Gem of a job
Angelina Chen’s love of diamonds and gemstones helped her become the top buyer at jewellery-purchasers Circa
When it comes to jewellery, Angelina Chen, senior director for New York and Hong Kong of jewellery-buying firm Circa, has this advice: “Buy what you love and want – it will satisfy you completely. Only then will you be able to let it go easily, as you have derived the maximum enjoyment out of the piece.”
Chen has ample experience in the art of buying and selling jewellery, and believes that women are particularly suited to this vocation. “A good jewellery buyer has to be detail-oriented, be able to learn quickly, have lots of patience and understanding, and have a keen interest in the fine arts and fashion. These are all qualities that many women possess.”
Circa buys and sells jewellery, gemstones and watches ranging from “the mundane to the spectacular”, and buyers are required to know every aspect of products in which it deals. It has more than 10 offices worldwide, including in New York, Chicago, Beverly Hills, Hong Kong, Geneva and Barcelona.
“We don’t pick and choose what we prefer to buy,” Chen says. “Clients appreciate the fact that we know what is an older piece, or a cool retro jewel, so that we can pay more for it. The confidence that a buyer has because of a solid knowledge base makes them much more comfortable.”
Chen has seen a shift in people’s perceptions of how and why jewellery is sold. “Now more than ever, people see their unworn jewellery as a non-performing asset or a burden. Circa’s client base is well educated, well travelled and well informed, so for them, jewellery is just another luxury which they buy and sell easily.”
Chen grew up in Singapore and has also lived in Tokyo, Hong Kong and London. She started valuing jewellery at her prior positions with auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but honed her skills at Circa, which she joined in 2004.
She says that while many people think jewellery is an industry for women, this is not actually the case. “Believe it or not, the jewellery industry is dominated by men and family-owned businesses, and I have encountered resistance because of my being a woman,” she says. “Fortunately, Circa’s CEO and COO are both women.”
She believes that a woman’s greatest strengths are discipline and fortitude. “We always strive to make the best of every situation and our DNA is set up so that we have the strength to cope with various challenges,” she says.
Her own resilience was important when studying her gemologist degree from the Gemological Institute of America, an undertaking born of her love of diamonds, gemstones and jewellery. “I was working in an auction house and studied in the evenings to get that degree – and I paid for it all myself,” she says.
She also has an MBA from the University of Michigan. “I had a wonderful time at college and basically wanted to prolong it, so my father told me that he would not pay for a master’s unless I got into a top 10 programme. I am glad he pushed me as it encouraged me to achieve the best,” she says.
She was not always a lover of feminine wares, however. “As a child, I was a tomboy,” she says. “It wasn’t until my late teens that I started liking dresses. Now, I seldom wear trousers.”
Today, she considers a key piece of jewellery to be a reflection of one’s own style, personality and state of mind. “A woman can wear a very important piece out of respect for her peers or for an event. Or sometimes, when she dresses down, she puts on something fun and it tells the world she is very relaxed,” she says.
Her personal style often follows what is fashionable at the time. “Presently, my diamond drops are the most precious [to me], but that can change by next year,” she says. “A piece of jewellery has to be used – the timepieces or earrings that I use most are the standouts. But because I love the new and trendy as well, I will sell pieces that I will not use. I believe in editing all the time.”
With Chen regularly jetting between Hong Kong and New York as she oversees Circa’s buying and leads the company’s intensive proprietary training programme, relaxing plays an important role in her life. A French-trained chef, she finds cooking very relaxing, while her and her husband are also fitness enthusiasts with a penchant for yoga and Pilates.
“Your quality of life has an impact on work, and it is important to maintain strong interests outside the workplace,” she says. “That way, you can be your best at work.”
Chen is also an avid philanthropist. She is active in the sponsorship of The National Osteoporosis Foundation and recently served on the benefit committee of The Horticultural Society of New York’s annual dinner dance. She also believes in the power of mentoring young women who are starting off in their careers, which she does through the Women’s Jewelry Association.
For such women, Chen has this advice: “When you land your first job, it may not be what you ultimately want in your career, but you owe it to yourself and to your employer to do your best. You will be a better person for it, and it will lead to other opportunities.”
A few years ago, she was surprised by her own success. “Two years after I joined Circa, we ran a report and to my great surprise, I found that I was by far the company’s most productive buyer. It was a shock [to discover] that I had not just contributed to thousands in purchase amounts, but millions. I think a man would have realised that sooner,” she says.
There are several key components to building a long-term relationship of trust with her clients, she says. “These include service and attention to our clients’ needs, and the sheer knowledge that Circa buyers have at their fingertips. Sixty-five per cent of our clients are referrals or repeat sellers, which is a testament to the Circa experience,” she says.
Her goals for the future take in both her work and her outside interests. “There is a big sales target I want to achieve at work which would bring Circa to another level,” she says. “My personal goal is very simple – to be able to finish a five kilometre run.”
SOLD OR BOUGHT: CHEN’S TOP FIVE PIECES
CARTIER TUTTI-FRUTTI DRESS CLIP “It was not signed, just numbered, but I was certain it was Cartier ... the clients were just happy that I was sure. My colleagues were not as confident, but I verified it was from 1932, and happily it went back to the Cartier archives.”
A 19TH-CENTURY TIARA IN ITS ORIGINAL FITTED BOX “It was remarkably well preserved with all the original fittings, and it gave me an insight into how people lived then.”
A VAN CLEEF & ARPELS LION BROOCH “I was just thrilled to buy that little lion as it was during my birthday, and I am a Leo. Silly but small things make me happy.”
MY FIRST BIG DIAMOND “It was years ago when I first started buying, and the 5 carat pear shape ... was the biggest stone I had handled then. It did not have a certificate … and it was a large cheque I had to write. When I came out, I ran to my boss and my hands were icy cold. I was so relieved to learn that I had graded it correctly.”
HARRY WINSTON DIAMOND EARCLIPS “This was a pair of stone-on-stone classic Harry Winston earclips with round, marquis and pear-shaped diamonds. The stones were at least a carat each. A single earring was at least two inches in length. I understand why diamonds have such power – it was transformational when I put them on. They light up the whole face.”