Gucci, Chanel, and ... Qeelin?

  @FortuneMagazine December 19, 2013: 7:45 AM ET
QEE13 jeweled panda

Qeelin BoBo pendant, $43,200


I have a Wulu around my neck. That's the Mandarin word for gourd, and a famous good-luck symbol in Asian culture roughly equivalent to the horseshoe in the West. I definitely do feel lucky today, because this particular wulu is inlaid with tiny, brilliant diamonds and retails for about $50,000 at Qeelin (pronounced KEE-lin), the Asian jewelry company now owned by French luxury giant Kering (formerly PPR).

From my perch on a sofa in Qeelin's sleek Hong Kong boutique, my luck continues. Co-founder and creative director Dennis Chan lets me model a diamond- and ruby-encrusted panda whose joints swivel and move (price: roughly $60,000), a lotus-flower ring that twists open to reveal an inner flower ($43,000), and many other pieces of jewelry with symbolic meanings in Asian culture. Named for a mythical Chinese creature, Qeelin has 19 stores in Asia and Europe, where -- now with the help of Kering -- it is trying to become one of the first successful luxury jewelry brands originating ... in the East. Such celebrities as Katy Perry and Kate Winslet are already fans of the jewelry, which teeters on the edge between sophisticated and kitschy and ranges in price from $440 for a tiny pendant to $600,000 for custom-made pieces.

But why, one wonders, would Kering, the $13.4-billion-in-2012-sales company that owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Bottega Veneta -- venerable European brands now increasingly dependent on the new Asian wealthy for their sales -- buy a 10-year-old upstart, especially one bent on proving that great quality isn't the sole provenance of European craftsmen? In part, Qeelin fits with Kering's strategy of buying top brands in areas where it doesn't already compete. But another major reason is that Fran├žois-Henri Pinault, CEO and chairman of Kering, believes the new wealthy in China will increasingly support homegrown brands rather than always importing them. "[Qeelin] has all the components of a global luxury brand," Pinault says. "It is very demanding in terms of craftsmanship and has strong design. And let's not forget that China is one-fifth of the world population. So if a Chinese brand could succeed with the Chinese, then it's very interesting to take that bet."

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