Mac on Tokyo: Chris Steele
Chris Steele is Head of Online Retail for ROC Jewellery, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We spoke to him on the launch of their new Ginkgo Leaf Pendant, created from real gingko leaves, which has been inspired by the Japanese autumn and Maction Planet Radio’s Flagship Show, Tokyo ON!
Maction Planet: Hi Chris. Welcome to Maction Planet. First of all, I want to say that I love the work that ROC Jewellery are doing.
Chris Steele: Hi Mac. Thanks for inviting me, great to be talking with you today. I’m glad you like our work.
MP: You were actually one of Maction Planet’s first word-of-mouth customers, back in 2010!
CS: At the time we (my wife and I) were on a trip around the world starting in Nepal and ending in South America. We arrived in Japan at the port of Osaka on a boat from China. That was a rough journey! After a bit of recovery time we headed to Tokyo, which is when we met you and we had 2 fantastic days seeing the sights of Tokyo. Of course back then you were also had another full-time job! It is inspiring to see how you have taken your enjoyment of showing people around Tokyo and created Maction Planet, and that your are now working on that full-time!
MP: Before we go on to talk about the World’s Greatest Metropolis, I have to ask about the boat journey you mentioned. Not many guests come into the country that way! Did you have a desire to go ‘overland’ rather than flying?
CS: Having the opportunity to travel overland can be a real luxury of time. It is fantastic to be able to see the gradual changes in the scenery and cultures this way and to get a real sense of the distances that you have covered. There’s also a feeling of being on an expedition or an adventure, a bit of old world romance to travelling. It took us 2 nights and what started as a sedate meander down the Huang Po River to the mouth of the Yangtse River in China turned into a pretty rough journey once we were in the open sea. No wonder everything in the room was screwed down. But the grand sense of arrival into Osaka, with snow on the deck and the sun rising over the city more than made up for the awful travel sickness we’d experienced!
MP: We had a fantastic couple of days together! What were your favourite memories of the city?
CS: There we so many! When we first arrived in Tokyo we stepped out of the subway at Yoyogi station, where you arranged to meet us, carrying our rucksacks. At the entrance there was a man selling hot sweet potatoes. He handed us one and said ‘Welcome to Tokyo!’ This was a great start to our time there. Such a busy but friendly city. The following day our tour started with a walk through Yoyogi Park and visit to the Meiji Jingu Shrine which was such an incredible place (by the way this is partly where our inspiration for our Ginkgo Collection has come from). Another great memory was walking through the tiny traditional side streets and coming across a stall selling hand-painted fabric. We bought a beautiful piece with Sakura blossoms and a traditional Japanese temple on it, and it is still hanging in our house today. And of course, the city view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building at night – a sea of lights spread out below our feet. Amazing.
MP: Having travelled extensively, how would you compare Tokyo to other cities you have been to?
CS: The city is a wonderful mix of contrasts. Not many places manage to successfully hang on to ancient traditions and culture whilst leading the world in cutting edge technology. An example of this which I love is the traditional wooden sliding door, which looks like it hasn’t changed in design for hundreds of years but actually has a discreet button to push so that it opens electronically.
MP: Let’s talk about ROC. How long have you been running?
CS: At ROC we have been creating jewellery from real flowers since 1978. After a couple years of research, experiments, failures and triumphs, our founders successfully created a product that we could sell with pride. Our very first piece was a beautiful necklace made from a real dendrobium orchid, coated in lacquer. The dendrobium orchid represents Thailand’s beauty, and has always been a very popular item for visitors to take home after their holiday in Thailand. From this, our founders came up with the idea of preserving these beautiful flowers, so that they could be cherished forever. Since then we have always been looking to create new designs and cutting edge techniques to craft real flowers and leaves into jewellery. One of our most recent techniques is the use of fine silver and gold which is how we have created our Gingko Pendants.
MP: I was in Chiang Mai in 2014 and visited your flagship store. You have a truly incredible range of products!
CS: Thank you! Crafting all of our jewellery from nature, we have an abundance of flowers and leaves to work with. We are constantly creating new designs and experimenting with new flowers and materials. We often create completely unique designs too, depending on what we come across. In addition, we like to keep our classic collections, generally featuring orchids and roses, as these are still, after nearly four decades, some of our most popular and best selling items. This year for the first time we’ve launched a collection of Christmas decorations which has been rather exciting.
MP: I understand that the Ginkgo Pendant’s release was partly inspired by listening to our radio show Tokyo ON! Is that true?
CS: Tokyo ON is an excellent radio show, I really appreciate and enjoy the work you and Royce put into it. Initially I was interested to discover more about Japanese music, but then the social commentary about Japan, and especially Tokyo, is fascinating. Back in the spring you had your episodes about Sakura and Hanami, and this gave us the initial idea to create a Japan-inspired collection representing the seasonal changes. The Gingko tree is important across many Asian countries, the roots, seeds and leaves having been used in traditional foods and medicines and more recently, in beauty products. We thought about creating something from the leaves; a line of simple and elegant pendants which could be worn everyday and reflect the simple beauty of the Gingko leaf. By coincidence we then heard your recent episode about the Gingko leaves changing colour during autumn and thought it was the perfect time to introduce the collection. So now we have our Gingko Collection for autumn, and in the near future we will be looking to create collections representing winter, summer and spring. Again, inspiration will likely come from Tokyo ON!
MP: Thank you! I guess that now explains where our Thai fanbase comes from!
CS: Yes! I would definitely recommend anyone interested in music or Tokyo to listen to your shows on Mixcloud.
MP: The passing of the seasons here really does affect so much, from fashion to festivals to foods (not just what people eat, but even the crockery it is served on). How would you compare that to Thailand?
CS: As for the seasons in Thailand we are a lot further south so they are certainly not as pronounced as in Japan where the seasons really seem to be incorporated into the lifestyle there. Here in Chiang Mai the main difference you will notice is the fruit in the markets – stalls will be overflowing with whichever fruit is currently in season. We’ve just moved out of the durian season and strawberry season is now in full flow; so there are stalls everywhere and up in the mountains you can pick your own. One of our favourite seasonal festivals is the Chiang Mai Flower Festival. This is held during the first weekend in February and is a celebration of the flowers of the area which are in full bloom at that time. Of course for us the seasons play a major role in our work. Certainly for many of our flower designs once they sell out we can’t produce them again until they return to bloom.
MP: I see you also have some other Japan inspired designs, such as the beautiful Japanese Maple Pendant
CS: Yes, we have quite a big fanbase in Japan, and we also often work with designers and flower growers in Japan. We often use Japanese Akoya pearls in our designs, so yes, we seem to have a bit of a love affair with Japan!
Mac, can I ask what your favourite tree or flower is? Maybe something that holds special memories for you, or simply because of its beauty.
MP: Well, obviously the Ginkgo Biloba is very important to me as the official metropolitan tree of Tokyo, and the Somei Yoshino Cherry Blossom trees are the official metropolitan flower. However, I also really love the Zelkova trees which line Omotesando.
CS: Excellent choices. Perhaps next time you’re around those trees you can pick a few leaves and we can turn them into keepsakes for you or a loved one.
MP: Wow! I don’t know what to say! Thank you so much, and thanks for joining us on Maction Planet. Any words you’d like to sign off with?
CS: Great speaking to you, looking forward to more great music on your radio show and thanks for hosting us. And hopefully we’ll have a chance to take another Maction Planet Tour soon. Next time we’ll be flying in though!
Whether it is Cherry Blossom season or the changing of the leaves in Autumn, nature plays an important part in our Tokyo Private Tours. Join us! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to begin your fully-customised journey in The World’s Greatest Metropolis, whatever the season.