Acclaimed jewellery designer Fei Liu reveals how coming to Birmingham from his native China was a huge culture shock and why it took a while for him to ‘appreciate the Brummies’
Fei Liu arrived from China 17 years ago to study at the Birmingham School of Jewellery and has never left. Although his big Brummie adventure got off to a decidedly rocky start, nearly two decades on Fei has built a reputation for excellence and won 28 international awards. He set up his company, Fei Liu Fine Jewellery based in the Jewellery Quarter, in 2006 which has gone from strength to strength. It was named brand of the year at the UK Jewellery Awards last year as well as receiving the IJL editor’s choice visual impact award for his green tourmaline necklace (pictured). Yet it could all have been so different for Fei. A delayed visa meant his dream of studying in the UK almost didn’t happen. The Birmingham School of Jewellery revoked his place on the basis that he’d be joining the course too late, but Fei was undeterred. He hopped on a plane regardless convinced he could talk the course directors round. Fei recalled: “When I arrived in Birmingham I met with the directors to persuade them to accept me. I waved my big fat cheque around and I was in – money talks you know!”
It wasn’t the reputation of the School of Jewellery that initially lured Fei, but the prospect of studying in the UK. He remembered: “It was a complete coincidence. I knew I wanted to come to the UK so I went along an education day organised by the British Education Department in China and saw information on the School of Jewellery.” He was impressed enough to apply. On arriving in Birmingham it’s fair to say Fei was disappointed with his new home. He recalled, “I was in a taxi all excited to be here. I asked the driver when we’d be in Birmingham and he answered, ‘this is it’ and I thought it was a total mess. We were driving down Broad Street past the ICC and it was just the ugliest city at that time. It’s gone through such a transformation.” It took a while for Fei to get to grips with the teaching methods in the UK as he had been educated in a very Chinese style. He explained: “I couldn’t understand the spirit of the British education. I had to adjust a lot and I began to understand the meaning of design. I’m very grateful to the school and in particular Maria Hanson who was a wonderful teacher.” Fei excelled and was offered three jobs on graduation which is pretty unusual. He chose to take up a post as designer with prestigious Firmin & Son in the Gun Quarter. He stayed for five years and was promoted to head of design. While there he successfully relaunched the coveted Stratton of England powder compact that was originally popular in the 1920s with much admiration from people in the industry.
In 2004, Fei showed his work at spring fairs in New York and Milan and received huge orders from brands such as House of Fraser, John Lewis and Debenhams. Work for the Football Association followed including a trophy for David Beckham and a wall plaque for the FA as well as work for Wedgewood, Hacketts and Aquascutum. Despite Fei’s foray into other forms of silver, jewellery is where his heart lies. In 2005, industry organisation the British Goldsmiths Company bought 200 pairs of Fei’s cufflinks to give out as gifts to VIP guests at one of their exhibitions in London. He was delighted. “They sent out one cufflink with each invitation and gave out the matching one on the evening.” Fei went to the opening night and was thrilled to see a giant poster of his work alongside Cartier and Vivienne Westwood. “I grabbed a stranger on the Tube and told them! I was so excited.” As Fei’s English improved he began to make more friends and to ‘appreciate the Brummies’ who he describes as the ‘kindest people’. Today, Fei takes bespoke orders in addition to his ready-to-wear fine jewellery collections and bridal offering and has roughly 40 stockists nationwide with an increasing international customer base online. As well as his obvious design talent, Fei has built a team of people around him that he values and nurtures. “I couldn’t do this without them. They are just the best people with their own talents. I’m so proud of them and I want all their dreams to come true too.”