Jadeite Whisperer: Shanghai Jewelry Designer Kaka Zhang

Tao Hsu and Andrew Lucas
February 12, 2014
Jewelry designer Kaka Zhang’s unique designs are inspired by nature and her culture, and by memories of things she has seen in the past. Photo courtesy of Kaka Zhang
It’s rare to meet someone whose interests as well as talents encompass art, science, and business, but such was the case when we met successful jewelry designer Kaka Zhang in Shanghai, China. When she was three, her father—who wanted her to be an artist—taught her painting. In high school she acquired an interest in, and studied, science and technology. This led her to study gemology at the East China University of Science and Technology under the guidance of Prof. Shouguo Guo.

Jadeite Buddha Goddess: Guanyin

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Gemology, Art, Science, and Business

Her gemology studies led Miss Zhang to a career that was the perfect combination of science, art, and business. Prof. Guo guided her to jewelry design and e-commerce based on her artistic talents and her interest in the future potential of the internet. Miss Zhang had also worked for an internet company and was convinced of the tremendous business potential of e-commerce.

Miss Zhang is a rare combination: A passionate, inspired artist and an astute business
woman. Photo courtesy of Kaka Zhang
Although Miss Zhang was not a jewelry design major, she was able to develop her artistic talents and expand on her painting background with daily practice. She came to the realization that jewelry design requires a combination of art, material selection, and manufacturing knowledge.

Most of Miss Zhang’s design inspirations come from nature and are meant to display nature’s beauty. When she was young, she spent time with her grandfather in the family garden. Those days led to her love of incorporating naturalistic themes into her designs. Also, she points out that nature, flowers, and trees are major themes of traditional Chinese paintings.

A Tradition of Nature Themes

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Jadeite and Her Jewelry

Jadeite is the main gemstone used by Miss Zhang in her jewelry designs. She explains that it comes in a wealth of colors and patterns, and its luster and texture suit the tastes of the Chinese. In the interviews, she expresses her feelings about the unique bond between jadeite and the Chinese culture. She states that jadeite is varied and graceful and, like Buddhism and Chinese medicine, has deep meaning for the Chinese people that cannot be easily explained. She feels that jadeite jewelry design should reflect China’s history and cultural significance.

Traditional Buddha Bead Chain

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While Miss Zhang loves vivid, transparent jadeite, she also loves incorporating blue hues, both evenly colored and with mottled coloring that resembles floating clouds or flowing water. She says that the blue hues have a more conservative look preferred by many in her age group.

Miss Zhang likes to use jadeite with a bluish color component. Photo courtesy of Kaka Zhang

Creating the Design

When it comes to actually creating a design, Miss Zhang holds the piece of jadeite in her hands to feel its shape and quality. She considers what she can add to the piece and what impression it brings to mind. Miss Zhang says that every piece of jadeite is unique and always reminds her of something she has seen in the past.

She gets a great deal of inspiration directly from a piece of jadeite. It might remind her of a landscape. If a piece reminds her of a goldfish, she might design a jewelry piece to resemble a fish jumping out of the water. She often purchases jadeite carved into different shapes like leaves, flowers, and calabash—a gourd that symbolizes wealth and good luck to the Chinese.

Cultural Themes

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Miss Zhang uses a wide range of jadeite qualities, including fine green material, in her jewelry creations. Photo courtesy of Kaka Zhang

The Market for Her Pieces

Miss Zhang’s jewelry pieces fall into high end, moderate, and commercial price ranges. The high-end pieces are usually sold to her older clientele so she incorporates traditional designs into them. She designs pieces set with high-quality jadeite in a more natural state, following the jadeite’s essence and adding a few design elements as decoration. For lower-priced jewelry, her designs are more imaginative and she adds more elements. Most of the customers for moderate- to lower-priced pieces are younger and more open to imaginative designs with a variety of design elements.

High-quality Jadeite Water Drop

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Miss Zhang told us that traditional designs are safer and that a greater use of imagination is riskier and comes with some expectation of failure. But she likes being imaginative and trying different designs. When it comes to design, she prefers to follow her heart and not just the commercial market. This explains why she has become recognized for her work.

Many Chinese consumers place a lot of importance on jewelry’s intrinsic value, so the price range of the jewelry must reflect both the value of the materials and the design and workmanship. She says that although Western designers can demand high prices based on design and branding, Chinese designers must base price also on the value of the components. Her clients are often not as traditional as many Chinese consumers and will focus more on the design aspects of the piece and how it affects their feelings when buying.

Miss Zhang sees a direct correlation between her sales and the growth of the Chinese economy and the rise of China’s importance as an economic power. When discussing jadeite sales, she says the Chinese have an old saying: “Buy gold when society is not stable and buy jade when it is prosperous.” She says that China’s economic boom is the reason the country’s jade market has been so strong.

Her Business and Customers

Women are the primary target market for her designs and materials, and make up 99 percent of her customer base. She does business primarily on the internet and her customers are mostly in their 20s to 40s. Even within that group, however, there are differences in taste.

While older customers have more discretionary income to buy jewelry, they do not buy from the internet as much as those in her customers’ age group. Because of her older customers’ higher spending capacity, they select jewelry pieces with higher-value jadeite. Higher jadeite quality levels are more accepted in their social circles and at the events they attend.

Customers in their 20s do not have as much of a budget for jewelry purchases. They often buy transparent, near-colorless jadeite that is extremely popular with their age group but not as accepted by customers in their 40s. Although the price point of this jadeite quality, called ice jade, is lower and better suited for customers in their 20s, the price has been going up due to its popularity and demand.

Ninety percent of Miss Zhang’s business is on the internet, and she has a loyal and enthusiastic customer following. She sells 80 percent of her pieces immediately after they’re posted on her website. She addresses concerns about buying expensive pieces online and builds trust by inviting customers to her studio and holding events to show special high-value pieces.

Jadeite Bangle Bracelet

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Customers often bring friends, so her customer base continues to grow. Ninety percent of her clients are in mainland China, with 10 percent from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas.

In the interview, Miss Zhang describes her Small Office Home Office (SOHO) life to us. Her design studio and internet business are run from her home in Shanghai. Her jewelry is manufactured by a factory in Shenzhen. She visited numerous factories before selecting the master jewelers she felt comfortable communicating her designs to. She has a great relationship with them, and the jewelers skillfully translate her designs into finished jewelry. She describes their relationship this way: “I play the role of their eyes and they are my hands.”

One of the interesting aspects of her career is that over the years she has met many clients who share her passion and ideas. They have become more than customers—there are many that she considers friends. Her conversations with them are a great treasure to her. Many of them have supported her since the beginning of her career. In fact, many customers send their daughters to her to learn about jewelry design. Miss Zhang is happy to see their interest in becoming the future jewelry designers of China.

Her Business Style

Miss Zhang firmly believes in educating her customers about jewelry design and materials. She has written articles on the subject and also explains it to customers in person. She says, “I think selling is not just pushing customers and telling them how low-priced the pieces are. You should be able to teach your customers and enrich their knowledge about gemstones. Then they will trust you and accept your brand. I am more like a consultant than a pure salesperson.” She also posts jadeite pieces for her customers and listens to their design ideas while educating them about design and manufacturing, allowing for the creation of customized pieces.

Combining Materials

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Her dream is to run a private jewelry club instead of a retail store. Miss Zhang feels that retail stores are too commercialized and formal for her. She prefers to create an easy and relaxed environment for her customers and treat them more as friends.

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