Glass-bead hobby turns into big business
After leaving Beijing at the age of seven and spending most of her teenage and adult years in the United States, Marie Wren (Ren Jinghua) moved back to Beijing in 2004 with her parents, who wanted to live out the rest of their lives in their birthplace.
How did you get into the beads business?
About 15 years ago when I was travelling in Italy I fell in love with glass beads and I went back several times to take lessons. I began to make some for fun for friends and family every Christmas. I was fascinated by the beads because each piece is different; no two are the same. It also relaxed me. I was running my own insurance business back then and it was very stressful. In 2004, I moved back to Beijing with my parents. My husband was very supportive and we bought a house to settle down there. One day, our dog Snowy swallowed a plastic chewing bone and our doctor friend upstairs came down to look at it. She saw my glass-bead jewellery and asked where I bought them. When I told her I made them, she persuaded me to provide some to sell in a boutique she was running. Her business was struggling then but in about a week nearly all my pieces were sold. She came back for more, and suggested I open a store.
Why did you choose the Silk Market?
My husband and I have spent most of our lives in America and we preferred to be somewhere in touch with foreign customers. The Silk Market had only just moved indoors that year, and the stall spaces were very tight. But the day we scouted, there was one stall vacant at the very end of the floor. Perhaps because of the secluded location, the owner of the stall adjacent was keen to sell us his spot, too. So my husband and I thought it was meant to be and rented the two stalls. Initially people here had a laugh at us selling beads. The management did not understand the attraction of glass beads, and was worried that we could not survive as we did not sell knock-offs of jewellery from places like Tiffany's. But soon our business became popular, and now, two years since we started, we have opened eight stalls on the fourth floor, and a shop on the fifth floor.
Silk Market is famed for its fake goods. Has that been a problem?
Yes, l remember one time a customer did not believe my Swarovski crystals were authentic and changed his mind only after I told him, 'You shouldn't buy this if you don't have trust in us'. He was very pleased with the design and the crystals in the end but he still refused to have the jewellery packed in a Silk Market bag. These things do happen. But the management is trying to move away from that, and has put in tremendous efforts to remove knock-offs since last year. The manager has also become more professional and internationally-minded since we came. He travelled to Europe and North America to see how malls are run there. And he is even considering franchising the Silk Market overseas.
Who are your main customers?
Initially our customers were mainly tourists buying pieces for family and friends. And now 80 per cent are wholesalers, many of whom have established their own retail businesses all over the world since we opened. I thought about building my own brand but trademark registration takes 48 months and I just don't have the time for that. We didn't expect to have such a success. Now our goal is to find the five to 10 best employees and pass our business on to them. Then we can finally retire. But I believe that one of our main attractions is that people like the personal attention my husband and I give them, and the chats we have, like our customers from the diplomatic community.
What do you think is the secret to your success?
When everyone was sceptical in the beginning, I was confident that we would do well. I knew my beads. I knew the uniqueness of what we sold. Many here sell jewellery, but it's mostly pearls and coral, or whatever they say they are. We are the only ones selling glass beads. And the custom-made element is a key factor to our success. Because we travelled the world, we know what suits people of different cultures. For example, women from Washington might like something comfortable, but still wearable at functions. Our very first customers were actually part of US President George W. Bush's entourage, who kept coming back for several days, and who only revealed their identity to us the day before they left. We also train our employees to never yell at or grab a customer. We told them if someone doesn't want to buy, they won't buy no matter how loud you yell. We try not to hire anyone who has already worked in the Silk Market because they might have picked up some bad habits. Instead we try to hire people with disabilities and difficulties, like our team leader here is a hunchback. He is very capable. Now you'll find that salespeople on the fourth floor are very polite and set a good example.
What are your plans for the future?
Now that the business has been established, we would perhaps commute more between China and the US. It is more comfortable there for retirement. Beijing is a great place to be at this moment. The cost of living is affordable. And the thing that makes us feel most rewarded is to see so many things changing for the better. But one day I believe we will go back to America. We are after all quite different from my parents. There are still a lot of things we are not quite used to. We never had doubts about our identities; we have always told people we are Chinese. But after 40 years in America, the way we think and the way we do things are very American.