Fashion

The Hong Kong-born Jeweller Helping Put Lab Gemstones on The Map

Sustainable fine jewellery designer Anabela Chan shares her thoughts on the industry today

by Dervla Louli

14 May 2019

Hong Kong-born, London-based sustainable fine jewellery designer Anabela Chan’s flair for coloured lab gemstones has made her a favourite of the Crazy Rich Asian’s cast and conscious fashion lovers the world over. We visit her ethical taxidermy-filled boutique in Ham Yard and find out what makes the jeweller that brought lab-made gemstones to the world of high fashion tick.

You’re at the forefront of the sustainable fine jewellery industry, how have you seen this niche develop since you launched your eponymous brand?

When I first launched my brand five years ago, laboratory-grown and created gemstones were almost deemed untouchable in the fine jewellery industry; they were often viewed as a lesser ‘pretend’ material. Yet I find them not only incredibly beautiful but also a fascinating feat of science and art fused together; gemstones grown in a science laboratory like growing crystals in a meticulously controlled environment without the untraceable provenance and ethical issues associated with mining. We were the first to truly champion and celebrate these stones with intricate, unique and hand-crafted designs.

As the world becomes more focused on sustainability and the future, so has every industry and we have since seen global mega-brands like DeBeers and Swarovski launching laboratory-grown diamond collections as part of the ethical luxury initiatives. I met Nadja (Swarovski) around three years ago when she visited my boutique at the Ham Yard Hotel in London. We were discussing the future of jewellery and our love of lab-grown gemstones, and I’m so excited to have seen their launch since then as I really believe it is every industry’s responsibility to be more responsible. Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Anabela Chan at work in her studio

Anabela Chan at work in her studio

Where should aspiring sustainable jewellers begin their journey education and experience wise?

Know the origin of everything and travel to the source if you can. For me, it was a life-changing trip to see a gemstone mine in Sri Lanka during my final year of studies at the Royal College of Art. Seeing is believing – I was shocked and saddened to see the working conditions of the mine, the risks and the inequality of the excavation of such precious things – there was nothing romantic and beautiful about it, and it was at that moment I decided to explore alternative options and began my research into championing laboratory-grown and -created gemstones in my own fine jewellery collections.

Having awareness is key – then you can make considered decisions that are compassionate and responsible. As with all discipline, I believe it is about learning from the past, to offer a different perspective in the present, and always with a dream for a better future.

How have you seen consumer habits change when it comes to buying fine jewellery online?

As we become more connected and social online, so have our purchasing habits. There has definitely been an exponential rise in buying luxury fine jewellery online – from websites and e-boutiques to Instagram and WhatsApp. We have seen the growth in our e-boutique and Shop by Instagram – I manage my own Insta account as it is a great way to connect with my clients and people who love what we do. It allows for spontaneous and direct conversations, a clear insight with our brand ethos, inspirations and aesthetics. It also allows us to showcase different styling and more casual ways to wear fine jewellery every day. Although I love brick and mortar stores, I buy everything online too as it is open 24/7. 

You were born in Hong Kong, what does a perfect 24 hours in the city look like?

Last time I visited the city for my Lane Crawford trunk show I stayed at the Four Seasons with the most beautiful city skyline by night, and that harbour view never gets old. Lane Crawford and Joyce have great edits and I always pay the stores a visit as our collections are stocked there. I stop by the Nail Library for a great manicure before wandering the streets and boutiques of Soho and pick up flowers from Ellermann. I always shop at the market stalls from Cat Street to the Women’s Market in Causeway Bay and love independent boutiques at the local malls in TST for something different. I love the spa at the Mandarin Oriental for massage and reflexology, and find their treatments really help to combat jet-lag. I am a big foodie and growing up my father always had a booth on Sundays at Luk Yu Tea House in Central for lunch, and dinner at the China Club. I love Mott 32, Chachawan and Mrs Pound – the great cocktails at Bibo and the terrace at Sevva with that incredible view. But above all, I love the street food – from egg waffles to robata-style skewers at the street stalls. There is this fantastic tiny local diner in Shum Shui Po that serves the best rice paper rolls (cheung-fun) in the city – you share tables, it is messy, chaotic and always packed, but I love it!

Easy access to nature is one thing I love about Hong Kong and I take advantage of this during my trips. I lived in HK until the age of ten just above Hong Kong Park, and my grandfather used to walk with me to the aviary, and that is always a sanctuary amidst the concrete jungle. Last time my friend took me on a five-hour hike on the island and a boat ride to Half Moon Bay where I swam in the clearest, glistening turquoise water that I never knew existed in HK.

One of the Bloom Sculptures Anabela created for her first solo exhibition in New York

One of the Bloom Sculptures Anabela created for her first solo exhibition in New York

Taxidermy is one of your passions, how did your interest in this develop and what are your most prized pieces and creations?

I used to design prints and embroideries for Alexander McQueen and I would be painting and drawing the exotic birds, flora and fauna in infinite details – the taxidermy made it possible to study them up close from direct observations. I have been collecting butterflies and beetles for two decades where I worked with local entomologists in my travels to study them, and I also collect specimen that died naturally in the wild, their knocks and dents and imperfections are the more beautiful. My most prized pieces are the Bloom Sculptures I created for my first solo exhibition in New York in 2016 – hundreds of iridescent wings set on an 18k gold and brass structure resembling blossoming blooms, housed under a series of hand-blown tinted crystal glass bubble domes on hand-carved translucent white quartz bases.

You have a keen eye for luxury vintage pieces, what are some of your favourite pieces and where do you hunt for special finds?

Yes – I have more sparkles in my wardrobe than I can count – sequins, feathers, beaded and embroidered dresses, blazers and shoes, collectible runway pieces from Chanel to McQueen and market finds that I will wear from daytime with sneakers to evening with heels or jewelled flats, always with my own cocktail earrings and rings.

Some of my most treasured pieces include two vintage Chanel Couture pieces – a vermillion red embellished tweed jacket and an emerald green and black leather biker tweed jacket with gold buttons – both from my mother who has impeccable taste. Also a pastel candy-coloured floral sequin top by Oleg Cassini (Jackie O’s go-to designer from the 70s) that I found in a vintage boutique in Ibiza; a 1960’s Andrew Grima textured-wire gold and diamond ring found at Masterpiece London; and a 1980’s Aquamarine cocktail ring by Buccellati from Hancocks at the Burlington Arcade.

I love treasure hunting online too from platforms like 1stDibs and Vestiaire Collective as it allows direct access with dealers around the world, 24/7.

Besides your signature bright lip what beauty products, treatments and experts do you swear by in London and Hong Kong?

I love bright lipsticks by Tom Ford and Pat McGrath, and I swear by my Vintner’s Daughter serum with 22 of the world’s most potent active natural botanical extracts – it works wonders. Being a mum of two (three if I count my fur baby Frenchie Valentino) I am always short of time, so I need a quick and straightforward three-step routine – cleansing, rehydrate and moisturise. I read on a Korean beauty blog about washing my face in the morning with nothing but fresh water and it has been great. I carry a flask of warm lemon and ginger infused water with me at all times to rehydrate, and when I can, I usually have a session of yoga or Pilates, and a body combat class every week to stay fit.

Anabela with her daughter at Sketch London

Anabela with her daughter at Sketch London

How has sustainability filtered into your home and daily life as a mother of two?

Every step makes a difference, although my little ones are too young to understand (they are 1.5 years old and eight weeks). I think awareness is so important – knowing how things are made, where they come from and how they end up. You can’t tell people what to do, but you can inspire them with the beautiful nature we are blessed with today, and together we can strive to protect it.

I try my best to be conscious and considerate with food and products, buying less but better, recycling, avoiding single-use plastic and upcycling all help. My eight-week old son will be wearing my daughter’s pink pyjamas for the foreseeable future!  I am fortunate to have travelled to some of the most beautiful and magical places on earth, and it’s our responsibility to take care of the world for future generations.

Who are the new designers and artists we should keep an eye on in 2019 and beyond?

I am obsessed with Sasha Syke’s whimsical resin pieces of art, featuring beautifully preserved natural blooms and foliage that can be suspended in mid-air. I love Hitomi Hosono’s intricate and delicate porcelain sculptures and vessels – they are works of wonders.

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