As a girl in rural China, Holly Zhang had to tie cotton with rubber to her feet in the winter because she had no shoes.
She foraged in the mountains to have food to eat, and had to pay $5 a semester for her school tuition – nearly free by U.S. standards, but a month’s worth of earnings for the rural town she grew up in.
It’s a long journey from a small farm in Manchuria to the upscale shops of downtown Bellevue, but this fall, Zhang realized a lifetime dream by opening the Holly Zhang Pearl Gallery in the Shops at the Bravern.
“I feel like I’m still in a dream,” said Zhang, 38, now of Bellevue.
Zhang carries a variety of pearls from Japan, China, Tahiti and Australia. Except for the sterling silver pieces, Zhang designs the jewelry herself.
Most items range from about $50 to $120.
She says creating a brand that will be attractive to middle-class women is important; especially because the Bravern can be seen by some as upscale and inaccessible.
She returns to China annually to stay involved with the pearl industry, to design her pieces and purchase jewelry.
With a tailored black suit and heels, the same color as her long hair, it brings tears to the jewelry designer’s eyes to talk about what she went through to get to this point.
Her childhood spanned the last years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She remembers waving a little red flag and learning anti-imperialist slogans in school. When she moved from the countryside to Bejing, she faced discrimination for her rural background and had no choice but to live in slums.
Her American ex-husband, whom she met in Beijing, was a buyer for a jewelry business that concentrated on pearls. She worked hands-on with the girls assembling the jewelry and gradually introduced her own designs. These were so good that the wholesaler began copying them, placing the designs in Beijing retail outlets.
In 2002, she and her ex-husband moved to the U.S. to the Everett area. Zhang held jewelry show fundraisers at hospitals in Western and Eastern Washington, where she got to keep a percentage of the profits.
She moved to Bellevue two years ago to open her shop with her husband, James Rivera, a former Microsoft employee.
It’s not luck that’s helped this woman go from living in a house made of mud to inhabiting the corner shop beside Neiman Marcus.
“It’s hard work, and a lot of determination,” he said.
The Holly Zhang Pearl Gallery is located at 11111 NE Eight St., Bellevue, and is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m., Sunday.
For more information, go to thebravern.com.
Gabrielle Nomura can be reached at 425-453-4270.
Holly Zhang’s pictures of her old house and town in Yi Xing, a small farming village in Manchuria.