Gold-plated connections

Clad in a silver Alexander Wang dress and elaborate gold Ofira cuff bracelets, Wan Yingyu recently strolled down the catwalk in Cannes, surrounded by models, for an event organized by the Foundation for AIDS Research.

The granddaughter of Wan Li, a former chairman of China's National People's Congress, she was a guest at the show, one of many social events on the socialite-cum-entrepreneur's calendar.

"This is one part of my work, and sometimes I just feel tired," says the 32-year-old, who recently changed her name from Wan Baobao to Wan Yingyu. Today she looks quite different, wearing a T-shirt, ripped jeans and no makeup.

Her main occupation these days is her own jewelry business, although the road to choosing this as her career has taken many twists and turns.

Her designs have proved popular in China and now she hopes to expand the business into Europe and the United States.

She has just returned from Europe and talked with some high-end department stores. "I believe you will see my products in Paris and London within the year," she says.

She launched her Hong Kong-based brand Bao Bao Wan Fine Jewelry in 2007, acting as both designer and manager. Her jewelry is sold online and at Lane Crawford, a Hong Kong-based department store.

She has also designed a necklace, bracelet and earrings set for Hong Kong jeweler Chow Tai Fook and created a cuff bracelet for Swarovski.

She's a designer whose work has graced the pages of Vogue and Bazaar, a businesswoman and also a celebrity.

It's a combination that many would attribute, at least in part, to her grandfather and the money and connections that come with his name, and Wan acknowledges that.

On returning from Cannes she posted a photograph on Sina Weibo, China's twitter-like service, of her on the catwalk, with the caption: "I know you will say the woman is short and really ugly. If it is not for her grandfather, nobody will even know her. Haha, I am used to it! You can just say that. Come on!"

But she has undoubtedly made a name for herself too through hard work and talent. Born in Beijing, and having studied abroad since 16, Wan defines herself as a translator of Western beauty and traditional Chinese design.

Her jewelry features common Chinese elements such as bats, pagodas and tai chi, and often uses black and white diamonds, and white gold.

One of her latest designs - Action of Love - was produced in partnership with Yoox Group, an Italian online fashion retailer. It features a pendant in the shape of a tulip, hollowed out with a baroque pearl inside. "The swaying pearl in the heart of the tulip is just like the heartbeats of people falling in love," she says.

Using 18-karat gold and pearl, Wan says it is cheaper than most of her works and designed for the mass market, in accordance with Yoox's wishes.

"I never consider consumers in the process of designing because I do not want to be distracted," she says. "However, I can make some changes in the material to cater to different consumers and partners."

Wan's experience abroad began in 1997 when she entered the arts school Sarah Lawrence College in New York, majoring in photography and French literature.

In 2003, Wan was invited to the Crillon Ball, a party for debutantes. She was the only Chinese person at the ball and her appearance is often regarded as the start of her becoming a Chinese celebrity, although she doesn't believe it was.

Although she didn't study jewelry design, Wan says she had a natural interest in beauty and art as a child and that her knowledge of history and literature has helped to add a spiritual connotation to her work.

"I found my talent in jewelry when I was a little girl," she says. "I liked to pick out bracelets for my friends that I thought suited them. My friends were always happy with my choices and said I should do something in accessories."

In 2005, Wan bent to her mother's will and moved to Hong Kong to work for a financial institution. She quit that job after just three months and began studying for a gemologist degree at the Gemological Institute of America in Hong Kong, while attending fashion parties and charity events in her spare time.

That led to her launching her jewelry business, with the approval of her parents. Now Wan's life is taken up with flights between London, or Paris and Beijing - where she has an office in one of the city's old hutong courtyard houses north of the Forbidden City - as well as interviews and business meetings. Even so she still finds time to relax.

"After a busy period of work, I take a rest," she says. "I go to different places to visit museums and see architecture. Furniture stores in Shanghai are also one of my interests."