SAN FRANCISCO—It all began in the ancient caves of Dunhuang in Northern China. On a drive of a thousand miles to reconnect with his cultural roots, Dennis Chan instead ignited a dream.
Like countless travelers before him, Chan found himself inspired as he traversed thoroughfares that once made up the legendary Silk Road, a crossroads of cultural exchange between East and West. A fortuitous stop brought him to the city of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, which once served as an outpost along the Southern Silk Road in ancient times.
In the nearby Dunhuang Caves, a series of temples carved into the sides of cliffs containing artwork and statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and cave patrons, the designer had a revelation that would take him on a seven-year journey to create something the world had not seen before: an international fine jewelry brand blending Chinese inspiration and world-class European craftsmanship.
“You are facing something that’s more than a thousand years old and it’s still there,” he said. The enormity of his country’s illustrious cultural history brought Chan to tears.
While exploring one of the caves, Chan was captivated by a mural of wealthy ladies with their faces delicately painted with butterflies and birds, adorned with elegant hairstyles and exquisite jewelry.
In that moment, in front of those majestic and venerable pieces of art, the dream of Qeelin was born.
Updating Chinese Design
It was a dream to bring the best of Chinese design to the world, in a contemporary way.
“Even nowadays when people talk about Chinese design, the best of Chinese design, they’re talking about Ming Dynasty furniture or Qing Dynasty porcelain, nothing modern,” Chan said. “I love to buy Chinese products, but what I want to buy doesn’t exist on the market—I mean artisan quality—so I decided to create it myself.”
“We’re not copying what’s been done before. We’re creating something new, something that belongs to this century, belongs to the present,” said the designer at a recent unveiling of his collection in Santa Clara, California. Chan had always been a designer, his interest in luxury goods did not materialize until he started learning about luxury brands’ legacies. It was the stories and concepts that hooked him.
Culture, in his mind, is what really defines luxury.
“Every country has a brand that symbolizes them, a national hero. France has Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, Italy has Bvlgari, Japan has Mikimoto; they all have their very strong identity, cultural background, philosophy, aesthetics, appreciation, but no Chinese brands. We have 5,000 years of history. We have a lot of rich culture, but why do we not have brands?” he said.
To that end, Chan conceived a designer collection for the modern woman of taste and style that translates the deep cultural roots and spirit of China into contemporary designs using rarefied French craftsmanship and the finest materials on Earth.
“I wanted to create a top-tier brand, with a higher quality than the high-end brands out there, a world-class international brand,” Chan said.
And he’s aiming high: “A thousand years from now, I want people to look back and say Qeelin was the best example, the highest form of Chinese design from our modern era.”
Today he has 25 stand-alone boutiques around the world in places like the venerated Palais-Royal on the grounds of the Louvre, another beacon of high culture.
An Auspicious Pairing
When two planets align, it’s a magnificent sight to behold. Similarly, when a pair of terrestrial stars comes together, it can set off fireworks. It was one such fortuitous occasion, where celebrity, media, and fashion aligned, that catapulted Qeelin to stratospheric heights.
Over dinner one night in 2004, Chan told his friend, well-known Hong Kong actress and fashion icon Maggie Cheung, about Qeelin. The two of them share a similar background, having been born and raised in Hong Kong, studied in the U.K., and worked internationally, while keeping their home base in Hong Kong.
She was so moved by the story of his brand, instinctively recognizing that he had created something “very different,” that she asked to wear one of his pieces to the Cannes Film Festival. Cheung was a nominee for best actress that year, for her role in the movie “Clean.”
The piece she chose was a pair of Wulu earrings. This design is deeply rooted in Chinese folklore and is described on Qeelin’s website: “Bound to many legends, invested with magical powers, Wulu is the strongest expression of good fortune and positive energy in China. Its contemporary lines echo the curves of the cherished number 8.”
The designation of eight as a lucky number results from its likeness to the symbol for infinity as well as its sound. When pronounced in Cantonese or Mandarin, the number eight sounds similar to words that mean wealth, prosperity, and fortune.
As fate would have it, Cheung won best actress that year, and her image was broadcast around the world. The sight of a radiant style and cinema icon accepting her award dripping in diamonds—Wulu Qeelin earrings—set off a chain reaction that most designers can only dream of. Inquiries about the piece came pouring in.
Just a week later, Chan found himself selling his now-famous Wulu design at the historic luxury Hotel de Crillon in Paris. From there, he moved into the world-renowned luxury emporium Collette and then the Palais-Royal, where he’s been for 13 years.
The partnership continues to this day, sometimes behind the camera and in the workshop, as the designer’s muse.
Big Dreams, Bigger Heart
From the unique sound of natural diamonds ringing in the ear to tiny jewel-encrusted bells to ward off evil in the Ling Long collection, to the Tien Di collection of rings celebrating a harmonious relationship between heaven and earth and everlasting love, each piece acts as a singular expression of the culture.
“I very much love my history and my culture, especially the Tang Dynasty, and want to share that richness with the world,” Chan said. He launched the brand in 2004 with then-CEO Guillaume Brochard, and serves as chairman and creative director.
It is only natural that Chan takes inspiration from the Tang Dynasty, as it was considered the Golden Age of China when art and culture were at their zenith.
Chinese culture is steeped in tradition and spiritual belief. It’s this cultural essence, rooted in 5,000 years of history, that creates the foundation of each Qeelin collection.
Jewelry also carries significance beyond its superficial appeal, evoking memories of times gone by and emotions locked deep within. It’s no mere coincidence that Chan’s name in Chinese refers to the auspicious Qilin, a mythological character in Chinese history known to bring prosperity, serenity, and love.
For Chan, each symbol or collection has its own story.
In particular, the Yu Yi Collection takes its cue from a small lock given to him by his mother as a protective amulet in his childhood.
Qeelin.com states, “Worn as an accessory in ancient China, Yu Yi is a symbol of protection and spiritual potency. Often depicted in traditional arts and crafts, Yu Yi is a dream fulfiller.”
Chan hopes his Yu Yi pieces engender similar feelings of tenderness and warmth for his clients, many of whom buy a piece for themselves and another for their mothers.
Memories of his mother still inform his vision of the archetypal Qeelin customer—someone supremely confident, independent, and interesting, who knows what she likes and what she is looking for.
For his mother, these qualities were forged in the furnace of adversity. They helped her not only sustain herself, but also flourish during a time of great peril and national upheaval.
She was able to start a new life in Hong Kong after fleeing at the last moment from communist rule. With Chan’s grandfather, she took a private plane out of Guangzhou City in Guangdong Province to Hong Kong with two boxes of gold bars and her maids.
As Chan tells it, his grandfather, a businessman who traded in tea leaves while living in China, endowed him with great creativity. His grandfather opened a theater after fleeing China with Chan’s mother to avoid communist suppression.
As Chan explains it, at that time it was difficult to find artists to create the artwork necessary to attract theatergoers for each movie, so his grandfather had to spend many nights drawing posters on his own to put outside the cinema.
“My grandfather was a good painter; otherwise, how could he do it? Maybe my artistic proficiency is from my mother’s side?” Chan said.
One needs not the knowledge of 5,000 years to feel inspired.
Customers don’t always know what the signature WuLu gourd is, for instance, “but the lines are beautiful, so they buy it.”
And some delve into the culture and learn.
Why has Qeelin, a relatively young brand compared to its European contemporaries who trace their lineage a couple of centuries back, resonated deeply with so many discerning luxury connoisseurs around the globe?
Chan recounts when friends told him he was crazy, pouring his own time and money into creating a jewelry brand to compete with boutiques that have centuries behind them. It took Chan seven years of meticulous planning to make his dream a reality.
“Because they don’t know the emotion behind it,” Chan said. “Sometimes you need crazy dreams. Big ambitions with Chinese emotions.”
Big emotions that Chan has managed to translate into his designs.
“Sometimes people even hold my hands with tears in their eyes because they really appreciate what I’m doing and are proud of it. They even think they are part of Qeelin. So it’s not something commercial, it’s a guy with big ambitions and Chinese sentiment in mind,” he said. It’s a fine line; any misstep and it becomes too traditional, too cliche, or unbalanced. Like yin and yang, he said.
He needed to be able to compete in quality and craftsmanship as well, and set his sights on the world’s capital of luxury brands: Paris.
Chan knew he wanted to bring his story to Paris, and use fine French craftsmanship to produce the line. “Our workmanship is the best of the best,” Chan said, going into an explanation of the quality of the diamonds. The pieces are light, well-crafted, and durable: designed for daily wear. They are versatile—some allow the wearer to adjust the length and style—and in that sense whimsical as well.
And nearly two decades after Chan first set foot in those mysterious caves at Dunhuang, a new chapter in the saga of Qeelin began.
Mega luxury brand holder Kering acquired a majority stake in the company in 2012 as part of a move to expand its footprint in jewelry and international markets, a move that cemented Qeelin’s place in the global luxury market. In 2015, Kering appointed Christophe Artaux as CEO successor to Guillaume Brochard. Kering has 21 high-profile brands in its portfolio including Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Boucheron.
“I was honored when Kering approached me, because they have supported many independent cutting-edge designers like Stella McCartney and helped them expand their reach,” said Chan.
It is no small feat for a newcomer to be courted by such an omnipotent player.
Fate has smiled kindly on Chan, who remains humble and grateful, logging long hours and late nights jetting around the globe to introduce Qeelin to an international audience. He personally meets with his loyal customers at event after event. At a glittering evening of jewelry, culture, and entertainment, designer-clad clientele, models, media, and moguls converged on CH Premier Jewelers in Santa Clara, California, to welcome the brand.
“My customers are modern ladies that love their life, they love their family. They can reward themselves; they buy a piece of jewelry,” said Chan, beaming.
Qeelin may have begun a journey of rediscovery, but where the journey will end is anybody’s guess. Chan is relishing every aspect of the ride.
“You can see in this small universe [of jewelry], there are a lot of things happening,” he said.
Steve Ispas contributed to this report.