South China Morning Post - K.S. Sze & Sons

South China Morning Post - K.S. Sze & Sons

South China Morning Post, 2020 December 16

Princess Diana and Charlie Chaplin were customers, but Hong Kong jewellers K.S. Sze and Sons is still very much a family affair

Last month, Dr Sze Nien-dak finished his 14-day quarantine in Hong Kong after arriving from Boston, where he was a faculty member and senior researcher in environmental studies at Harvard University. The 74-year-old returned to Hong Kong to look after K.S. Sze and Sons, the well-known jewellery store his father started 98 years ago in Shanghai.

This year also marks 57 years for the jeweller’s presence in the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, which opened in 1963, at the time the tallest building in the city.

To mark the jewellery store’s 57th anniversary, the hotel’s executive pastry chef created a special afternoon tea set called “Journey to Venus”, inspired by Sze’s fascination with the planet and the Chinese name of the store, which translates as “Venus”.

Located steps away from Clipper Lounge on the mezzanine floor of the hotel, K.S. Sze and Sons sells an extensive array of jewellery, from contemporary pieces featuring coloured diamonds in rainbow colours to art deco brooches and even Qing dynasty pieces of vivid turquoise and pearls.

Dr Sze Nien-dak is the owner of K.S. Sze and Sons jewellers in the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, Central. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

The glamorous pieces are a reminder of the passion for jewellery that Sze’s father, Sze Kong-shun, had, and his career that had humble beginnings.

Born in Shanghai, Sze Kong-shun was taken in by a relative’s friend in the jewellery business as a young boy after his father left the family and his mother was financially unable to look after him.

“He was not even 10 years old when he became an apprentice and he really liked jewellery. You’ve got to have a passion for it, it’s not the most profitable business,” says the younger Sze. He adds that his father was on the merchandising side, though he was familiar with the process of making jewellery to take bespoke orders.

In 1923, Sze Kong-shun and a partner opened a shop called Yuen Fong on Shanghai’s fashionable Nanjing Road, which was also a gem supplier to the four major department stores in the city, as well as gold shops.

Sze Nien-dak says that by the 1940s, Shanghai was flush with money, and often compared with London and Paris.

K.S. Sze and Sons founder Sze Kong-shun.

Despite his flourishing business and many wealthy clients, Sze Kong-shun and his young family fled to Hong Kong in 1949 due to the impending revolution in China. Sze started again with a small counter selling jewellery in what is now the Entertainment Building in Central.

“My father had to leave Shanghai because the communists did not allow people to own jewellery because it was bourgeois,” Sze Nien-dak explains. “My father, mixed with wealthy people and some tai tais, moved to Hong Kong. He sought them out and told them: ‘I have something really nice to show you.’”

Sze could only bring what jewellery and stones he could carry, so there were many pieces that were left behind, and their home was confiscated. Nevertheless, he soon managed to gradually sell enough pieces to open his stand-alone boutique in Central Building.

Sze Kong-shun in his jewellery shop at the Mandarin Oriental in the 1980s.

The younger Sze remembers he was still in primary school when his father opened the shop in the Mandarin Oriental.

“Every day after school I came to the shop. My father had me help look after customers, like open the door, wipe the table, and make tea,” he recalls.

“He also showed me how to open a lighter. You had to do it nicely and you couldn’t rush it or be too slow,” Sze says, mimicking how he’d reach into his inside breast pocket, pull the lighter out and flick it on.

A ring from Hong Kong jeweller K.S. Sze and Sons.

A vintage brooch from K.S. Sze and Sons jewellers in Hong Kong.

Over the decades, K.S. Sze and Sons has seen numerous well-heeled customers visit the boutique time and again. The jewellery pieces range in price from HK$10,000 (US$1,300) to millions of Hong Kong dollars. In addition, many international celebrities have bought items in the boutique during their visits to Hong Kong.

“[English actor] Charlie Chaplin bought a ring for his daughter Geraldine, and [Italian actress] Gina Lollobrigida bought a necklace. [English ballerina] Margot Fonteyn was a customer too and bought a pair of earrings,” he says. “She was a friend of [Hong Kong ballerina] Jean Wong, who was a long-time client of my father’s.”

Princess Diana came to Hong Kong for a visit in 1989 and stayed in the Mandarin Oriental. She did not personally visit the store, but bought a pair of gold earrings for everyday wear.

Diana, Princess of Wales and Chang after the Salem Open tennis final at Victoria Park in 1995. The Princess of Wales is wearing a pair of earrings from K.S. Sze and Sons she bought in 1989. Photo: SCMP

Sze says Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun was a customer, too. According to Sze, over 10 years ago Ho sat in the Clipper Lounge just outside the jewellery store and admired a necklace in the shop window. He got up, went into the store and snapped it up.

The elder Sze passed away in 1997 at the age of 90, and his daughter Stephanie took over the shop, but she died three years ago, leaving Nien-dak the responsibility of running it.

“We are best at making one-of-a-kind pieces,” says Sze, adding such pieces take at least a year to complete. “It takes that long because we need several months to source the stones, and only after we put the piece together then we talk price,” he says with a laugh.

The facade of the K.S. Sze and Sons jewellery shop at the Mandarin Oriental in the 1960s.

Aside from custom-designed pieces, K.S. Sze and Sons has also expanded to offer gift items such as Fabergé egg pendants and everyday jewellery.

Now Sze is witnessing long-time clients who are getting on in age clearing their collections of pieces and selling them back to the jeweller because they want to donate money to charities or foundations, or their daughters may not have the same taste in jewellery.

Speaking of children, Sze tried to get one of his daughters into the family business 12 years ago. But in the end, his American-born daughter, who has a background in the film industry, was more interested in producing TV commercials in the US.

A Faberge egg necklace available at K.S. Sze and Sons in Hong Kong.

However, one must have hope. “I have five grandchildren, maybe they will be interested. The oldest is nine years old,” he says.


Bernice Chan

Bernice Chan is a former SCMP Culture writer who is now based in Vancouver, Canada, where she writes compelling stories about food and drink, lifestyle, wellness and the Asian diaspora. She previously co-hosted the award-winning Eat Drink Asia podcast and received a SOPA honourable mention for a video story about a Jamaican-American looking for her Chinese grandfather.