High-end jeweller and philanthropist Michelle Ong is a meticulous person and always prepared for business meetings and appointments. A case in point, days before our scheduled interview, Ong had already replied to our advance questions via e-mail with detailed answers that had us wondering whether a follow-up meeting would be necessary.
"I always like to be prepared," she says in a matter-of-fact tone, as we finally sat down for the interview at her office in the heart of Central.
Her diligence and can-do spirit have undoubtedly played important roles in the making of who she is today - one of the most sought-after jewellery designers in the region. Born into a traditional family - her parents were both doctors - Ong studied sociology at the University of Toronto.
On returning to Hong Kong after graduation, she stumbled into the jewellery business when a family friend who imported diamonds asked her to learn the art of jewellery designing. Eventually, she formed a partnership with Hong Kong-based Israeli gem dealer Avi Nagar and launched Carnet in 1985. She hasn't looked back since, and Carnet is now one of the most recognisable high-end jewellery brands across the globe, patronised by the international jet set.
This year has been an exciting one for Ong, and not only in the field of jewellery. Her young charity, First Initiative Foundation, which she founded in 2009, held a star-studded fundraiser in July.
Entitled "Hong Kong! Hong Kong!", the event saw an impressive turnout of the city's most noted and quoted glitterati, including tycoon couples Walter and Wendy Kwok, Peter Lam Kin-ngok and Pansy Ho. After savouring a dinner catered by a culinary team that consisted of three Michelin-star chefs, guests went on to enjoy a charitable concert performed by Canto-pop king Eason Chan Yik-shun. The event was held to raise money for community outreach programmes and international initiatives.
Beneficiaries include the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and the Polytechnic University design school, and the Young Scholars Programme of famous Chinese pianist Lang Lang.
High-profile patrons included famous American soprano Renee Fleming and tycoons Timothy Fok Tsun-ting and David Tang.
First Initiative Foundation is certainly not the first philanthropic cause Ong has actively promoted. For the past two decades or so, she worked with a variety of notable charities, including the Hong Kong Philharmonic Society, before breaking out on her own. Ong says her main ambition through her charitable causes is to help the young generation achieve success on the international stage. "Having supported so many worthwhile causes before inspired me to start a foundation that could focus on uplifting Hong Kong, especially the young generation," she says. "I truly believe that our youth is our future."
Ong likes to take a hands-on approach. She is involved in every detail of the event-planning process, right down to seemingly trivial matters such as how the chopsticks should be placed. "Building your reputation is sheer hard work and preparation," she says.
Ong reckons the time and effort that goes into the preparation of a gala event is no less daunting than the creation of a piece of jewellery. "Like how I start creating a piece of jewellery, I have an image, a vision, and I make it happen - throwing an event is just like that," she says.
Juggling several different responsibilities, the working mum knows her priorities. "I know from personal experience it's not easy. I'm always so busy," she says. "I look at it from the view of being very fortunate to have these great opportunities in life. I sleep a little less and try to spend as much quality time with my family as I can. For me, it is knowing at the end of the day that I have done my best work, counted my blessings, and spent precious moments with those most important in my life."
Now at the peak of her career, Ong feels lucky that she was never judged because of her gender in the highly competitive field of jewellery design. "I am a firm believer in the principle of hiring the best and most qualified person for any job. I don't think gender should dictate potential. A woman who is competent, hard-working, determined and smart is a great asset to any company," she says.
Even though the hardships involved only fuelled her ambition to reach the top, high society life isn't unfamiliar to Ong, whose husband, David Cheung, is heir to the Garden Bakery empire.
The career woman and mother of three, however, refused to resort to a typical tai-tai lifestyle. "I would drive everyone crazy if I did," she says. "There are only so much shopping and spa sessions you can do. I need to keep myself busy."
And busy she has been with her jewellery business, which is now in its third decade. Ong's unconventional and contemporary designs didn't strike a chord immediately with customers, yet her intricate, whimsical designs that fuse Eastern and Western aesthetics - often influenced by nature - slowly helped her to gain momentum.
Apart from catering to her local fans, Ong's designs also draw A-list celebrity clients, including British actress Kate Winslet.
In 2006, one of her creations was featured in the mystery-thriller movie The Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou. "It was definitely a breakthrough in terms of publicity and was a fun and challenging project, but that in itself doesn't represent my jewellery," Ong says.
Her inspirations, she says, come from everywhere and are never forced. For her charity, however, she strives to push initiatives forward.
"Now, we are a bit heavy on the music side, but very soon you'll see us exploring further on the arts side too," she says before delving back into her e-mails.