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Imitation by Design

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The demand for a cheap alternative to diamonds forms the basis for a thriving jewellery business. 
Report: Jane Lindhe

Scientists in laboratory coats who make diamond alternatives are a bit like good plastic surgeons, Moi Moi Fine Jewellery founder Lauren Chang Sommer says. Both produce results that are worth their weight in gold, but it's a secret that people don't necessarily want to share with their friends.

Chang Sommer first became aware of moissanite - a jewel that closely resembles a diamond, but sells for just a fraction of the cost - in July 2004 when her father returned to Australia from Hong Kong with jewellery for her mother. 

"I was sceptical when Dad told me about it, but when I saw it I was surprised by how good it was," she says.

The then 25-year-old was four months away from getting married and wanted to find an affordable alternative to diamonds. Cubic zirconias didn't make the grade and she wanted to find a piece that she could keep for years to come. 

"Moissanite is a jewel in its own right and it looks very similar to diamonds," she says. "It is made from the natural mineral silicone carbide ... and while it does occur naturally it's too rare to use for jewellery-making." 

Unable to locate the jewel in Australia, Chang Sommer found moissanite creator Charles & Colvard in the United States and began inquiring about gaining the Australian distribution rights. 

"I started looking everywhere for it but I couldn't find moissanite in Australia," she says. "lt immediately appealed to me because jewellery sounded so much nicer than cleaning glass in the framing business all day," she says. 

The entrepreneurial Sydneysider is no stranger to risk-taking. Moi Moi was the second business she started after building a successful picture framing business, Art Essentials, with her now-husband Justin Sommer in her early 20's. 

With savings earned from the picture framing business, Chang Sommer approached her younger sister Alana Chang Weirick with the idea of importing and selling product. Their first move was to meet with Charles & Colvard at a trade fair in Hong Kong and discuss acquiring the Australian and New Zealand distribution rights.

In December 2004, just five months after first hearing about moissanite, the sisters had secured licensing rights to sell the stone in Australia and New Zealand. In the same month they opened their first Moi Moi store in Sydney's Queen Victoria Building.

Chang Sommer - now 30 - says the sisters' young age and naivety contributed to their success. In the beginning, the idea was "a bit of fun", however things got serious very quickly. "All of a sudden you're in too deep. You have to make it work," she says. "Being young was an advantage ... there was no mortgage, no kids, just us."

One big hurdle for the sisters was getting their product mix right. Initially they followed the lead of US sellers of moissanite, steering away from engagement rings and other jewellery usually purchased by men. However, female customers soon began complaining about the lack of rings for sale and she needed to change the company's product mix. It was a smart move. Chang Sommer says, with engagement rings now accounting for about 60 per cent of Moi Moi's sales.

The company has expanded into man-made sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pink diamonds. Moi Moi - which stands for "little sister" in Cantonese and "me me" in French - has a sub-distributorship in New Zealand and is in the discussion process for a store in either Perth or Melbourne. It also has distributing arrangements with a handful of jewellery retailers.

"We have a lot of customers who fly to Sydney specifically to see us. I always think of all the people who wouldn't bother getting on a flight to visit us - there would be a lot."

The economic downturn has had a positive impact on the business, with more customers looking for a cost effective alternative to diamonds. The Sydney store had turnover of $1.1 million in 2008-09, with a net profit of about 14 per cent, Chang Sommer says. Turnover increased by 45 per cent in the 12 months to December 2009.

The greatest challenge facing Moi Moi during its next phase of growth is educating people about moissanite. Chang Sommer says some women still find it hard to understand the stones are not really diamonds. However, the growing number of celebrities wearing the stone on the red carpet is increasing its awareness. 

"Seeing the jewellery is the most important thing," she says. "Once they see it and realise moissanite actually has more lustre than many diamonds, they are impressed. It isn't hard to sell in that respect." BRW