After the gates open at Fai Po, the Chinese jewelry manufacturer owned by Jacky Chan, visitors are greeted by nine larger-than-life horse statues galloping in a pool. They are made of copper, weigh two tons each, and are symbols of luck and pride. If the visitor is lucky, the landscapers will turn on the fountains, which frame the horses, making them look like they are running out from a wall of water, and the sound system, which pipes traditional Chinese music from rock speakers hidden around the property. The scene offers an impressive entry to an impressive operation.
When I was in Hong Kong in March for the HKTDC International Jewellery Show, I was invited to visit Fai Po’s factory on mainland China. Fai Po is a jewelry manufacturer specializing in semiprecious cut stones and gold jewelry. Owner Jacky Chan was a perfectly gracious host to me and Quentin Chan, JCK’s sales rep for the Asian market (the two men share a surname, but are not related).
The company arranged for a car to take us on the two-hour drive along the coast to the factory in Lufeng City, China. Past the fountains, we entered the jewel of the property, a proper mansion with a lobby that would rival a luxury hotel (including a koi pond and custom mosaic tile floors, the tiles made on-site). In addition to housing showrooms and meeting rooms, the building had lovely guest quarters, where we were invited to stay the night. Henry, Chan’s right-hand man, was our companion for two days, taking us on personal tours of the factory and out to incredible meals in town, where the menu consisted freshly caught fish housed in a tank that took up an entire wall.
The factory was not running at full capacity due to Chinese New Year; many of the company’s 2,000 employees had traveled to visit family for the holiday. But, as Henry explained, there were always some people who wanted to work extra hours, and we saw many of them polishing, cutting, carving, and setting as we toured the two factory buildings, one specializing in stone cutting and one in jewelry-making, and a third building where Fai Po has established a high-end tile offshoot.
Throughout the tour, it was palpable how proud Henry was to work for the company, and how impressive Chan was as a businessman and boss. Chan’s is a true rags-to-riches story. He did not finish high school, instead opting to work in a jewelry factory to make money for his family. But he was a natural-born entrepreneur and eventually saved enough to win, and deliver, on a contract of his own. He founded Fai Po in 1986 (we drove by the original factory, a small building with the faded Fai Po sign still visible). Today the company has 2,000 employees, a vast property, and is an important part of the Lufeng City economy and community. Employees who don’t live in town live on the grounds of the factory in one of several apartment buildings. A community building has space for games and socializing, a commissary, and even a kindergarten. It became clear to me that the live-where-you-work (and work-where-you-live) concept that is currently sweeping Silicon Valley has its roots in factory setups like this in Asia.
The factory tour was truly enlightening. It is incredible to see the stones go from rough to cut to polished to set, from huge bags of rough stones to trays of sparkling rings. As we walked through the factory and saw jewels in various stages of the cutting and polishing process, Henry explained that the turnaround from order to shipment could be as long as 60 days. Clients include large shopping television networks, small European designers, and international luxury brands.
The work is delicate and difficult, oftentimes involving small, repetitive movements for 12 hours each day (the normal day is eight hours, but many employees choose to work four extra hours with overtime pay). As we looked in awe at the delicate work being done by a man placing pavé diamonds on a ring with a microscope, Henry told us that such stone setting had been his first job in the factory. I commented on the lack of music or headphones—in many rooms, the only sounds were the quiet whirring of drills—and Henry said that is just now work is done in China, a cultural difference (though I did notice that in the design wing of the jewelry factory, where young designers worked on CAD designs, pop music wafted softly from the speakers). One thing that impressed me: No factory jumpsuits here. People were dressed nicely, showing pride in their work.
Business was good, but like all good businessmen, Chan was diversifying. In addition to its jewelry work, Fai Po also creates carved gem statues that are popular in the Asian market. We saw beautiful delicate work being done on carved Buddhas that would take more than a year to complete and would eventually retail for $20,000. With the semiprecious tiles, Chan was hoping to garner high-end real estate clients in the Middle East. And on the drive out of town, we passed a cluster of high-rise condo buildings that Henry pointed out were part of Chan’s growing empire. The development’s name: Crystal City.