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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Jeweller who makes vintage-style cufflinks from Hong Kong coins adds new themes to extend his market beyond expats

Former landscape architect Ben Huang started his coin cufflink company Patinova after noticing a gap in the market. His jewellery has taken off and he’s branching out into other Chinese-themed accessories

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 8:48pm

With the busy Christmas period over, Hong Kong jeweller Ben Huang is hoping to score more success in the run-up to Lunar New Year with his distinctly local, nostalgia-driven products.

Founded in 2014, Patinova has carved out a reputation by offering vintage-themed jewellery that incorporates colonial-era Hong Kong coinage.

Through some inventive sourcing, Huang has built a business that gives new life to old 10-cent and scallop-shaped 20-cent coins with Queen Elizabeth’s head on one side, as well as the rarer 5-cent coins that were phased out in the 1970s.

“A lot of people do ask for specific years, but its getting increasingly difficult to find them,” says Huang.

Patinova – the name is a portmanteau of “patina” and the Latin word “nova”, to denote the vintage look and feel of things like old coins as well as creating something entirely new, says Huang – has jewellery incorporating coins dated as far back as 1949. However, sourcing is getting harder and is not helped, Huang adds, by there being a few years when the Hong Kong government decided against minting new coins.

“In order to find these coins, I speak to everybody I know, particularly people from the older generation. You just have to be a bit more creative. When my mother goes shopping at the wet market, there are various stall holders that put aside coins,” he says.

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Besides the difficulty in finding increasingly rare coins, Huang needs them to be in good enough condition to be transformed into jewellery. Once found, the coins are cleaned and then plated to match the colour of the coin in the year it was minted, giving the appearance of a “new” coin.

Huang set up Patinova because he was looking for the products he sells today and not finding any. “The switch into jewellery was very random. Many years ago I saw someone wearing cufflinks made out of old coins, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have cufflinks made out of coins from my own birth year?’”

Huang found that none of the jewellers in Hong Kong offered them, or were willing to make them. With the help of a family friend who had worked in the jewellery industry, he decided to make the products himself.

“I used to do the soldering myself. It’s a little bigger now, so I can’t really do the production, but the design and marketing and everything else is me.”

Huang, a former landscape architect, says Patinova “is still a one-man band” and has developed from a side interest and labour of love into something that commands his full attention now as a growing business.

The brand sells the majority of its products online, but Patinova is sold in select places, including high-end Hong Kong men’s store The Armoury, and Huang is a regular at monthly jewellery fairs held in various places around Hong Kong.

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With a laugh, Huang admits that the majority of his Hong Kong customers tend to be expats and Western-educated Chinese “partly because my Chinese reading and writing is terrible”.

He hopes that, as the business grows, he can rebalance Patinova’s market, as the products are not aimed at any one particular group.

Although Patinova has gained attention with its coin jewellery, Huang has branched out into other products. The company sells dragon boat and dragon head jewellery.

“Aside from the coins, most of my stuff has a Chinese or a Hong Kong theme, but it’s all in sterling silver,” Huang says. He is currently working on a new product collection that builds on the coin theme, but with a more local historical twist and without the headache of sourcing.

“I’m making some pieces based on Chinese zodiac coins. These coins weren’t in circulation or legal tender, but wealthy families would give them as tokens or gifts during Lunar New Year,” Huang says.