words: Marla Cantrell
images courtesy:courtesy John Mays Jewelers
Shanghai, the home of 24 million people, is the biggest city by population in the world. It sits at the mouth of the Yangtze River, in the middle of the Chinese coast. To the east is the East China Sea, and ships sail in and out every day. When visitors arrive, they often comment on the tall buildings, the waterways, the bustle of this global financial Mecca.
John and Kathy Mays marveled at all of this, when they arrived the week of Thanksgiving in 2014. As owners of John Mays Jewelers in Fort Smith, Arkansas, they’d been invited to travel the 7,600 miles to help represent the Hearts on Fire diamond brand as it opened its first store in the Mainland China. They’d gotten the invitation only three weeks before, scrambled to get their visas approved by the Chinese consulate, since getting into a communist country includes a good bit of scrutiny, and then rushed to pack.
“We were so honored to be asked,” John said. “There are around 500 Hearts on Fire dealers, and we’ve been with them since 1999. Only five stores were offered the chance to go. There was one from Las Vegas, one from Canada, one from California, and one from Singapore.”
The flight from Dallas to Shanghai took nearly sixteen hours. They could feel the excitement as they neared their destination. Both love to travel, and the chance to see this international city thrilled them.
A driver awaited them when they got through customs. He took them to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which overlooked another waterway, the Huangpu River. They opened the draperies, and all around them were skyscrapers that lit up at night, turning the city into a spectacular light show.
“The biggest shock was the buildings. They’re just immense. The magnitude of the city and the graciousness of the people, those were both nice surprises.” John said. “One night, we went out on a boat to look at the buildings all lit up. One was covered in lavender lights. It was magnificent.”
“We had the most memorable food,” Kathy added. “We ate sea cucumber (a marine animal that’s a delicacy in China).” She continued, “It certainly was different. We were invited to one lunch where there was a turntable in the middle of the table. There was so much food that I thought that was our main course. Well, it was just the appetizer. There were twelve courses.”
“We went to the center of the city, to the area called Bund,” John said. (The Bund sits north of the old, walled city of Shanghai, and was initially a British settlement.) “We wanted to see what life was like for people who lived there. We felt very safe there. We saw the Shanghai Grand Theatre. We took a picture in front of the Starbucks. There was even a fifty-foot Christmas tree there from Tiffany’s.”
“We didn’t buy a lot; we bought our two sons something. But one day I was in a shop and I bought a Christmas decoration I knew I’d use every year. While we were there I spotted two old-world Chinese figurines, but they were only for decoration and not for sale. I told the shopkeeper it was a shame because I just loved them, and she said, ‘For you, madam, I will give them to you.’ We found the people to be so giving.”
On Thanksgiving, as all their friends and family back home celebrated, John and Kathy attended the launch of the first Hearts on Fire store in Shanghai. There to help with the festivities was model and fashion icon Olivia Palermo.
As wonderful as it was, nothing could compare with their night at the China Art Museum. There, the Chinese jewelry company, Chow Tai Fook, was celebrating its eighty-fifth anniversary. It was as well orchestrated as a red-carpet event. “There were about a hundred steps to get to the building. It looked like a scene from the movie, Rocky, John said. “The news media was there, professional photographers; I’d never seen anything like it.”
Security was tight, and John had been given a specially designed gold lapel pin with a carnelian stone that he wore to identify he and Kathy as invited guests. Inside the 1.8 million square foot building were display cases with stunning pieces all around, including one by Hearts on Fire, which had been crafted just for the celebration.
As the celebration progressed, models appeared, wearing the jewelry. It was an opulent event, with traditional Chinese dancers, shimmering jewelry, all enhanced by the grandeur of the building. “It was a little overwhelming, to tell you the truth,” John said. “There we were doing something few people would ever get to do.”
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Kathy added. “That night in particular was really something. You think of Chinese people as being small. Some of the models wearing the jewelry were young women who were six feet tall. It took some doing to go, and to leave the store the week of Thanksgiving – but we didn’t hesitate.”
“I started in the jewelry business in October, 1969,” John said. “And getting to do something like this because of it is just beyond comprehension. To become a personal representative for Hearts on Fire in Asia, in a city of 24 million, it’s just something you don’t even dream of. We’ll never forget that trip.”
When they boarded the plane to come home, their thoughts turned back to Fort Smith — population 87,650 — the place they love. The holiday season was well underway, and they’d be busy at their store as soon as they returned. They couldn’t wait to talk to their family and friends, to tell them about their big adventure, how they were swept away by the beauty of Shanghai. They kept a few mementoes, like the invitation to the party at the China Art Museum, and look at them often. There are dozens of photos on their phones, and they find themselves pulling them up, time after time. They capture such a brief and glorious time, a once-in-a-lifetime experience never to be forgotten.