Plukka's Joanne Ooi takes online jewellery retailer into the real world

Joanne Ooi foundedan e-tailer with a business model as captivating as its dazzling designs. Now she's tryinga pop-up store, writes Jing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 10:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 2:55pm

We're trying to send a strong message, I don't want people to come in and think we're like King Fook, right? What is the point in that?"

Never one to mince words, Joanne Ooi, the CEO and co-founder of jewellery brand Plukka, is busy arranging the items on display at the brand's first-floor space in Landmark, designed by Los Angeles-based architects Johnston Marklee in collaboration with Hong Kong-based architectural practice davidclovers.

Plukka, launched by Ooi and Jai Waney in 2011, is an award-winning, made-to-order jewellery e-tailer. Its pop-up space in Landmark, launched last month, is one of its first forays into physical retailing, and will remain open until August.

The intricate pieces on display are more competitively priced than those of traditional fine jewellers, owing to the brand's made-to-order, no-middleman business model.

The brand has been highly successful since its launch, making it onto the covers of major international fashion magazines, and being worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams and Coco Rocha.

"This market is perhaps the world's most important and growing jewellery market at the moment," says Ooi, citing local interest from by Hong Kong and mainland clients. Most are looking for "dynamic, design-driven and individualistic" pieces, she says, adding that the niche for this kind of jewellery is "about fashion, rather than investment". Ooi says the space is a "great marketing tool for a new brand", coming off the back of its hugely successful trunk shows around the world, where clients tended to buy the more expensive pieces.

It also gives Plukka a chance to show off its one-of-a-kind jewellery. Many of the higher-end items are here "because seeing it in person makes a huge difference", Ooi says.

Ooi says Plukka's competitive pricing hasn't changed just because she has opened a physical store. "We've kept it the same," she adds. "I consider this to be like a showroom."

The way she has curated the pieces from the labels shows their various styles in the best light possible.

I'm planning on opening a lot more stores. We don't see it as breaking the model. I see it as translating into a lot more online sales.

Two designers from New York, who worked for David Yurman before striking out on their own with Asher Athan, based their looks on 3-D printed moulds. This makes for structural, futuristic pieces that won't be found at Cartier or Tiffany's. "If you use a traditional mould, it can never achieve that level of complexity," Ooi says.

Plukka has signed up an eclectic group of designers - both established and up-and-coming - including Wendy Yue, Payal Shah, Ashu Malpani Nicholas Liu, Yeprem and Tomasz Donocik.

The e-tailer tries to keep things fresh by launching at least one new designer a month on the site, and makes of point of taking on labels with an individual sense of style that doesn't overlap with other labels already on their books. This way, Plukka achieves exclusive representation in Greater China for most of its designers.

Wendy Yue's fantastical pieces, which use elaborate Oriental iconography and Buddha motifs, stand out at the boutique. The label is popular in the US and Europe but Ooi discovered it in Britain, and was stunned to find that the designer was from Hong Kong.

Ooi, a former creative director who's credited with turning around Shanghai Tang, still has a soft spot for Hong Kong talent. Locally based L'Dezen, by Payal Shah, is another popular brand represented by Plukka. Lady Gaga famously wore the label's Sliced Diamond Bannerol earrings to this year's Golden Globe awards.

Then there is Ashu Malpani, an Indian designer based in Hong Kong. He was one of the first to specialise in uncut, raw and sliced diamonds, and his pieces combine his family heritage (he comes from a family of jewellers dating back to 1727) with a pioneering take on gems.

Young designer Nicholas Liu, who hails from Hong Kong but is based in New York, is at the store with Ooi to oversee what will become an important directional shift for his label.

Liu launched his first commercial, ready-to-wear line exclusively with Plukka. He previously only made one-off pieces for private clients.

"This is an experiment," says Ooi about the e-tailer's first bricks-and-mortar retail space. "This is an opening salvo, and we expect it to do quite nicely, as we have a good client base in Hong Kong," she says.

Ooi is not afraid to take risks. In the years between Plukka and Shanghai Tang, Ooi founded the Clean Air Network (CAN) with Christine Loh Kung-wai, undersecretary for the environment, as well as the art gallery Ooi Botos. She has become one of the "cultural mavens" of the city.

She is ambitious for her Plukka venture. She feels that the market for more traditional styles of jewellery "is kind of maxed out".

Clients now want something "that their friend isn't going to be wearing", says Ooi. She hopes this selection of high-end, eclectic styles and exclusive pieces will cater to that.

Cutting out the middleman and working directly with designers and manufacturers, Plukka avoids many of the mark-ups of fine jewellery brands, claiming to save clients 60 to 90 per cent off customary made-to-order prices.

"I'm planning on opening a lot more stores," she adds. "We don't see it as breaking the model. I see it as translating into a lot more online sales."

In an earlier version of the story, Joanne Ooi's name was misspelled as "Joanna Ooi."