Year of the Monkey, Qeelin launched at Neiman Marcus Ala Moana and pieces can be viewed in the Precious Jewels Salon, Level One. In the United States, prices start at about $415 for a pair of Wulu cufflinks or $810 for a petite Wulu bracelet in 18K rose gold.
The growth of the brand coincides with China’s growing world presence and cultural pride.
“I spent one-fourth of my life in Europe, where I loved window shopping. I found that luxury stores were not really about products but a story and a history. It’s something we weren’t doing in China,” Chan said.
“When most people talk about Chinese style, they talk about antiques. China has a reputation of doing a lot of copying and being the workshop of the world. But that story is evolving. It’s the same way people were talking about Japan after World War II. Even Korea. Before, nobody wanted to drive Korean cars. Now, they’re everywhere.
“Living in a country, you don’t think much about your own culture, but when you travel, you look back and have more respect for your own heritage.”
Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her coverage is in print on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.