> 11, 2009 > Profile in Innovation: Chi Huynh

Ben Casnocha
Profile in Innovation: Chi Huynh

08 2011
Close-up of Chi Huynh with grass growing from scalp (Courtesy Chi Huynh)
Chi Huynh

A nicked pearl opens a treasure of innovation. Ben Casnocha is author of My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley. This article appears in the November issue of eJournal USA, Roots of Innovation.


After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Chi Huynh had a dream: leave his homeland of Vietnam and create a new life in California. A few years later, he packed up his possessions and did it. The journey to California wasn’t easy. A harrowing boat ride and a stint as a refugee in Thailand were just some of the travails. Finally reaching the shores of California marked a “spiritual turning point” for Huynh: Having seen much ugliness in his life, from that day forward he wanted to see and create beauty each and every day.

Jewelry making, a craft his father had mastered in Vietnam, seemed like the perfect way to live out this vision. Huynh called his jewelry enterprise Galetea and based it in Los Angeles County.

In early 2000, Huynh somewhat accidentally became an innovator. After nicking a traditional pearl during the carving process and exposing its mother-of-pearl center, “I thought to myself, ‘What would happen if I grew a pearl using gemstone beads to let the color show through?’” he says. Doing just that would lead to his signature innovation — the Mercy Pearl, which is the name of the pearl cultured with a gemstone bead technique. It took time for Huynh to fully develop his carve-by-hand Mercy Pearl technique, but it is now considered one of the most significant variations in pearl farming since the early part of the 20th century, when pearls were first cultured in Japan. And he secured a patent on the Mercy Pearl.

In 2005, to grow his operation and reconnect with his roots, Huynh set up a pearl farm in his native Vietnam to harvest the Mercy Pearl in the country’s coastal waters. The oysters are first enucleated with perfectly round gemstone beads such as turquoise, amethyst, garnet, citrine, and opal, then left to grow for almost a year to obtain a luxurious nacre, or exterior coating. His farm enables more production and therefore an ultimately wider dissemination of his innovative pearl technique.

Huynh’s story shines with perseverance: from stranded child in war-torn Vietnam to successful American jeweler. He had a vision to bring more beauty into the world, and he has worked tirelessly to make it happen. His story also reveals the innovator’s mindset. Instead of just making the last version of something a little bit better, Huynh believes true innovators blaze new trails: “No one will take you seriously unless you create your own ground. This is the difference between a good concept and a great one, between an OK design and one that is transcendent.”