Sunday, September 5, 2004

"It's a testament to what happens if you do what you're put on the planet to do." --Karon Chang, who handles the business portion of Jeff Chang Pottery. Jeff, center, makes the pottery. Their son, Corey, oversees the stores and the visual merchandising.

A wasted degree,
and the last laugh

Jeff Chang Pottery keeps growing,
with the family dividing the work

Jeff Chang's degree in business economics doesn't help at all.


"It should, but it doesn't," said Chang, namesake of Jeff Chang Pottery.

Jeff makes the pottery. It -- not banking -- is his passion.

His wife, Karon, runs the expanding business. That is her passion.

Their 25-year-old son, Corey, is in charge of the stores and visual merchandising.

"We think it's a big success if we can get Jeff to turn in his receipts," Karon laughed.

The family business now has four stores: two in malls, one in a strip mall and its newest in Fort Street Mall.

The Changs employ a dozen to two dozen people, depending on the season.

They support Hawaii artisans, but sell fine crafts from all 50 states.

"In the art world, you know good work when you see it," said Karon. "We're not overly interested in where somebody's butt was sitting when they made it."

The galleries carry a variety of gift and jewelry items made of wood, scrimshaw, crystal, glass, metal and, of course, Chang's pottery.

He makes traditionally glazed ceramics as well as raku pieces and a new line using horse hair that burns away during the firing process, leaving one-of-a-kind, squiggly designs in the finish.

No horses are injured in the making of the pottery, said Karon. Horse owners know he uses the strands, so people regularly deliver bags of hair brushed from equine manes and tails.

Prices in the Fort Street Mall store start at $1 for glass knickknacks and go up to $1,800 for a chest by Dellera's Woodworks. Selection varies between stores in line with customer preferences in each area.

Chang's college studies were detoured for a stint with the Navy during the Vietnam War. He graduated from Oregon's Pacific University in 1973, married Karon and brought his bride to Hawaii where he got a job as a Bank of Hawaii management trainee.

But there was one thing. He couldn't let go of his two semesters of pottery making.

"Everything he did was just to get it done so he could go play with his pots," Karon said.

Chang started out selling his ceramic wares at craft fairs and swap meets.

After three years of marriage, Jeff and Karon quit their jobs to pursue the pottery profession.

"Back then artisans were hippies," she said.

Handcrafting full time was an alternative lifestyle and not respected as a small business in 1976.

They joined a group of artisans that later morphed into the Pacific Handcrafters Guild.

For more than 20 years, Liberty House bought everything he made for sale in its stores. The company advertised his creations and hosted his pottery-making demonstrations.

Jeff Chang Pottery's first gallery opened in 1996 on Kamehameha Highway in Kaneohe. People assumed it was also the Chang family home, but it wasn't.

They recently closed their first gallery as the retail expansion took off.

Former Windward Mall General Manager Clive Cabral offered the Changs a seasonal shop for the holidays in 1996. "We did the holiday season and stayed," Karon said.

In April 2000 the Changs opened a temporary shop at Pearlridge Uptown and later settled into a permanent spot. In August 2001 came the store in Kailua Village Shops.

The Changs worked feverishly to finish preparation of the Fort Street Mall store on July 31 so they could enjoy Sunday off before the Monday opening.

Once done, Jeff and Karon sat down on a bench outside to gaze into the windows of their newest gallery.

They turned and looked at each other.

"We've come a long way," Jeff said. "Not bad for a couple of kids."

Karon said, "It's a testament to what happens if you do what you're put on the planet to do."



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