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Hong Kong diamonds: essential shopping for celebrities and money launderers

A diamond is forever – or so one of the leading South African mining companies has been pro­claiming as an enormously profitable advertising strapline since 1947.

Shrewd marketing campaigns have been colossally successful in persuading other­wise rational people that lumps of super-compressed carbon make fitting symbols of undying love and devotion. Helping to feed Hong Kong’s enormous appetite for diamonds, the pages of glossy local society magazines glitter with sparkly advert­isements for these extravagantly priced, closely coveted baubles.

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From the colony’s 19th-century begin­nings, flashy public displays of wealth were commonplace, and in the upper echelons of society, little has changed. Merchants’ wives – and mistresses – needed a con­stantly changing external pageant to demonstrate their own status as the kept women of a successful man. The crude fact that these women were sitting down firmly on the ultimate source of their personal fortunes was beside the point; material evidence of their feminine charms had to be ostentatiously worn around their necks and draped up their arms for their painstakingly obtained rank to enjoy any validity.

Commodification and monetisation of personal relationships through the giving and getting of gewgaws is, of course, not unique to Hong Kong society; but somehow, such staggering outward display does jar more here than it might in larger, less closely interconnected societies.

For many years, Hong Kong’s high-end jewellery trade was controlled by Jewish entrepreneurs; some from Shanghai or elsewhere along the China coast. Sennet Frères, in Central, was a renowned local “luxury brand” long before that horrid term even existed, and was Jewish owned. The lack of a sales tax in Hong Kong made buying jewellery very appealing, particularly high-priced items. International celeb­rities such as Elizabeth Taylor regularly came through Hong Kong in the 1950s and ’60s to shop for jewellery, and lesser Hollywood luminaries followed suit.

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Hong Kong craftsmen had earned an enviable reputation for high-quality workmanship and innovative, export-oriented designs. Growth in this industry coincided with the explosion in international tourism. By the 1970s, jewellery items – and duty-free watches – featured on many tourists’ shopping lists.

Diamonds had become popular in Hong Kong in the late ’40s, as refugees from China’s political upheaval sought safe havens for some of their portable wealth. A tray of diamonds could be carried as hand baggage on a flight out of the country when virtually everything else of value had to be left behind, as more than a few refugees from Shanghai, Tientsin and elsewhere in China discovered as the country descended into civil war. (Whichever regime was in power, China’s political spouses have always done well from connections to the international diamond trade. The New York Times’ 2012 revelations about premier Wen Jiabao’s wife, Zhang Peili, and her lucrative, long-term involvement in this business may have raised eyebrows, but it’s nothing new; 70 years earlier, Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her family profited mightily from the diamond trade. )

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Jewellery shops also provide wonderful opportunities for creative money launder­ing, especially through certain kinds of credit card. But how?

Imagine this far-from-uncommon scenario. A Chinese customer goes into Fook Mee Soon, or one of the other local jewellery chains, and runs up a few hun­dred thousand dollars – or, more likely, yuan – worth of assorted glitter on his credit card. The buyer says he’ll come back later to collect his shopping; when the customer returns, however, he announ­ces he no longer wants the items and instead would like a refund. “No problem!” chimes the salesperson – except a service fee will be required. “Sure,” says the buyer. “And can I have the refund put back on my card in American dollars?” Equally fine.

Non-trivial amounts are conveniently rinsed clean, without even leaving the shop.