January 19, 2022

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How Brands Can Sparkle in China’s $100 Billion Jewelry Market

6 min read

Key Takeaways:

  • Branded jewelry in China accounts for just 15 percent of the overall jewelry market — valued at $100 billion in 2020 — leaving much room for growth.

  • Appetite for luxury accessories in China has returned, with gold and diamond jewelry consumption in the first quarter of 2021 surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

  • Although Chinese jewelers lack the global recognition of Western brands, they offer stiff competition in their home market. Based on market share, Hong Kong conglomerate Chow Tai Fook beats household names like Cartier and Tiffany & Co.

When it comes to fine jewelry, very few names have wrestled their way to the top. Think Cartier with its iconic red packaging, or Chaumet, which counts Joséphine Bonaparte and Marie-Antoinette as its early clients.

But as most of the world’s jewelry is unbranded, even these luxury heavyweights still have a lot of ground to cover. This is especially true in China, where branded jewelry only accounts for 15 percent of the country’s overall jewelry market, which was valued at a whopping $100 billion in 2020.

Although jewelry sales in China plummeted at the start of the pandemic, appetite for jewelry has since returned in spades. Over the first quarter of 2021, total sales of gold, silver, and jewels topped $15.9 billion, up 81.5 percent year-on-year. In particular, gold jewelry consumption stood at 191.1 tons during that period — the highest quarterly level in seven years — while polished diamonds surpassed 2019 levels by reaching $722 million from January to March.

As such, international brands have charged into action to satisfy this craving, from dropping exclusive collections to appointing high-profile ambassadors.

But how are China’s domestic names faring? Although they lack the storied history and widespread recognition of their Western rivals, Chinese brands dominate at home by market share. Chow Tai Fook, for instance, commands 7.6 percent of the market, making it China’s largest jeweler and putting it way ahead of household names like Cartier and Tiffany & Co.

Chinese brands may have a long way to go before they can win on a global stage, but they clearly know a thing or two about their local consumers. Here, Jing Daily highlights four key Chinese jewelry players and explains just how they have sparkled within China’s vast, unbranded jewelry category.

Chow Tai Fook: Casting a wide net — online and off

Chow Tai Fook marks International Women’s Day by showcasing its collaboration with Disney’s Mulan. Photo: Chow Tai Fook’s Weibo

Introducing one of the biggest jewelry names the world doesn’t know: Chow Tai Fook. Founded in Guangzhou over 90 years ago, Chow Tai Fook has grown from a humble goldsmith to a full-grown conglomerate that boasts a market capitalization of $19.5 billion, putting it on par with Tiffany & Co. at the time of its LVMH acquisition. Given this heritage, the company’s bread and butter continues to be its gold products, which contributed to over half of its total revenue in 2020.

Although the Hong Kong-based jeweler has struggled over the years, it recently managed to regain its footing, reporting a 108-percent jump in annual profits to $777 million last year. This success was largely driven by expansion in the Mainland, where the company added 741 points of sale to its retail network for a total of 4,591. While this strategy isn’t particularly innovative (many luxury brands expanded their physical footprint in China during the pandemic), what is interesting is Chow Tai Fook’s focus on Tier-4 and Tier-5 cities.

Betting on these overlooked markets, the Chinese luxury group has been partnering with local jewelry operators as franchise partners to better understand customer needs. Additionally, Chow Tai Fook has rolled out various initiatives to connect online and offline sales, including cloud kiosks, a new CRM platform on WeChat, and a service that allows customers to order customized pieces directly from the brand’s factories. It has also been beefing up its social media presence following the rise of e-commerce in rural China. According to Gartner, Chow Tai Fook is now one of the fastest-growing brands digitally, and it rivals pure watch and jewelry brands like Tiffany and Bvlgari in mentions on Little Red Book and Douyin.

Qeelin: Incorporating Chinese cultural symbols with class

Qeelin puts a contemporary spin on traditional Chinese symbols with its Yu Yi (left) and Wulu (right) series. Photo: Qeelin’s Weibo

Whereas other luxury houses struggle with localization, Qeelin has proven it is king in this arena. In fact, the brand was named after the Qilin, a Chinese mythical animal, signaling the creative direction it would take in the years to come. Founded by French entrepreneur Guillaume Brochard and Hong Kong designer Dennis Chan in 2004 — and later acquired by Kering in 2013 — Qeelin offers lessons on melding Western and Eastern influences.

One of its most popular series is the Wulu, inspired by an 8-shaped Wu Lou gourd, representing auspiciousness and positive energy. And this emblem has certainly brought prosperity to its creators; earlier this year, Qeelin’s exclusive Wulu set in collaboration with Chinese KOL Mr. Bao sold out in one second. Its other collections are similarly designed after traditional Chinese symbols, including an ancient longevity lock, a lion, a panda, and a goldfish. By creating jewelry that is both aesthetic and rich in cultural meaning, Qeelin has captured the hearts of consumers both in the Mainland and abroad. Now, it is one of Kering’s fastest-growing brands and expects to grow to 44 boutiques in China by the end of 2021.

I Do: Using influencer marketing to court a wider audience

I Do celebrates important life moments by tapping singer Li Ziting ahead of her song debut. Photo: I Do’s Weibo

As one would expect, the jewelry brand I Do targets consumers in the bridal market, incorporating its name into slogans about love and lasting promises. But unlike its main competitor, Darry Ring — which leans into the concept of “one true love” ( “一生只爱一人”) to the point of having a controversial policy that men can only purchase one wedding ring per lifetime — I Do is branching out to woo a broader audience. Their strategy plays into two consumer trends in China: One, diamonds aren’t just for weddings (especially with marriage rates plunging); and two, diamonds can also be a guy’s best friend.

This marketing revamp can be seen in the brand’s most recent “Shine Like I Do” campaign. Focusing on self-love, I Do showcases blinged-out female stars alongside captions like “be your own queen” and “bravely chase your dreams,” resonating with China’s single, independent women. The C-jeweler also taps “little fresh meat” idols like the boyband TNT and the contestants of Youth With You 3 to promote its diamond accessories, positioning them as male fashion must-haves. The brand even joined hands with several artists this year to open whimsical stores across the country — further emphasizing its rocks as works of art and self-expression rather than just symbols of romantic commitment.

Cindy Chao’s The Art Jewel: Encapsulating exclusivity and craftsmanship

Cindy Chao’s latest series, featuring rare colored diamonds, was showcased at a Shanghai exhibition in June. Photo: Cindy Chao’s Weibo

Although smaller than the other names on this list, Cindy Chao’s independent brand should not be underestimated. Few contemporary artists have skyrocketed to fame as quickly as this eponymous founder. Not only was she the first Taiwanese designer to have a piece inducted into the Smithsonian’s permanent collection, but she has also seen her jewelry break records at auction while decorating A-list celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Salma Hayek.

Founded by Chao in 2004, the couture label takes a more targeted, exclusive approach towards its high-net-worth consumers. For starters, there is the price: Chao’s two primary collections — the Black Label Masterpieces and the White Label Collection — are essentially wearable sculptures that can run up to tens of millions of dollars. Then there is their scarcity, with the artist creating no more than 36 pieces a year, including her annual signature Butterfly brooch. And finally, there is the customer experience, which has sealed the jeweler’s top-notch luxury status. Between her private showroom in Shanghai, which opened during the pandemic, and her once-a-year, invitation-only exhibitions, Chao offers buyers a peek into her creative process while upping the brand’s prestige and personal touch.