“It all really started in my mother’s jewellery box. I’m sure you can relate to this as a little girl, you sit and watch your mother put on the red lipstick, shoes, gown… and then she reaches for the jewellery box.”
The box itself, bathed as it was in amethysts, onyx and such semi-precious fare, was what bewitched a young Mara Hotung. The woman she is today is still very much under the spell, “to think the Earth made these – these , beautiful stones! Let’s celebrate them!” she breathes excitedly. Mara’s journey to her eponymous, costume jewellery label is one paved with custom-made rubies and diamonds.
Her career sparked off at Sotheby’s, after studying History of Art at Georgetown, DC. “I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn’t good enough,” she says with frank grace, “I knew I wanted to work at Sotheby’s, but my speciality was contemporary art, which there was little of in Hong Kong at the time… But they did have an opening in the watches and jewellery section. I applied not really thinking I would get it, but I did.”
Following her stint at Sotheby’s she was scouted by Van Cleef and Arpels, and moved into marketing this titan of French fine jewellery in Asia. “At Van Cleef everything was cut to perfection. I had the privilege of visiting their workshops (not everyone does). I’ve been to workshops with dust, dirt, people working in flip flops… At Van Cleef everyone wore white lab coats. Every piece was regarded as a piece of art.” Never have labour and love locked together quite as they do at Van Cleef. Being before such dedication must have affected Mara’s methods. “I’m a stickler,” she admits laughing. “I cannot let it leave the workshop if something is slightly wrong or looks wrong.” Her hometown Hong Kong and its culture carries a strong influence too; “there’s a very good work ethic,” she explains.
Mara Hotung, who was born and raised in Hong Kong is of Eurasian (mixed European and Asian) descent, and so her fair skin and forget-me-not blue eyes are a surprise. “I’m very, very proud of my Chinese and Hong Kong heritage,” she says warmly, and as a direct descendant of Robert Hotung it’s clear why. A distinguished historical figure in Hong Kong who was knighted twice, his philanthropy is remembered to this day and continued by other Hotungs. His legacy is very present, with parks, schools and buildings named in his honour. “The family is quite big, but we’re all so proud of what the family has achieved. We’re very hard-working, and very private.”
But Mara is more than industrious, she’s got a knack for nosing out opportunities. For example, her mother dismantled a large diamond brooch, offering the smaller stones to Mara, aged 16. Instead of selling or wearing the diamonds she re-fashioned them into a pair of earrings… and gave them back to her mother as a gift. Similarly Mara by Mara was born in England, after she and her husband had moved from Hong Kong, where pollution levels were becoming too punishing. But despite starting a family she wasn’t going to let the dust settle and experimented with making smaller pieces, cufflinks mostly. As soon as her children were older – she amped it up.
Roughly a year and a half old, Mara by Mara is a new endeavour in many ways. For one, it’s her first ready-to-wear collection. Although Mara had been designing fine jewellery and achieved success selling to private clients and boutiques, she found the price of gold rising relentlessly over the years. Not wanting to estrange her clients with sky high bills she created Mara by Mara. Aimed at a wider buyer base, the affordable range adds a dose of playfulness to the usual hum drum of day-wear, with designs rendered in sterling silver, gold or rose gold-plated.
“I don’t want to mass produce.” She makes clear. Being a trained gemmologist not a designer also sets Mara apart from other brands; it makes her more hands on. She has a professional knowledge of stones, meaning she truly knows how to select the highest quality, something few designers – who often just sketch out designs and delegate the rest – can say. As a result, she religiously visits jewellery fairs in Hong Kong, spending entire days sifting through loose pearls, gems and supplies of sapphires… After pecking her way to the best specimens, she does the drawing and goes either to her goldsmith or a cad designer. The goldsmith will actually render the final product. But even with her network of professionals in London Hatton Garden, Hong Kong and Thailand she’s aware of potential pitfalls, “It does take a while, and you do have to plan – the goldsmith could be on holiday or your stone package could be stopped at customs!”
World domination? She politely declines. “I nearly killed myself trying to do seasonal ranges, I have two young children, a house to run… it simply wasn’t possible.” And of going global in general she says; “I’ve been approached by companies who’d like to work with us and I’m extremely flattered… but I want my current stockist and clients to be happy. They’ve been so good to me, I want to do really well for them. I think if I started expanding now I’d never see my family.” Though she’s already exhibited at IGL last year and is currently in the process of designing her next collection.
Her current collection, entitled ‘Faith’ is yet more proof of Mara’s quirky imagination. “Most of my collections have been organic, but this is based on architecture. The windows of the cathedral.” The whimsical and delicate pieces from ‘Faith’ are universal in their appeal. Original without being ostentatious, versatile without being commonplace. There are pendants where the quatrefoils can be spun round, adding a lightness and bounce to what could otherwise be a serious, Churchy shape. There are dainty, geometric friendship bracelets, for a younger crowd with unfussy tastes. In fact moveable jewellery, or pieces where components can be changed round, she loves. Her ruby chalcedony blue beaded necklace features two hidden clasps, for the added fun of turning it into either a shorter necklace or a bracelet. She also tells me about her Star Gold Bracelet, how she was scuba diving and the light rippling on the sand through the water brought to mind moonstone, a nearby starfish sealed the deal. Inspiration can clearly work its magic in many places.
Her next collection, ‘Shalimar’ will feature motifs lifted from latis screens in Arabic palaces, including pendants with mother of pearl inlaid. I’ll certainly be waiting with anticipation – as Mara Hotung’s charming, fun-loving collections should be a staple for all of us, as she continues to think outside the jewellery box it all started from.
Mara Hotung’s jewellery is currently available in store at selected boutiques Kohatu & Petros, Chiltern Street. London and Baroque Jewellery, Union Street, Brighton as well as online. For more information visit Mara’s website.