Conversation with designer Ning Hua about launching a 3D printed jewelry business

Interview by Xiaoxiao Zhang, Shapeways Crew member and founder of MCreatures, a 3D printing shop in Shanghai.

When Ninghua first got to know 3D printing through an article in Time magazine he was not yet a designer. Inspired by the possibilities of 3D printing he followed his passion and is now a jewelry designer with a shop on Shapeways and his website Plain Orb, featuring pieces that infuse his signature clean style with traditional elements of nature, Chinese patterns, and Catholic symbolism.

Ning Hua

Ning Hua

So, Ninghua, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Well, I am from Fujian (a province in South China) and now working in Ningbo. I grew up in a small town. Not like in big cities, the life there is so close to nature. And nature has become one of my main design inspirations.

Another major source of inspiration for me is my religion. My family is Catholic and my religion has guided me, so I incorporated Catholic symbols such as PX or the fish sign in my designs as they are of special meaning to me.

As I Chinese designer, I also love to use patterns from traditional Chinese art to give my design some personality. For example, the Xiaozhuan font from Chinese calligraphy and the ice-breaking pattern from ancient Chinese wood window frame design. My habit is to keep the essence of those and give it a clean and simple presentation. Many of my non-Chinese customers love the idea.

How about your educational background?

My major in university was English, nothing to do with design or 3D printing, and got into international trade field later on. Working in this trade company got me to realize that the manufacturing industry of China is growing weaker and less competitive on the global stage since we are not good at producing our own original designs. Thus, it makes products “Made in China” less valuable. I believe design is at the core of mass production. However, many times my I was not able to execute my ideas for products through traditional manufacturing. 3D printing is different because I can make an idea into a real product without too much hassle or cost. This makes me think 3D printing is capable to inspire individuals to design more incredible things.

BingLie Bottle Opener designed by Ning Hua

BingLie Bottle Opener designed by Ning Hua

How did you know about 3D printing and why did you want to make it as your own business?

I first learnt about 3D printing from an article on Time magazine, and it was about Shapeways! I was quite bored at work one day and was reading Time magazine. This article popped out and I felt overwhelmed, though also a little bit confused, about this new technology called 3D printing.

The concept itself is so cool to ignore. It is called printing, but it is nothing like printing on paper. In addition, a product could be produced without using a traditional mold sounds attractive. At the time I was working on a start-up and was looking for some a unique product to launch. No mold, no stock, small investment, all these features of making 3D printing products sound like an appealing way to manufacture my future products.

I studied what material can be used for 3D printing, its basic cost, and what software I could use. After understanding this concept rationally, I decided that entering into the 3D printing field and make it my business was do-able for me. I opened my online store selling jewelry even if most of my friends around me who had heard of the 3D concept consider the idea new, bizarre and irrelevant. Now, of course, I am very glad that I did trust my own gut and started my 3D path.

BingLie or "cracking ice" pattern has been used as a window pattern in China for over 600 years. Photo by Ning Hua.

BingLie or “cracking ice” pattern has been used as a window pattern in China for over 600 years. Photo by Ning Hua.

What was the first 3D product you designed?

It was a leaf-shape USB port cover. It was the very first product I designed and produced after I intensively studied industrial design for 2 months from level 0. But it did not sell very well.

When did you start to design jewelry?

After the USB port cover, I was struggling to decide if I should mainly design products that are more practical or fancier and more decorative. After the testing of a few prototypes, and inspired by a few other designers on Shapeways, I finally decided to put my focus on jewelry. The main reasons jewelry became a desirable business focus for me are: 1) the cost of 3D print is still not cheap and my clients generally find the high price is more acceptable if the product is jewelry. 2) Jewelry can always be a piece of meaningful gift to oneself or to others and people can wear them for a long time.

Xiao Zhuan cufflinks based on a popular font in ancient China from 2000 years ago

Xiao Zhuan cufflinks based on a popular font in ancient China from 2000 years ago

What are the difficulties when running your 3D print jewelry store all by yourself?

At this stage, I am doing everything by myself. I worked out lot of things by myself, my website, how to use design software, etc. And my business volume still allows me to do that.

In this business, the challenging part for me is marketing and promoting my products effectively. I am working on using the social media channels such as Instagram to promote my products to more of my target customers. I need to figure different channels to reach Chinese customers and international ones as their habit of using social media is difficult. It’s important to use social media to convey the the quality of 3D print jewelry and build trust if customers have never seen a 3D product before.

What has exceeded your expectations?

My design. When I started to learn 3D design from scratch and I was not even sure how the final product would look. I kept improving my models with more and more test products so I got more experienced. Now I do think a lot of my designs have exceeded my original expectations.

Do you have tips for other people who are fascinated by 3D printing and want to make their own products from scratch like you?

Very simple. Your design shall always represent no one else but you. Your own design and your style will remembered by the market.