Anyone watching the fourth season of ABC’s “Revenge” could have spotted the blue-and-gold drop earrings worn by actress Emily Van Camp, or the intricate necklace worn by Madeleine Stowe. But for Mabel Chong, seeing those pieces of jewelry on TV had special meaning: She was the one who designed them.
The chance to have her jewelry appear on a network TV show in the United States is just about as far-removed from Mabel’s childhood as you can get. The jewelry designer was born in a small farming village in the south of China with a population of only 500. The closest town was an hour away. Her family—she was one of seven kids—moved to Hong Kong when she was 13.
Mabel’s next move came in 2000 when she arrived in San Francisco. Her job with a pearl wholesale company enabled her to travel to jewelry and gem shows all over the country, and at the same time, she studied history, art history, English, and metalsmithing at City College of San Francisco.
Just two years after coming to the U.S., Mabel started her eponymous jewelry business, which today has grown to two stores in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and two daughters, ages 4 and 9. Her beautiful earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings can be found for sale at shops, galleries, and museum stores from California to New York.
We talked to Mabel Chong about her designs, her business, and her life as a working mom.
1. How would you describe your designs to someone who's never seen any of your pieces?
Colorful, feminine, intricate, and crafty. I have a certain look but I can't put it into words!
2. Where do you find inspiration for your jewelry?
I was born with an appreciation for beauty and style, and I strive to make beautiful things. When I was a little girl in China, there wasn’t much fashion available, but I still managed to find fashion. My only accessory was a flower headband and I wore it every day to school. I adored my mom with her tiny, yellow-gold hoop earrings. Travel, nature, and drawing with my daughters all inspire my designs.
3. Are there any particular pieces of yours that you would recommend for working moms—for example, something especially suited to wear to work?
Most pieces are suited for moms to go to work or [go] out at night. Most everything I make is "day-long, year ′round."
4. What does a typical day look like for you?
I get up at 6 AM most days and start working on emails with coffee. Then we have to get the girls to school, so I am at work by 10 AM. I set the course for my jewelry-makers for the day, and customers will start coming into the shop around noon. I also [do] quality control and ship everything throughout the day. After 4:30 is my most creative time: I sit down and design jewelry and I will leave work around 6:30.
5. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of owning your own business?
Favorite: To have a business that sells everything I design and love! Meeting different people every day is amazing; working with different talents—my staff—and working together is a great feeling. Most of my jewelry-makers have been with me for years. We all became mothers about the same time. There is a lot of conversation about kids and husbands.
Least Favorite: 1. Staffing. It has become very challenging … to find people to work at retail. Because the city is so expensive … it becomes difficult for them to live in the city. 2. Accounting. I was pretty good with math growing up, but accounting is a different thing. Ugh.
6. In the years since you launched your business, what lessons have you learned that would help other women starting out on their own?
Do what you love with perseverance and focus, and believe in yourself. Ask for help when you need it. America is an amazing place to start a business. People are so willing to go out of their way to help you. It is always going to be an up-and-down journey; just ride it with a smile on your face. (I am still trying.)
7. What do you see as the hardest part of being a working mom, and what does the term "work/life balance" mean to you?
I used to be very guilty that I am a working mom. I don’t spend as much time with my kids and they all have to go to afterschool care. I also travel five weeks a year for trade shows.
I can’t be as involved at school like other moms. I am very thankful for my husband, who actually works and is very hands-on with the kids and very helpful with my business.
Work/life balance means when at work, throw yourself in and get your work done. When at home, give 100% of yourself to be with your husband and kids. Again, I am still working on it.
Click here to shop our collection of Mabel Chong jewelry.