Like a diamond ring in the West, the enduring accessory for a Chinese bride is a pair of dragon and phoenix bangles in 24-karat gold, the buttery-yellow version of the precious metal so loved in Asia.
But should love not last, she could liquidate her gold jewelry in a highly transparent and efficient manner in ways that diamonds cannot match.
"Twenty-four carat gold is considered a form of international currency, because it is accepted around the world," said Kent Wong, managing director of Chow Tai Fook Jewelry in Hong Kong, which introduced the standardization of 999.9 pure gold jewelry in 1984. "Because gold jewelry is sold by weight, customers can sell their gold back to the jeweler, which is common practice in Chinese society."
Mr. Wong explained that the price of each piece is calculated from the international gold price, based on the gold's weight, plus the store's 2 percent commission and a design fee. "As the daily gold price is displayed conspicuously in the shop, there is a high transparency and clear information," he said.
The fact that such resale is so easy — along with the introduction of popular motifs like Disney's "Frozen" and Hello Kitty and improved filament craftsmanship (similar to Florentine style design), as well as burnishing, lathing and buffing techniques — has buoyed sales to China's rapidly growing middle class, the prized market that retailers around the world hope to capture.
"Wedding jewelry contributes more than 40 percent of our business, but we want to develop innovative jewelry to appeal to young customers," Mr. Wong said. "We work with Korean pop stars such as G-Dragon and Lee Min Ho to launch collections targeting young customers." It is not unusual in one of Chow Tai Fook's more than 300 stores in Hong Kong, mainland China and Southeast Asia to find 24-karat pendants with the likeness of Marvel Comic characters or necklaces featuring plump, smiling pigs, a fertility symbol popular with brides.
"婚饰占我们交易的40%多，但我们想要发展一些创意珠宝来吸引年轻客群，"黄经理说。"我们和韩国明星权志龙(G-Dragon)或李敏镐(Lee Min Ho)合作，发行一些针对年轻顾客的系列。"周大福在全中国、香港和东南亚共有300多间店铺。在店里不难找到漫威漫画主角之类的24K金吊饰；或者是带笑脸的小猪，这是新娘们喜欢的生育的象征。
Previously, the limited design potential of 24-karat gold made it more often a choice for wedding and birthday gifts, rather than personal jewelry. The metal in its pure form is very soft, so soft that it can be easily bent, making intricate designs impossible. So, in the past, jewelers generally concentrated on styles involving auspicious Chinese themes, such as the peach for longevity, flower for prosperity and, of course, the dragon and phoenix for wedded bliss.
In recent years, the development of electro-forming technology to increase the hardness of gold has enabled jewelers such as Chow Tai Fook to set gemstones like rubies, emerald and jadeite in 24-karat pieces, enriching designs and creating much more costly pieces.
Gold prices now are hovering around $1,090 per troy ounce, the lowest price so far this year. In general, prices have been declining since a peak almost two years ago. (Like a currency exchange, there is a selling price and a buying price.)
In Hong Kong, gold is traded in tael, or a little more than 1.2 troy ounces. A pair of bangles, each using a tael of gold and created in a dragon and phoenix motif from a simple mold but with a hand-finished design would be priced at around 25,415 Hong Kong dollars ($3,280), which includes the store's 2 percent commission and a 690-dollar design fee.
A customer who decided to sell that jewelry back to the store on the same day, as gold prices fluctuate, would walk out with about 20,490 dollars.
"Our customers won't need to bring their receipt back, as our maker's mark is clearly stamped on each piece," said Hung Lam, a salesman at Chow Sang Sang, another popular gold trader.
Mr. Wong acknowledges that 24-karat gold jewelry appeals almost exclusively to Chinese customers.
"We do have some non-Chinese customers, but their appetite for gold jewelry is not comparable to Chinese," he said, adding that the Chinese also prefer their gold to have a saturated, almost gaudy gold tone.
"With technology these days, we are able to change the color of 24-karat gold to a rose tint, but Chinese want their gold to look exactly like a gold bar, because this is what it looked like for hundreds of years," he said. "This style appeals to Chinese because it's part of our heritage, whereas for foreigners, they don't have the same sense of historical reference."
Chow Tai Fook has a gold crafting plant in Shunde, a city in Guangdong Province, with six artists producing designs rendered by 3,000 craftsmen working with simple tools such as torches, small chisels and picks.
Zhang Zhi Rong, or Master Zhang as he is known, is one of the company's artists who can both design and make his own jewelry.
Holding a bangle with a buffed surface, Mr. Zhang used a thin black marker to draw a design of dragons and phoenix onto the surface before beginning to carve into the gold. He also frequently works with gold wires, which he twists and bends into intricate designs, often with a floral pattern.
"We have some commissions and people want special pieces, especially as birthday gifts to elderly relatives," Mr. Zhang said. "The older generation prefers gold over any kind of precious stones, as the color is considered auspicious and it brings them good luck."
Source: New York Times