Chinese jewellery design - potential diamond in the rough

Under an instructor's watchful eye, a group of Shanghai jewellery design students carve copper and yak bones, perhaps dreaming of a future day when Chinese jewellery will dazzle the world.

The aspiring jewellers are part of a programme at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art aimed at cultivating expertise in a nation that is already a huge jewellery consumer but whose potential for homegrown design remains untapped.

"They have the skill and the technique, but they need more freedom in their designs and they need to learn to communicate with one another," said their instructor, who gave her name only as Grace.

"Changing their mentality is a slow process," said Grace, a Chinese who studied jewellery design at Dundee University in Britain.

China is among the world's leading consumers of platinum, gold and diamonds.

But professionals say its jewellery design remains characterised by dowdy butterfly brooches and ubiquitous pendants bearing the Chinese characters for "long life".

Most Chinese jewellery pieces are cheap imitations or costume jewellery sold around the world, said Zhang Fuwu, an official at the art institute's Institute of Jewellery and Accessories, where the apprentice jewellers are trained.

"Since the country opened up 30 years ago, there have been great changes. The demands of Chinese people in terms of culture and beauty have evolved a lot... but we still have a long way to go," Zhang said.

China has the world's second-highest number of dollar billionaires after the United States, and a new class of wealthy Chinese created by the country's three-decade boom has seized on luxury brands as status symbols.

Chinese media this week quoted a state think-tank saying China was the world's number two consumer of high-end fashion, accessories and luxury goods after Japan, buying 27.5 percent of the world's luxury goods, and was set to be world leader in five years.

Last year it was the world's second-largest market for both diamonds and gold. China's gold consumption could double in the next 10 years, according to the World Gold Council.

China imported 699 million dollars worth of cut diamonds in 2009, according to its own statistics, and increasingly savvy Chinese buyers are making new demands in aesthetics and quality, with foreign styles reigning supreme.

"One day, Chinese consumers will rediscover the beauties of their own culture, but for now, for young people, what is desirable is what comes from the West, from Japan and from South Korea," Zhang said.

Mark Brauner, the Hong Kong-based head of the International Gemological Institute (IGI), said China represents something of a contradiction.

"There is a new pride, particularly since they sent a message to the world with their impeccably well-organised Olympic Games, but at the same time they have no confidence in themselves" in certain other fields, he said.

"When it comes to luxury goods, Asia dreams of products from Europe and the United States," he said.

What's more, Chinese see buying gems as an investment, he said.

"The Chinese think of buying a diamond as an investment rather than an emotional, romantic act, and want to know exactly what they are buying, which means jewellers have to be more skilled," Brauner said.

"They (customers) are often prepared to pay a little more for the added value of a foreign certificate."

To meet these new demands, the Institute of Visual Art - with the backing of several government departments and state educational institutions - has teamed up with the IGI, whose experts will train apprentice jewellers in technical aspects of the trade.

They will learn scientific analysis of gems, how to calculate the weight of a cut diamond from the uncut stone, which angles best catch the light.

IGI experts will also teach the aspiring jewellers the "four Cs" which determine the value of a diamond: carat, colour, clarity and cut.

IGI calls the effort a "great step for the development of the Chinese market".

"China is the future. Our clients here are expanding rapidly. You can clearly see the luxury sector has benefited from the efforts to restart the economy," Brauner said.

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