SHO founder talks going it alone without her famous family’s help.
Hailing from a famous family in Macau, Sarah Ho could have had an easy life setting up her jewellery brand if she’d stayed in Asia, but instead she chose the hard road to success by starting out in a town where nobody knew her name. She speaks candidly to Rachael Taylor about why being recognised for her designs, not her fame, is important to her and her plans for Sho as it celebrates five years in business.
"I suppose it’s a case of always wanting what you don’t have,” laughs Sarah Ho, as she sits in the impeccably well-turned out, but noticeably modest, surrounds of her London office.
Ho hails from what can comfortably be called a wealthy family in Macau. Her grandfather Stanley Ho is reported to be one of the wealthiest men in Asia and has an important social standing in the region. While Stanley Ho grew up in what was a fairly well-off family, his elevation to the super rich has been entirely of his own entrepreneurial making, largely in part through the government-approved monopoly he held over the gambling industry in Macau for 40 years.
Because of the Ho family’s wealth and prominence in Macau, jewellery designer Ho, who founded jewellery brand SHO Fine Jewellery in 2006, is somewhat of a celebrity in the region; although, modest in nature, she will of course laugh this off when you ask her.
“I wouldn’t say I’m famous, not so much me, but my family. I haven’t lived there for a long time, but people are always interested in what’s going on,” she concedes.
She is famous enough, however, to have been made cover star of the winter issue of Tatler Macau, with a photoshoot and interview featuring solely her published later in the pages.
This modicum of fame and admiration is just a taste of the kind of life that Ho could be living had she stayed in Macau, but it is exactly the kind of existence that she didn’t want. In her own way, the grass was greener on the other side.
“I’m sure some people look at me and think ‘she’s so lucky’, but all I dreamed about was having a family, living a normal life, working hard and chasing my dreams,” she says. “I couldn’t be one of those women who just sit at home, go shopping and have tea in the afternoon. I feel I would die if I didn’t have ambition and went out every day and chased my dreams. It keeps me sane.”
Had Ho launched SHO in Macau, she knows that she would have had a much easier ride, but that isn’t important to her. What Ho wants, much to her family’s mystification, is to be known and respected as a credible jewellery designer andbusinesswoman on her own merits and hard work, without the assistance of her family.
“The whole reason for doing it over here is that I didn’t want any favours. I knew if I started my company over there, I know it would be a lot, lot easier, but I felt like that was cheating. I wanted to prove to myself that people wanted to buy my work or wear my jewellery or read about me because of my work, not my family background.”
It has been just more than five years since Ho launched her brand, but it is only now that she really feels as though she is coming into her own as a jewellery designer. “Every business takes at least five years to take off, and while I don’t think we’ve even taken off yet I feel that SHO has grown up from a young designer brand and we’re now getting confidence from the retailers, which is a massive thing,” she says. “We’re ready now and it’s really exciting to see what we can do in a year. We made a document of all the achievements we made last year and we were really surprised.”
The we she refers to is her small team of four – herself as designer, her husband and business partner Sam Serelli, Anne-Marie Reeves who handles marketing of the brand and Laura Hemy on stock control and accounts. And some of the achievements she refers to includes trebling the brand’s stockists, which now sit at about 40, winning the Houlden Designer of Excellence Award which she credits as “absolutely launching us”, setting up a bespoke couture arm to the business under her own name, and working on a number of collaborations, such last February’s unveiling of a bridal jewellery range for Brown & Newirth.
It has been a whirlwind year for the brand to say the least, and one of the proudest of Ho’s life. And while her business is really starting to take off, she is the first to admit that it is the result of a lot of long working hours and some serious hard work.
Taking the hard route is the way she wanted to go, but in moments of frustration does she ever regret not cashing in those favours from family friends and making life easier for herself?
“It probably wasn’t the cleverest idea, as if I had done it the other way round I’d be Stephen Webster by now,” she laughs. “It has not been easy and I do ask myself every day why I’ve done it this way, but at the same time, at the end of a year you feel really proud of yourself, and no matter how many times you get knocked back, I leave the office every day with a smile on my face. I have accomplished a lot more and I know that the awards that I’ve won are for me, they are not favours done for my family.”
Gaining respect and being taken seriously in the UK is not just important to Ho for a sense of personal achievement, it is an important part of her strategy to take her brand home.
“Once the company has taken off and is known then I want to take it home and be known over there, but I don’t want to go over too quickly before we’re ready. But after the last few collections – Mari, Clementina and Coin – I feel like I’m coming into who I am.”
Listening to her talk, it is hard to imagine Ho, who is a UK jewellery industry circuit staple – be that tirelessly working her stand at an exhibition or diligently attending industry meetings – in the same light that spectators in Macau do. Over there, Ho – despite her denials – is a celebrity and, as such, despite her obvious talent as a designer, might well be treated with initial interest but the sort of scepticism reserved for celebrities-turned-designers.
Ho is hoping to combat this, when the time comes, with a faithful global fan base and product that is too strong to be denied. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the product,” she says. “Nobody is going to buy something from me just because of who I am.”
While Ho might want to get on in her business life without any reliance on her relatives, family has always been central to her life and this is reflected in her jewellery designs.
As much as Ho’s family has brought her fortune she has also had some painful moments in her life. As a young child she tragically lost both of her parents – English model and 1960s muse Suki Potier and Hong Kong businessman Robert Ho – in a car accident, and it was then that she was sent to live in Macau with her grandmother Clementina Leitao, along with her sister Faye Ho, who still lives in Macau and works for non-profit organisations.
It was not the best start for a youngster but rather than allow sad events in her life to get her down, she channels her feelings into her jewellery designs, which are perhaps more personal than people would imagine.
“You can either sit there and moan or you can get up and deal with it,” she rationalises. “All designers express themselves in different ways and for me I can turn any chapters of my life into pieces of jewellery and this turns them into positives for me – not that they were all negative – but when you look at a chapter that has good and bad, you channel them into something beautiful, and that helps me to deal with things. It’s quite liberating.”
SHO’s silver collection Mari takes inspiration from the Sardinian seaside where Ho spent time with her husband; the Casino collection of playing card pendants available in gold or silver represent her tycoon grandfather; cocktail ring range Clementina is named after her grandmother. All are clear references to her experiences, and as well as allowing her to work through her emotions, the collections make for a documentation of her life.
“It’s my little autobiography. My family would go mad if I wrote a book about them but this is my little cheating way,” she says with a smile.
Ho is currently working on a new silver collection that will launch at IJL, but she is also working on extending her own little family. Nearly three years ago Ho and Serelli were blessed with a daughter Suki and they are now expecting again, this time a boy who is due to be born in April.
A baby is a blessing, but it does mean that Ho has had to put some plans on hold – such as the brand’s push into the US, which it had planned for 2012 – but she is confident that while she takes a few months out, SHO is in a strong enough position, with Serelli at the helm, to carry on without her until her return in September. And while she might not be ready to conquer America just yet, she has her eyes set on securing at least 10 new stockists in the UK and breaking into Italy, which will be a homecoming of sorts for Serelli who is a native of Sardinia.
While Ho believes SHO has “now arrived”, she is continuing to push the boundaries. Last year she introduced the market to its first SHO-designed Italian silk scarf. The scarf is selling exclusively through SHO’s website, but the brand is planning to create a new scarf with every future collection that it will offer to retailers on a wholesale basis.
“The scarf went really well for us. I’d love to make sunglasses and handbags, too that would be a dream. No one has really done it with fine [jewellery] but I would like to try and be the first.”
Ho has an easy way of being, she makes it fun to be around her, but just under the surface you can see a steely determination that drives her, a need to prove herself outside of her family’s bosom, but most of all just a desire to succeed for her own pleasure.
When it comes to identifying the best business strategy and making it work for you, Ho turned this on its head. With the option to start at the top and work her way down, she refuted and instead set out to establish herself organically and, impressively, she has succeeded.
With a solid foundation, she will no doubt feel herself in a more justified position to use those family connections when her brand does eventually find its way back home, and when it does, Ho has the potential to go stratospheric. One thing is for sure though, even if she does, you won’t find her spiriting her time away with afternoon tea and shopping.
This article was taken from the February issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read a digital version of this issue click here.