Collecting may strike you as a hobby that belongs to the rich; unattainable to the every-man. But in reality, it belongs to all of us. As long as you have the passion and the yearning, you have the potential to be a collector. Here, we meet three collectors who have dedicated their life to their individual passions and ask them what it is that drives them to chase their elusive treasures.
By Mark Liu
The Jade Collector
One of China’s top jade collectors, Huang Wenlong started by searching for raw stones and uncut stones before he began collaborating with stone-carving masters to make jade artworks that led to him winning many national gold awards. Like many other collectors, Huang started purely by chance; when in 1999 as he was browsing at Hetian Jade Exhibition, he bought a piece of jade for 2000RMB. It was this piece that sparked his interest in collecting.
In 1986, when Huang was only 16 years old, he was a big fan of Jin Yong and the masters in martial arts stories. He arrived in Shanghai empty-handed but full of ambition, wanting to establish himself as a successful businessman. With hard-work and determination he opened his own company, visiting antique shops and markets in his spare time. The 2000RMB piece of jade he bought at Hetian in 1999 proved to be a good investment; it is now worth several million RMB. Nonetheless, its significance to Huang make it priceless. “This is the first in my collection. It has a lot of sentimental value so I just want to keep it for myself,” he says.
Huang’s journey has had its ups and downs. Since 2000, he has faced a number obstacles. With his initial lack of experience and understanding about Hetian jade, he believed what others told him – “the bigger the stone the better”. He never had any luck cutting stones into a single high quality piece of jade, despite investing heavily in raw stones. This initial misconception of “big is better” caused him to waste almost all of his savings between 2000 and 2004. While many say he achieved nothing during these years, aside from near destitution, Huang thinks otherwise: “Indeed I took a heavy loss during those few years, but I also learned a lot. I frequently visited Hetian and gradually I learned how to distinguish the raw stones and to tell what sort of stones can or cannot make a good jade”. Early failure has honed in Huang a special diligence.
It is not uncommon for jade collectors to suffer initial loses. It is this early failure that causes some to give up, while others simply stall and never make further progress. Only those who learn the hard lessons from failure, like Huang, will overcome the obstacles and succeed. With sheer force of will, Huang has become a real expert in his field, where there are so many potential pitfalls. He summarizes his experience by saying: “Life is like a gamble, but you have to be confident in your bets”.
As an established and successful collector, Huang has also been given the title of National Jade Identification and Evaluation Master. “Only the gentleman can appreciate jade. The key attributes are just in one thing – willingness to give,” he explains, “By that I mean, only when you respect people in the field will they be willing to share with you the good stone they obtained and exchange with you their ideas. That, I think, is the most professional and fun part of collecting jade. If you are rude and arrogant, people will never want to do business with you again.”
As a jade collector, Huang only wants to sell jade to people who loves it as much as he does. “If you come to me and then re-sell what you bought from me to someone else soon afterwards for a higher price, I probably wouldn’t want to do business with you again. That’s because I want people to love the jade they buy from me and keep it for themselves rather than to treat the jade trading token. Exquisite jades, from the original stone, through cutting and carving your beautiful idea into its final shape, would often take two to three years to accomplish. You put so mush effort into your work, creating a theme, shape, pattern and colour, all these have aesthetic value. Thus a jade is imbued with someone’s soul. I would be very disappointed if people don’t cherish this and only care about its cash value.”
As far as Huang is concerned, Hetian jade is an exciting prospect. It’s a quickly diminishing resource and there are limited stones in circulation. In addition to the special significance of jade in China, Huang is confident that all these factors will doubtlessly make Hetian jade a sought after collectible favorite in the near future.
The Car Collector
Gao Lu is keenly aware of how few people deal in his chosen sector here in Mainland China; in his home city of Beijing, there is essentially no one else. But rather than see this as a set-back for his business, Gao saw an opportunity instead. In an era where everyday brings technological advancement at a breakneck speed, there is a certain appeal to the culture of vintage cars, harkening to bygone days. For Gao himself, the interest for collecting cars arose out of constant exposure to them: “Before I was working with limited edition racecars and supercars,” Gao says, “After having bought and drove all the top brands like Lamborghini and Ferrari, my interests gradually turned to collecting cars. If I like something, I just have to have it!”
When it comes to choosing the cars for his collection, Gao has a strict criteria set; they must be top brands, limited edition, hard to find, top of the line models that are both iconic and worth passing on to the next generation. “Vintage cars should reflect the characteristics of its era and have historical significance to be worth collecting,” the collector explains. It is little wonder then that the cars he collects combine the best traits of luxury brands and vintage cars. In 2010, Gao brought his concept of luxury vintage cars to China. Though his inventory is full of top-tier brands, that doesn’t mean a top-tier brand gets automatic entry; too many of a particular model in circulation? Deal-breaker – Gao likes his cars limited to less than 100 worldwide, the rarer the better. A bit worn from years of use? That also won’t do, as Gao will only accept near-mint to mint condition vehicles. Only the cars that are within 95% of the state it was in when it first exits the factory are allowed into the luxury vintage car family.
Living the life he preaches, Gao travels in serious style; his everyday-use car is a Rolls-Royce Phantom. “Rolls-Royce is my favourite car brand,” Gao explains, “everyone who likes the brand has virtually the same reasons. A purity of lineage, a long history, exquisitely manufactured by hand, and simply superlative engine design, all these are the ingredients for a long love affair.” Of course, there are also very practical reasons; for a man who often has to attend high-end functions, turning up in a Rolls-Royce projects the ultimate in status and sophistication.
When asked who his greatest influence has been on his journey of collection, Gao pauses to think, and responds that everyone’s hopes and dreams evolve with the passing of time. As for his own situation, Gao confidently states that there has been no greater influence on himself than his own past self. “From the moment I started collecting, it has been my dreams that have drove me to proceed, what I wanted was always one step ahead of the point I was at. For today’s youth, how much wealth you have really isn’t that important, what’s important is whether the young you has a heart full of dreams. How much you want to achieve your dreams ultimately determines how high you can fly. Youth is the most valuable capital, and a youth with dreams has the greatest potential for development.
As the discussion moved on to China’s market as a whole, Gao reckons that the Chinese vintage car market still has a ways to go in order to catch up with Western countries. Although the investment potential for vintage cars is strong, many in China have the will but not the strength to actually invest in something that is still relatively niche and unfamiliar. Also, these cars are certainly not cheap, and even those with the means often flinch at the price tag. The costs extend beyond just the initial purchase; like any car, there is the issue of maintenance and repair, only increased exponentially.
Gao believes the important factor is how quickly China is racing to catch up to developed markets. He says: “When a new sector first begins, it needs some people to push it along. In our market, Fu Gu is more than happy to play that role. This year alone we invested 2billion RMB to open China’s largest vintage car club, that way lovers of vintage cars and car companies can share in our enthusiasm and give some momentum to China’s vintage car sector. I think society needs pioneers like us to explore and, if need be, sacrifice ourselves. It needs people like us to help build up a car culture. I believe, that in the next 10 to 20 years, China’s car culture will have risen to new heights!”
The Watch Collector
To make the leap from heart surgeon to media personality is a mix of accident and opportunity. Everyday, Ding’s work puts him in contact with the thing he loves most and that is a pleasure in itself. Talking about his expensive hobby, Ding labels it a “sweet burden”. In order to maintain his hobby of collecting watches and simultaneously remain in the black, his wife has declared an ultimatum of “no more than one watch each month”. Rather than a limiting factor, it forced Ding to choose only the best and most unique pieces.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a person more in tune with the rise of the haute watch scene in China than Ding. “2008 and 2009 were the gloom years; it was when America and Japan both took a step back, while Europe stagnated. However, people discovered that despite the downturn, brands with high enough public awareness in China still did well, so the watch brands turned their attention to China. To really understand watches requires a lot of knowledge, and most Chinese consumers are only interested in a brand’s new products, limited edition products, or products that immediately signify status.” For a market observer like Ding, it explains the strategies that the big brands have taken in Mainland China: “China’s population is enormous, and most consumers are in the phase of buying their first luxury watch, their selection will be focused on an overall package. There is thus enough sales volume for the staples.”
In Ding’s opinion, too many watch collectors fixate on the prices of their collections. “If it’s interesting, it’s worth collecting,” Ding says, “and ultimately it may not have a direct correlation with price. If I were to recommend a watch to wear, it will not be an expensive one; many inexpensive watches have their own value and are worth collecting in their own right. The watch I wear the most is a Swatch self-winding chronograph, it’s only two or three thousand RMB, but it has culture behind it, and that itself is valuable.”
Ding keeps a close eye on the innovations happening in the watch world. Touching upon old friend TAG Heuer’s 2010 masterpiece, Ding can’t help but smile: “I finally saw the Monaco V4 watch with its belt drives in person. A few years before we insisted to the boss of TAG Heuer that this couldn’t be done, we thought that they’d make a fool of themselves. Who would have thought that, to prove us wrong, they’d actually make it!”
How far back can one trace a passion? For Ding, he has been fascinated with watches and clocks since primary school, taking apart watches and clocks in his home and putting them back together. He bought several books on clock repair and taught himself how to fix broken clocks. Upon graduating from high school, Ding found a story in an English textbook about how early English scientists solved the problem of accurately recording time, instilling in the young enthusiast an interest for nautical chronometers. After getting admitted to medical school, Ding found himself in Shanghai, the city of dumped nautical equipment. Through connections from a friend, Ding went foraging through the cast-out materials and found in a huge heap of junk the very first piece of nautical clock for his collection. The year was 1985, and it was when the collection bug bit and Ding has not looked back since.
Nautical chronometers were the lifeblood of 18th century European expansion, their accurate guidance taking these explorers all across the world. It is estimated that there are no more than 100,000 accurate nautical chronometers on land, and most of them are in the hands of private collectors… to acquire one is a combination of wealth and fate. In recent years, more and more people have woken up to their value but there are very few quality ones left on the market. In 20 years of searching over all over the world, Ding has managed to collect 30 of them. Already a niche collector’s item, there are very few experts on the subject in China, making Ding one of the leaders in the field domestically. “Although nautical chronometers are no longer something sailors need for survival in this day and age, the history of sailing and ocean navigation is nonetheless tied up in this instrument.” Happily sacrificing sleep to stay up and calibrate a centuries old clock, Ding’s lifelong passion for clocks is tangible and, like the finest movements, unwavering.