Birmingham jeweller Fei Liu is riding the crest of a wave, writes Diane Parkes.
Birmingham jeweller Fei Liu is riding a wave at the moment. He has gained a host of national and international awards, his pieces have been showcased on celebrities and he is hot property in fashion and design circles.
His work is on sale in high end stores such as Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty’s and last year he opened his first exclusive shop – in Beijing.
At the same time he has been working on his next designer collection and managing the launch of his latest cuff links range in the US.
Fei’s rise to recognition is a success story based on determination, hard work and a deep faith in his own ability.
Chinese-born Fei came to the UK in 1998 to study silversmithing and jewellery design at Birmingham School of Jewellery – and has been based in the city ever since.
Although 35-year-old Fei, who both lives and works in the Jewellery Quarter, is the first to admit it took him a while to fall for Birmingham.
“I landed at Heathrow and was travelling to Birmingham and seeing all these green fields and thinking have I come here for jewellery or for farming?” he jokes.
“Then I came into Digbeth coach station, which was horrible at the time, and took a taxi to Bearwood. And I remember driving along Broad Street and asking the taxi driver if we would go through the city centre and he said we just had.”
Fei had spent two years trying to master English and learn about English culture before he landed at Heathrow but he initially found it very difficult to settle.
“That first year at the jewellery school was torturing,” he says. “People couldn’t understand me and I would be sitting in classes not understanding what was being said. I didn’t like what they were teaching me as they seemed to be teaching me to be a craftsman and I wanted to be a designer.
“At the same time I was doing three part-time jobs. I would be at college in the day then I would go to work in a Vietnamese takeaway from 4pm to 3am where I have peeled more onions than I ever want to see again. I was also a silver service water and a waiter in a normal restaurant.
“Then I would be up at 6am reading loudly from my BBC textbook to improve my English.
“Now, when I talk to students and they ask me how I did it I say it was because I never went to the pub. I just went to college and worked.”
But it was only a matter of time. With an improving level of English and a better appreciation of his course, Fei began to shine. So much so that in January 2000 he received a surprise telephone call.
“I was at my house and was eating breakfast and the phone went and a very posh voice asked to speak to Fei Liu. She said I had won the Goldsmith’s Award and the ceremony was in March – actually on my mother’s birthday.
“I thought it was a joke and told her it wasn’t funny and put the phone down. I had entered for the award but I never thought I would win it.”
But when Fei turned up at college that morning the staff were all congratulating him as it was true. He was the first Chinese person and the first Birmingham School of Jewellery student to win the prestigious award.
And the winning piece, the Happy Fountain earring, was based on Birmingham’s infamous Floozie in the Jacuzzi.
“Happy Fountain was inspired by the fountain in Victoria Square,” recalls Fei. “It was designed for people who don’t have a hole in their ear and it cascades diamonds on fine wire so that the whole piece shimmers like a waterfall. It was my first award and it was something very special to me.”
At this point Fei was given a valuable piece of advice.
“I was a correspondent for a Chinese jewellery magazine and went to interview John Donald who is a real pioneer jewellery designer. He had been a judge in the awards I had won and he told me that I wasn’t yet ready to set up my own company. He suggested I continue to learn by working for other companies.
Initially Fei worked for Firmin & Sons for their Stratton company, based in the Jewellery Quarter, where he was responsible for designing cuff links and tie clips. He then moved to another locally-based company Toye, Kenning and Spencer where he continued to design accessories for men.
And his new role ensured he also had space to freelance.
“When Toye, Kenning and Spencer asked me to work with them the only thing I said was that I wanted to be allowed to start up my own business while I was working there,” recalls Fei. “And they said yes. I was totally committed to my job with hem and worked very hard for them. But when I came home every evening from 7pm I would be starting the work for my own company.
‘‘It started with just bits and bobs but I gradually built up a collection. Then in July 2006 I started my own company.”
Fei does not pretend it has been easy.
“The end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 were really rough and put a huge pressure on my small team,” he says. “But then things really started to improve and I feel extremely proud of what we have achieved.”
And that is no short list. He has won a host of awards and seen his jewellery worn by celebrities such as X Factor judge Dannii Minogue, House actress Lisa Edelstein, model Tolula Adeymi and Memoirs of a Geisha actress Ziyi Zhang.
Under the company name P D Man England he also designs and sells cuff links, tie pins and other male accessories through department stores across the UK, Europe, America and the Far East.
Fei, who heads up a team of seven, has always been keen to draw on his dual heritage of China and Birmingham.
“To me it is very important to play the role of sending English culture to China and bringing Chinese culture here,” he says.
“There is a real cultural difference between the two but they can both gain a great deal from understanding each other.”
To this end Fei has used his new space in Beijing to help promote emerging British talent by hosting an exhibition there featuring work from School of Jewellery lecturers. And he recently created a pair of diamond earrings featuring antique Qing blue and white porcelain on loan from the collections of a Chinese ceramics museum. With the porcelain inlaid in platinum and diamond latticework, the Aeon earrings won Fei a 2009 Lonmin Design Innovation Award.
Which is why the Beijing store was so important for the development of the Fei Liu brand.
“A lot of people see China as a threat but designers need to know that it is the second America. In fact it can be an even bigger market than America. But you need to know how it works. I love the spirit of British design. It is so innovative and creative. I want both my brand and my team to be recognisable both here in the UK and in China.”
So what does the future hold for Fei Liu?
“It is never easy to keep finding new ideas but I will always keep designing,” he says. “My work is classic with a modern twist.”
This year Fei moved into new offices in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter – a commitment to the city which has been his home for 12 years.
“I have lived here since I first came to England and this is my home,” says Fei, who now holds a British passport. “I love this city and I love its people and I will always try to do my best for Birmingham.”