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China's factories cash in on the royal wedding

SUZHOU – Wang Xiaofeng has spent 11 years working as a seamstress.  She’s employed by the Shanghai Unite Gold Textile Garment Company in Suzhou, which occupies a small site a few stories high in a building overlooking one of the city's many famous canals.

The tiny factory specializes in wedding dresses, which a handful of seamstresses can turn around in as quickly as ten days, depending on the amount of fabric.

But Wang’s spent the past seven months working not on a wedding gown but an engagement dress.

One that’s already been worn.

Five thousand miles away.

By a future princess.

“I like this dress very much,” said Wang, smiling shyly as she held up a nearly completed silky blue dress and showed me the boning.  “It’s a bit more complicated to make, because the design is involved.”

Adrienne Mong

Wang Xiaofeng makes a copy of Kate's engagement dress.

She’s produced ten of them, and most of the customers she says are overseas.

But the Jiangsu Province native stares blankly when I ask her about the owner of the original dress and its significance.

“I don’t know who Kate Middleton is,” she replied. 

Made in China
Wang’s not the only one to profess ignorance of two people about to be married in what’s being breathlessly billed as “the wedding of the century.”

Across China, most people have never heard of Middleton although they might have a vague idea that Britain has a royal family.“I think if people here got to know her, they would like her style very much,” said Wang’s boss, Rachel Liu, who started her garment business in 2008. 

But general Chinese ignorance of Middleton didn’t keep Liu – and countless other small businesspeople in China – from recognizing an opportunity to make more money when Kate and William’s engagement was announced last November.

“[H]er dress was very pretty, and we thought, let’s try making one,” she recalled. But although they’ve sold a few of the dresses, each one costs $70 to reproduce, according to Liu, who wouldn't disclose how much the dress retails, but did concede her profit margin isn’t very high.

A few hours’ drive southwest, in Hangzhou, Andy Sun has no such problem; he’s making a tidy profit mass producing commemorative coins.

Adrienne Mong

Hangzhou Cool Eagle Hardware has sold some 200,000 wedding commemorative coins.

The 36-year-old former postal worker launched his small operation last summer, the Hangzhou Cool Eagle Hardware Co., which began making the mementos just one day after the engagement announcement.

“We looked for a photo online of them together, but the difference in height was a problem,” he said. “So we found individual photos, the ones we thought were the best looking, and then put them together" for the coin design.”

Sun employs 12 workers who churn out 2,000 coins in eight-hour shifts inside a cavernous hangar-like space, where the noise from the machines in opposite corners echo everywhere.

Since November, the company has sold at least 200,000 coins – each one retailing for $5.49 plus shipping.

Stacks of coins are packed off every day and sent off to the U.K., the U.S., and elsewhere. But “most of our customers come from Britain [who] just order online,” said Sun.

The Yiwu Unnar Ornament Co. has sold almost as many copies of Middleton’s sapphire and diamond engagement ring, which had belonged to Diana, Princess of Wales and is valued at $52 million.

Rows and rows of reproductions – made of a metal alloy, zirconia, and crystal – lie inside foam pads on the premises near downtown Yiwu.  A handful of employees work efficiently by hand to recreate the jewelry.

Adrienne Mong

This small factory near Yiwu has sold nearly 200,000 copies of the engagement ring.

“It takes us 12 days to make a ring, and then another four to five days to send it by DHL, [and] we sold 3,000 pieces in the first month,” said Fisher Sam, the company’s sales manager.  “We’ve now sold about 200,000.”

The ring retails for up to $40, but it only costs the factory $3 to produce.

“A history in our memory"
Despite – or because of – the tidy profits generated for these small start-up businesses, the managers expressed great enthusiasm for the royal nuptials.

“I think it will be…a history in our memory,” said Sam. 

“The wedding will be a world event,” agreed Sun.  “I saw the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana when I was younger, but I’d love to see this wedding on television live.”

For workers like Wang, the garment worker, however, watching the wedding isn’t a must.  It’s a luxury.

“If there is time, I will watch the wedding on television,” she said.

Otherwise, she said she’ll be busy working.

After all, Liu’s garment business may decide to try to make copies of Middleton’s bridal gown as soon as the earliest pictures are available.

Related links:
Royal wedding fever? Some Britons are just sick of it

SLIDESHOW: Wacky royal wedding memorablia

For all things Royal Wedding-related, read msnbc.com's Windsor Knot blog.