Austy Lee works through the night sketching one-off creations. “I have many customers who keep coming to make something new so I need to draw five to 10 designs every single night,” he says.

The Hong Kong jewellery designer catches about five hours’ sleep in the morning before heading to one of his two boutiques in the city. “I have had no holiday for five years,” he says.

While this work/life balance is probably not to be recommended, there is a sense when meeting Lee that he might not want it any other way. The prolific creative, who finds he is at his most productive in the early hours, also designs his own clothes, shoes and spectacles.

Lee was one of five “new” designers featured at GemGenève in May. It was the first appearance of his brand at a jewellery show outside Asia. Now, with plans under way to grow the number of international stockists for his designs, he may have to burn even more midnight oil.

Tree of Life brooch
Tree of Life brooch
Golden flower with Coleus rings
Golden flower with Coleus rings

A former graphic designer who studied product design, Lee trained in jewellery design with Swiss house Adler in Hong Kong before working as chief designer for local jeweller Wendy Yue. He launched his eponymous brand in 2017 to showcase his own “crazy” and “joyful” fine jewellery.

Over the past six years, he has designed more than 6,000 unique jewels, made in Hong Kong. The bold pieces stand out not only because of Lee’s use of coloured gemstones and jade but also because of his way of melding traditional and modern techniques.

Having learnt from his uncle, who was experienced in repairing antiques, his contemporary jewels often incorporate antique objects such as Japanese lacquerware and netsuke — small Japanese sculptures. He uses traditional processes such as the Japanese Maki-e and Shakudō lacquer techniques, and the Shibayama art of inlay for creating designs on abalone shell and mother of pearl. But Lee embraces the modern, too: his 18-carat gold pieces are plated with colour rhodium to create eye-catching hues. “I like chunky, complicated details [and] edgy things,” he says.

His Buddhist faith is a source of inspiration for Lee, whose pieces all have a story behind them. “Buddhism is a spiritual exercise, through meditation taking my mind to a whole new level, brainstorming new ideas every day,” he says. “I like painting and admiring thangkas [paintings on cotton or silk depicting subjects, including Buddhist deities and mandalas] because the different geometric proportions and colour combinations are very impressive and inspiring to me.”

His debut collection, Psychedelic Light, drew on mandalas — geometric, symbolic designs representing the universe that are used in meditation.

Lee, whose recent collection Gnostic Vines draws from another faith by featuring elements from Kabbalah, is interested in different cultures. He also encourages the jewellery design students he teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University to do research, and meditate to know themselves better and to help develop their own styles.

Lee had to explain his “big jewellery” when he first opened up shop in Hong Kong, with customers thinking his designs were costume pieces. Despite the high profiles of Chinese jewellery artist Wallace Chan and Taiwanese jewellery designer Cindy Chao — both known for their colourful statement pieces — Lee thinks that, in general, “jewellery is still boring in this moment”, with consumers opting for well-known brands because of marketing. “I want this kind of choice to be popular,” he says.

His designs are gaining traction. Annoushka Ducas, founder of British jewellery brand Annoushka, has stocked Lee’s pieces in her retail spaces in London department stores Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Liberty since 2018 — his only bricks-and-mortar stockist outside Asia. She believes “people are definitely more aware of him”. But Ducas says her staff have to educate clients so they appreciate Lee’s approach, with British customers tending not to understand coloured rhodium and being “less brave” with large and colourful jewellery. Lee’s designs appeal particularly to customers from the Middle East, she finds.

“[Lee’s work] is so unique and recognisable, and the techniques that he uses really push the boundary,” says Ducas, who collaborated with Lee on four cocktail rings for her Touch Wood collection in 2020.

Annoushka x Austy Lee 18ct rose gold St Petersburg ring
Annoushka x Austy Lee 18ct rose gold St Petersburg ring
Annoushka x Austy Lee Moscow ring
Annoushka x Austy Lee Moscow ring

International auction houses Phillips and Bonhams have offered Lee’s jewellery in sales in Hong Kong over the past few years. Online marketplace 1stDibs and Dubai-based platform Theodore and C started stocking his designs last year.

Lee says contacts he made at GemGenève may lead to him collaborating with other brands and that his presence at the fair helped boost international sales, which are up 20-25 per cent year on year. Sales outside Hong Kong account for about 30 per cent of Lee’s business, compared to 10 per cent a few years ago. Already stocked by retailers in Japan, the Philippines and Singapore, the brand is now working with department store Lane Crawford to sell pieces in Chengdu and Beijing, China, next month. Separate negotiations are under way with stores in New York and Paris.

Expansion could add to his heavy workload. But Lee, who has 11 employees excluding his studios, does not want to hire anyone to help with design. “If you want to buy Austy Lee, you want Austy Lee,” he argues.

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