Island Sisters, Sister Islands: A Taiwanese Jewelry Firm Helps in Pacific Island Diplomacy


2017 / March

Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Max Barker

The Solomon Islands, located far away in the South Pacific, have emerald seas, blue skies, intense sun, and buffeting salt-laden winds. They remind the Lu sisters—Victoria, CEO of Taiwan’s Lu­perla Jewelry Company, and Flora, curator of the Lu­coral Museum in Hawaii—of their own home, the ­Penghu Islands in Taiwan.

The use of marine resources to create unique artisanal works has not only made ­Luperla internationally famous, it also laid the groundwork for the Lu sisters to travel to the Republic of the Solomon Islands to offer a workshop in marine handicrafts, entitled “Ocean Creation,” that constituted a voyage into trans-Pacific diplomacy.

The seeds of the journey by Victoria Lu, CEO of the Taiwan-based Lu­perla Jewelry Company, and her sister Flora, curator of the Lu­coral Museum in Hawaii, to the distant Solomon Islands—a journey of more than ten hours—were planted during an official diplomatic visit in July of 2016.

Maritime diplomacy like a pearl necklace

At that time, the Solomon Islands prime minister, the Honorable Manasseh Sogavare, had accepted an invitation to come to Taiwan, and during his excursion made a special visit to Lu­perla. Likewise born in an island nation, he was deeply impressed by the exquisite craftsmanship of the internationally renowned pieces of jewelry that he saw. His thoughts turned to them often even after going back home, and through the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs he extended an invitation to Lu­perla to hold a workshop in the Solomon Islands, in order to share the company’s decades of experiences with local residents.

Victoria Lu, generous and enthusiastic by nature, immediately accepted without a second thought, and together she and her sister, who lives in the US, headed off to the Solomons. Victoria, a confident speaker, handled the classroom lectures, while Flora, the dexterous and creative one, personally demonstrated shellcraft techniques to students at the workshop.

Because there is little in the way of processing equipment in the Solomons, despite the country’s abundance of marine resources it produces few manufactured jewelry items or accessories. The 40-plus students at the workshop, selected from across the country, included many local artists, with tremendous talent and aesthetic sensibility. All they really needed was the right equipment to produce high-quality creations of their own on a commercial scale.

Therefore, on this trip the Lu sisters not only offered instruction, they also brought four processing machines. Shells that once required endless hours of hand polishing can now be polished on a machine and immediately made glossy and beautiful. And with power drills, the simple act of driving a hole into a shell, which previously required a great deal of working and chipping, is now much simpler.

On this visit, besides sharing their knowhow, the two sisters also encouraged the students to give free play to their own creativity. Over the three-day course, the students and instructors bonded, and the former were always quick to drop the phrase: “I’m a friend of Taiwan.”

Interestingly, this was by no means the first case of “handcrafted” transoceanic diplomacy by the Lu sisters.

After three days in the Solomons, Flora headed off to the nearby Republic of the Marshall Islands to take part in a conference on weaving at the Marshall Islands ­campus of the University of the South Pacific, where she shared her experience in the culture of handicrafts. This was her seventh trip to the Marshalls. She first went there more than a decade ago at the invitation of the USP and the ROC Embassy to the Marshall Islands.

Each time she goes to the Marshalls, Lu cannot help but sigh when she sees that the local people don’t understand how to utilize their abundant marine resources. She selflessly shares her artisanal skills, and has even come up with clever ideas to convert discarded glass cola bottles—which are an environmental eyesore all over the islands—into beautiful jewelry and accessories.

Children of the sea, sharing their art

Journeys to the Marshalls and the Solomons naturally led to thoughts of Lu’s own island childhood, in Taiwan’s ­Penghu County.

The Lu­­perla Jewelry Company was founded on ­Penghu. Long before the 1963 opening of its well-known Tai­pei base, the “Wish Paradise Corporation” on Nan­jing East Road, the Lu clan had already been through amazing highs and lows. Lu Qing­shui, the primogenitor, was one of ­Penghu’s most successful fishing-industry entrepreneurs, and at his peak owned tens of fishing boats.

However, the entire family fortune was destroyed in 1961 due to a typhoon. Lu Qing­shui, always ready to lend a hand to others, had stood surety for loans to other fisher­men, and after the typhoon he ended up responsible for a mountain of debt. The whole family, left with no alternative, moved to the tiny town of ­Shili (also on ­Penghu) where they started a small-scale fish trading business, and turned their sights to the future and a revival of their fortunes.

Seeing the family’s pathetic state, a neighbor who had learned shellcraft techniques in Japan selflessly taught these skills to them. Flora, the seventh child, recalls the many hours she spent at home with her brothers and sisters polishing ­Penghu shells by hand and drilling holes in them to make brooches, which they then sent to their elder sister, who was studying in Tai­pei. She in turn sold them to a jewelry wholesaler on Zhong­hua Road in Xi­men­ding.

“Coming to the Marshalls or the Solomons and teaching everything to local people starting from zero, transforming disregarded shells into jewelry, is not only about sharing skills, it’s also about sharing an idea, a vision,” says Flora.

In turn, as she herself understands, the giver can also get unexpected returns by selfless sharing. Take for example the story of the founding of the Lu­coral Museum.

In 1986 Lu­perla decided to expand overseas, and after opening one branch in New York, established another in Hawaii. In order to secure a firm footing in the Aloha State, the company purchased land and constructed a head­quarters building. After it was completed there were a lot of materials left over, and a friend suggested to Flora that she donate the extra shells to local primary schools for use in nature classes.

One grateful teacher responded to Lu’s overture by suggesting that she open the company venue to the public for educational purposes. And thus in 1992 the space that had originally been destined as a showroom for customers was transformed into a museum, providing a valued resource for visitors to learn about minerals like crystal and coral.

In the two decades and more since its opening, the small Lu­coral Museum, with only a few hundred square meters of floor space, has welcomed over 10,000 students per year. Each month more than 1000 students get a hands-on taste of jewelry making and get to know all sorts of precious stones and minerals.

Cultivating human resources

Bringing the story back to Taiwan and looking retrospectively at the development of our jewelry industry, Lu­perla has not only successfully branched out into the world market, it has had an important seat at the ­table in the development of marine handicrafts in Taiwan.

Today’s Lu­perla headquarters is located just one street away from Nan­jing East Road’s Lane 86, once known as “Coral Lane.” Besides a first-floor salesroom, the eight-story HQ also hosts a coral museum and an activity hall.

The basement, rarely opened to the public, houses a collection of coral art works accumulated over more than five decades, dating back to the Lu sisters’ father’s generation. Coral of various shades and hues, which came to life in the ocean, has been transformed by the skillful hands of artists into vivid statues of the Buddhist deity Guan­yin, dragons and phoenixes, and much more. On the fifth and sixth floors, meanwhile, not only will you encounter invited artists and scholars delivering seminars, you will find a working space in which consumers can experience first-hand how to make jewelry. It was Victoria Lu who came up with the idea of combining shopping with a DIY experience.

Victoria also was a founding member of the Taiwan Good Design Association, of which she is now honorary chairman, and in 2016 she received an achievement award at the Taiwan Cultural and Creative Awards. She has made tireless efforts to promote the training and advancement of a new generation of designers. In 2015 Lu­perla went a step further, opening its doors for the first time to student interns. Through an introduction from ­Huang Shih-yen, a professor in the Department of Industrial Design at Hua­fan University, a dozen or so industrial design undergrads from Hua­fan and ­Chung Hua University used what they learned in school to transform materials provided by Lu­perla into beautiful works of art.

Like the ocean’s tides, the fortunes of the Lu family have risen and fallen and risen again. Today, Lu­perla is a world-renowned jewelry brand, and, just as the ocean burnishes shells on a beach into things of lustrous beauty, the siblings of the Lu clan have, through ceaseless refinement, added great luster to the marine arts industry in Taiwan.

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文‧劉嫈楓 圖‧林旻萱 翻譯‧Max Barker






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