Jewellery designer Kai-Yin looks back on bringing Asian designs to mainstream America

Kai-Yin Lo’s philosophy is simple – jewellery has to be a part of daily life. If her designs are anything to go by, it also has to be stylish, distinctive and bridge the gap between Western and Asian history and cultures

Photo: Kai-Yin Lo

Born in Hong Kong and educated in the United Kingdom, Kai-Yin Lo is the creative force behind Kai-Yin Lo, an international Asian jewellery brand with a presence in department stores including Neiman Marcus beginning in the 1980s. Named the World’s Leading Chinese Designer by the Hong Kong Design Centre in 2007, she has designed an extensive range of jewellery, accessories, textiles, ceramics and lifestyle products.

Some 40 years ago, at a time when the jewellery industry was largely divided into precious jewellery and costume jewellery, Lo broke the mould with her semi-precious innovations. By taking semi-precious stones and Chinese jades – once stored in dusty drawers and transforming them into appealing and easy-to-wear pieces with motifs drawn from Europe and the Orient – she created a new category of jewellery that was both affordable and wearable.

Now a cultural historian and esteemed professor among other prestigious roles, Lo weaves culture into everything she does. But her journey to the top wasn’t always so smooth.

The mind of trailblazer

What inspired you to blend the cultural heritages of the East and West in your jewellery?

KYL: To create for the present and future you need to understand the past – where we come from, what is needed, how to improve the environment of living, quality of life and lifestyle. I gained insight into Chinese arts and culture by collecting Chinese antiques that illustrated the development of Chinese arts and crafts, as well as others that opened up a new vista and understanding of cross-cultural exchange between China, Central Asia and Europe.

Photo: Kai-Yin Lo

You’ve written five books already. Is there a new area you’re looking to explore in the future?

KYL: The area I’m exploring is the interchange and influence of cross-culture of the East and West. In order to understand art and design, one also has to know the political, economic, cultural and social development of a society. You can call me an innovator because I design with social and economic as well as aesthetic and historical considerations.

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What were some limitations you faced as a Hong Kong Chinese woman working in the West?

KYL: I didn’t suffer any discrimination in the US nor in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s. Japan was a different story. I didn’t suffer discrimination as a female designer, but being a Chinese brand I had no cachet in Japan. Mitsukoshi had to bill me as “Kai Yin Lo-san from New York” – I was a brand in the US and the creator of semi-precious jewellery. Now semi-precious jewellery is a generic term. Being a pioneer, one had to surmount many hurdles.

Photo: Kai-Yin Lo

How did you handle the obstacles you faced as a woman and a pioneer in the jewellery sector?

KYL: An early example, re-introducing a new category of jewellery. When premier US chain Neiman Marcus bought my designs, I was overjoyed to see myself having reached the pinnacle. But at their flagship store in Dallas, my jewellery was not on display. Why? There was not a single department to place my new semi-precious category! So I had to wait for another four to five months to have this new department installed. That marked an important step in retail to have this department installed to house my semi-precious range.

Looking back on your storied career, what are you most proud of?

KYL: I’m most proud of initiating a new category of jewellery made of real semi-precious stones, in addition to the traditional categories made of precious stones (diamond, ruby, emerald) and coloured glass or plastic (costume). And the semi-precious range is affordable and easy to accessorise with fashion.

Photo: Kai-Yin Lo

What advice do you have for aspiring jewellery designers?

KYL: Dare to try, dare to dream. But design, unlike art, has to be practical, easy to wear and maintain long-lasting value. I’m pleased that I created a range of designs that fulfil these criteria.

K.S. Sze & Sons will take appointments to view Kai-Yin Lo’s signature collection.

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