Hong Kong is a sight for soaring eyes, a place where pictures barely do the never-ending vertical landscape justice. Touching down in the Far East capital of commerce two weeks ago, my eyes scaled the towering skyscrapers that continuously streamed by during my drive from the airport to my hotel. The army of high rises painted the horizon of the night sky with their colorful lights shining in every direction, growing brighter and more intense the closer I got to the epicenter of the city. Once at my hotel in Kowloon, the city’s skyline dazzles the night sky with a technicolor light show every hour. It is easy to be immediately entranced by the unnatural beauty of this man-made steel, glass and concrete jungle.
My first time in Hong Kong, and Asia as well, promised many new experiences while assisting at the HKTDC Hong Kong International Jewellery Show from March 3rd to 7th, plus one day extra for set-up. Though the September show remains the largest of all the Hong Kong jewelry shows, the March show has been catching up over the last few of years. The jewelry fair coincides with the Hong Kong International Diamond, Gem & Pearl Show, which is held at the AsiaWorld-Expo center near the airport, and both events are organized by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
For six days, the sprawling Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre was the only major tourist site I saw on my checklist. Facing the busy waterways of Victoria Harbor, the graceful though monumental building, whose design appears to be inspired by the parabolic curves of the Sydney Opera House, creates a stark contrast to the linear towers climbing skyward directly behind it. With over 573,000 square feet of exhibition space spread over six halls, the center converts into a microcosm of jewelry for a week, where more than 2,500 exhibitors do business with nearly 50,000 buyers from all over the world. Jewelry of every kind can be found at the show, from fine finished jewelry to antique rarities, as well as jewelry accessories, displays, tools and packaging material.
My big plans to see all the fair has to offer were swiftly squashed on day two after catching something disagreeable with my immune system in the unfamiliar Asian air. Luckily, on the last day, as my strength began to recover, I was able to gape at the vastness of the show for a couple of hours before returning to working in the antique jewelry section. The trade-only event looks more like a world class retail fair, the beautiful coordinating booths in each section artfully displaying each exhibitors’ wares. Even the antique section had stylish cases and booths, designed cohesively in a fuchsia, red and white in a graphic floral design.
With limited time, I chose to focus my attention on the most prestigious section of the fair, the aptly-named Hall of Extraordinary held in the Grand Hall & Foyer. Within this cavernous expanse glistened some of the world’s finest jewels and gems, including antique jewelry from the industry’s most prestigious dealers – Thomas Faerber, Zebrak of London & Monaco, Moira Fine Jewellery, The Deyoung Collection, Horovitz & Totah, Morelle Davidson, and Yafa Signed Jewels. Photography was strictly prohibited by the majority of the exhibitors.
The days prior to my sojourn to the Grand Hall were spent in a separate section of the show, the less grand, but no less exciting, antique jewelry and watch portion, held in the Convention Hall area of the complex. Many familiar faces from the other antique shows also travel the distance to exhibit at this far away fair, hoping to savor a slice of what’s left of the Chinese insatiable appetite for luxury goods that has exploded over the last decade. That once-fruitful pie has waned notably over the last year, thanks to the slowdown of China’s economy and the Chinese government crackdown on corruption and conspicuous consumption abroad in addition to current global economic challenges.
The drop in Chinese demand was eerily felt from the very beginning of the show. The once heavily trafficked aisles, normally bustling with trade in previous years, were practically empty as far fewer mainland dealers came to the show to buy. When I was told to prepare for a very busy Saturday, based on past shows, I stood somewhat perplexed as that overwhelming sense of busyness never came on what should have been the most active day of the show. The droves of buyers from mainland China – as well as Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore – simply did not come this year. What’s worse, the handful of super wealthy Asian clients, who can single-handedly make a show for dealers with the single purchase of an important piece, were also absent.
The buyers that did come, however, were mostly interested in lower priced pieces (four figures and under) and finding good deals. Big ticket items did not sell while overall sales teetered on slim profit margins, only after negotiating up initial offers that started shockingly low. When I asked a few fellow exhibitors how the show was going for them, most replied with a categorical ‘not good’.
Outside the convention center, the effects of the excessive spending of previous years, which bolstered the exponential expansion of high end jewelry and watch stores in Hong Kong, could be seen at every turn in the central districts. Nearly every other retail store lining the streets of central Hong Kong and Kowloon was a luxury jewelry or watch brand, or retailer of both. At Causeway Bay, widely considered the shopping mecca in Hong Kong (and the second priciest retail street in the world), the concentration of major jewelry brands and watch retailers is visually staggering. A sample of brand locations in that area alone includes nine Rolex boutiques and retailers, two Tiffany stores, one Cartier boutique and four Cartier watch retailers, and thirteen Chow Tai Fook stores, for example. Despite the changing landscape of high-street retail in Hong Kong, luxury brands still dominate over the newcomer mid-market chains in the major shopping areas. On any given night, the city’s shopping meccas are buzzing with tourists and locals alike, a frenzy of discretionary spending on a massive scale.
Though overall spending remains stable, the purchases of luxury goods, jewelry and watches in particular, in Hong Kong have noticeably cooled over the last year. The verdict is still out on the long-term future for Hong Kong and the luxury jewelry and watch industry, with the year of 2016 beginning as one of uncharted territory. As the March show has indicated, this year is off to a very cautious start.