In the Diamond Mind: Kent Wong
A Conversation with Kent Wong, Managing Director, Chow Tai Fook Jewellery GroupBy Heidi Garnett, Writer and Co-Founder of Gem X @heidielizabethgarnett |
Kent Wong is an astute businessman. When he joined Chow Tai Fook four decades ago, its number of stores could be counted on two hands. Today, the company employs more than 28,000 and has an impressive physical footprint of more than 4,000 stores, primarily in China and Hong Kong. According to Kent, the key to leading one of the largest jewelers in the world comes down to humbleness and curiosity, rather than contracts and numbers. Throughout our conversation, his passion for jewelry shined, as he described experiences like witnessing the creation of the necklace “A Heritage in Bloom” by Wallace Chan and the story of his very first diamond.
What’s the story of your first diamond?
The story of my first diamond is very special, because it is how I fell in love with the jewelry industry. When I was a young man, just graduated from school and looking for a job, I was walking through the central district in Hong Kong and stopped in front of a jewelry store window. The window was filled with beautiful diamonds and their sparkle drew my eyes. That was the first time I truly saw diamonds and I fell in love.
That moment led me to Chow Tai Fook, where I was offered a trainee position. I met my wife at the company. Today my son and daughter both work at the company. And each day does not feel like work, because I enjoy it so much. Natural diamonds brought me the opportunity to marry and start a family. They give me energy and inspiration each day. I owe a lot to that moment and to diamonds.
What excites you most at the moment?
Advances in innovation and technology, as well as how Generation Z will change our world. This generation was born in the time of digital. They are creative and technology savvy. They want to show the world who they are and in return they want more personalized experiences. They are challenging us to shorten the product lifecycle, so we can nimbly respond to their desires. We are using tools like social listening to hear their voices—for example, to understand if travel, food or a hobby like skiing is important to them—and to tailor the jewelry experience to their very psychologies. It is only when brands achieve the latter that they succeed in creating a truly personalized business strategy. We created the brand Monologue for this exact purpose and I am very excited by how it is engaging a younger audience with jewelry.
What is your intention for the year ahead?
When I began working at Chow Tai Fook, we had less than 10 stores and now we have more than 4,000. We grew with the Asian economy. I want to retain our market share and continue to grow—with the world economy. I believe we will grow through craftsmanship, technology and innovation. The first is very important in jewelry; the second and third are critical in every industry.
For example, today, people move houses frequently, but they always bring their mobile phone. So, we built a proprietary mobile app that consumers can use to trace their jewelry journey with us. They can note information like an authenticity certificate and create a jewelry diary to record what the piece means to them, bringing together the art and the science in one place.
What’s your greatest indulgence?
Health has been on my mind this year, as I am sure it has been for many others. I like to hike and to stay energized. However, indulging my curiosity might top the list. I like to observe how people behave and noticing the small details. I like to visit jewelry stores, our own and those of our competitors. When I walk into a jewelry store, I am not a managing director, I am a customer. I observe how the store makes me feel, as well as what I think of the jewelry. What can I say, I love to work and I like to think that joy is passed onto our customers.
What diamond destination is at the top of your list?
The Premier Mine in Cullinan, South Africa, which has a rich heritage of producing famous, important diamonds. To celebrate our 85th anniversary, we purchased the Cullinan Heritage, an exceptionally rare 507.55 carat rough diamond with excellent color and clarity. We spent three years looking at the diamond and eventually cut it into 24 stones, including a round brilliant of 104 carats. We wanted to set the diamonds into a piece of jewelry that brought them back into union together, and that celebrated both the heritage of the Premiere Mine and of Chow Tai Fook. I told the great jeweler Wallace Chan this story and he created the necklace “A Heritage in Bloom,” a masterpiece inspired by it. Today, the necklace is displayed in our museum. I count myself one of the luckiest men in the world to have held those diamonds and this piece of heritage.
What inspired you to pursue a career in jewelry?
As mentioned earlier, I fell in love with jewelry when I was standing in front of that show window filled with beautiful diamonds. The reason I am still in diamonds 40 years later is because there is always a new challenge. My first position in diamonds was an executive trainee at Chow Tai Fook. During the course of three years, I had the opportunity to work across different departments, gaining experience in customer service and customer psychology, jewelry design, accounting and the business, and more. I worked hard and each time I progressed I encountered new challenges. My most recent challenge has been learning management, which is a skill all to itself.
What moment still blows your mind?
When I was younger and starting out in the trainee program, I had an idea that my boss allowed me to realise. That was mind blowing. Today, I still love the feeling of coming up with a good idea and making it into reality. I encourage that independent thinking in my team as well. Mentorship is very important, as is supporting your team to build their dreams.
What life lesson has been the hardest earned, and taught you the most?
To be prepared. In March 2003, the SARS epidemic reached Hong Kong. It led to lockdowns of business and social life throughout our city, as is happening around the world today with the Covid-19 pandemic. We were scared and there were many deaths. It was by becoming prepared and taking precautions like using protective gear and facemasks, putting in place good hygiene practices, and asking people to work from home that we passed through that difficult time and that life returned to normal. That experience and now Covid-19 remind me how important it is to be prepared.
One way we were prepared for Covid-19 was through our digital platforms. Earlier this year, Hong Kong and mainland China had to shut down stores temporarily. Fortunately, we already had a mobile app to connect with our customers. This meant that while many brands could do nothing or were creating digital tools, we could reach out to our customers to say “hello” and offer some encouragement.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Remaining humble and keeping your curiosity are very important qualities. Business is about always moving forward. A humble attitude allows us to learn from other people. Curiosity helps us to dream big and to embrace change. Also, gratefulness. It is important to appreciate the people around us and the society that allows us to pursue our passions.
What’s next for diamonds?
The diamond industry is facing a difficult time, as a result of the pandemic and other dynamics that are causing uncertainty. Also, the industry has been slow to embrace innovation and technology in the same way as some other industries. However, jewelry will always have a place in the world. People buy jewelry because it brings them happiness and people are always looking for a happier life. That is why it is important for the jewelry industry to work together in unity. We all stand to benefit when we find solutions together. We need to remain curious and keep the creative spirit alive across our industry.