by Sandra Low
A pearl wholesaler who gets first choice of the finest pearls is inspired to do more than supply.
WHEN it comes to pearls, few know these luminous, fascinating organic gems better than Rene Hodel.
The Swiss CEO and founder of a luxury pearl brand, Hodel HK Ltd, has spent almost three decades in the industry, first as a wholesaler before expanding his business to designing collections that bear his name.
Hodel, 54, was in Kuala Lumpur recently with his Hong Kong-born wife, Linda, 48, who supervises their design team, to launch the brand’s Spring-Summer 2008 collection.
The couple met in Hong Kong over 25 years and have been inseparable since, their relationship cemented by their shared passion for pearls.
They have been married for almost 24 years and they have two teenage sons, Andrew, 19, and Adrian, 17.
“I was captured by the beauty of pearls over 20 years ago and I am still very much so till today. I think what keeps both Linda and me in the business all these years is our unceasing love for pearls,” Rene says.
He was initially a behind-the-scenes pearl wholesaler but his company has evolved from a traditional wholeselling into that of an international luxury pearl manufacturer with its own in-house designs.
“We still supply wholesalers all over the world with pearls that we buy in bulk from pearl producing countries. Our company does business in Europe, United States, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Dubai,” he says.
Rene started his pearl journey in his mid-20s with a jewellery company in Lausanne, Switzerland. Thanks to his acute business sense, he was sent to Hong Kong to run the company’s pearl department. From there, he was sent to a pearl farm on Iki island near Fukuoka, Japan, to learn the trade from the shell up, and then on to Kobe, the heart of the pearl trade. Under his guidance, the Hong Kong operations blossomed.
In 1986, after leaving the company that he had worked hard to develop, he approached Schoeffel, the largest pearl company in Europe, and offered to set up a Hong Kong office.
He established Schoeffel HK Ltd which grew to be one of the leading pearl trading houses in Asia, with offices in Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur.
In 2005 Rene decided to up the ante again by buying out Schoeffel and the company was renamed Hodel.
Rene explains that they have separated their merchandises into the Classic Collection and the Hodel Collection. The Classic Collection is where loose pearls, pearl strands and simple designed collections are sold to any interested buyer, while the Hodel Collection comprises their own signature designs which are sold only to their brand carriers around the world.
While Hodel is fast becoming label synonymous with fine pearls and designs, the wholeselling part of its business is on its last legs.
Rene explains why: “Hong Kong today is the pearl centre where importers, manufacturers, traders and retailers meet to buy at auctions. The traditional wholesale function of supplying to these people is slowly diminishing as everyone is trying to buy direct. It is an unstoppable process.”
Unlike pearl manufacturers who come up with designs and then place the pearls within the designs, Linda says Hodel creates “designs around the pearls”.
“We match the stones according to the shapes and colours of the pearls. Our aim is to bring out the best in our pearls, to extract their character and present them as jewellery pieces with flair and a personality.
Linda works closely with an in-house Swiss chief designer, Vanessa Martinelli, whose work carries a strong Italian influence.
“I have always loved art and I have an eye for beautiful things. With pearls, they are each uniquely shaped with lines and curves that are exquisite,” adds Linda.
According to Rene, pearl lovers are those who truly appreciate their unique beauty.
“You buy pearl jewellery for the love of it. Because unlike, say, diamonds, if you want to return it to the seller, you will never get the price that you paid,” he cautions.
The Hodels buy their pearls, ranging from South Sea to Tahitian to freshwater, from Australia, Indonesia, Tahiti, China and the Philippines.
Rene explains that 99% of the pearls today are cultured and natural pearls, while very rare, may not actually be of good quality.
He bemoans the fact that although the production of pearls has increased greatly over the years, it is, unfortunately, at the expense of quality.
“The more oysters are produced in one square metre of water, the more pollution occurs, so subsequently, the quality diminishes,” he sighs.
If anyone thinks that selling pearls is an unexciting and relatively safe job, the Hodels will tell you otherwise.
Rene tells the story of how he wanted to buy the harvest of an Australian pearl farmer some years back but was rejected because the farmer had another potential buyer. Three weeks later, the farmer came to Hong Kong offering Rene the pearls (after the sale with the potential buyer fell through).
“I declined because we were so disappointed by his refusal earlier. He got annoyed and started throwing chairs around and beating me up!” Rene recalls.
He recovered well enough to remain in the business and with no regrets.
After all, the Hodels feel the world is still their oyster with a lot of potential, including the Malaysian market which is quite receptive to new trends and ideas.
All it takes to generate greater interest is make available more information and awareness of the types of pearls in the market. that’s what the Hodels aim to do. That and fabulous designs.
The Hodel Collection is available at DeGem jewellers; prices start from RM5,000.