THE GAP CYCLE
The local jewellery scene is bright and buzzing. But can its lustre last beyond this generation
What's next for local jewellers
The footfall at Caratell on a weekday afternoon was brisk. That only means that the local jeweller at United Square is doing well even with a slow economy—something that founder and managing director Michael Koh admits to. But what if business remains good but Caratell cannot find quality craftsmen to bring Koh’s designs to fruition? This is hypothetical but it’s a possible scenario in time to come.
“It is very difficult [ to hire good help],” he says, pointing out that one of the key problems lies with the education system. “There isn’t sufficient publicity on the availability of jewellery-making courses. Plus, those, who are aware of such courses, think that jewellery design graduates are most likely to work in a ‘factory’, which greatly reduces the appeal of the job.”
Koh, who also lectures part-time at a local private education institute, notices that for his jewellery-making course, the current student ratio stands at about one Singaporean for every 10 foreigners. “After these foreign students graduate, they try to look for jobs in Singapore. But due to the Ministry of Manpower’s limits on work permits, most of them return to their home countries.”
It doesn’t help that there isn’t any formal vocation training centre in Singapore. Most of the craftsmen today are in their 50s— many of which belong to the pioneer batch of jewellery craftsmen from Hong Kong who have gotten Singapore citizenship. We don’t see any new blood,” adds Koh, who notes that brands like his can source for craftsmen from Malaysia or Thailand. “But again, we are restricted by the [ work permit] quota.”
Agreeing with Koh is Maddy Barber, co-founder of Madly Gems. She says: “It is definitely an ongoing struggle—not just in Singapore but the entire region where designers, artists and craftsmen are often not given the recognition and rewards they deserve. It’s hard work and when a trade or craft is not valued enough by society then, it runs the risk of losing new generations of tradesmen and artists, who might otherwise have the talent, interest and flair for it.”
Market with talent That said, the local jewellery scene is brimming with talent and potential. For a small but highly sophisticated market like Singapore, there is a decent pool of local jewellers, who have plied their trade for a long time. Each of them has its regular clientele and they are still creating beautiful pieces to charm their audience despite tough times.
Marketing professional Rosemary Loh is one of those, who has recently joined the local jeweller bandwagon. She has always plumped for international brands but her recent experience has highlighted the benefits of going local. She says: “A local jeweller allows for greater design flexibility and personalisation at equally competitive prices, omitting the middle men-related and marketing costs. Depending on the complexity and intricacy of the design, the craftsmanship level is comparable to that of the bigger brands.”
But what she truly enjoyed is the entire process of creation—something that international marques cannot provide. “The key is the experience and journey. I am consulted every step of the way from conceptualisation to trying the mould to the finished product. One feels involved from the beginning to the eventual birth of the ‘masterpiece’.”
A customer-oriented approach Local brands understand what customers are asking for. Take Sara Taseer, for instance. Taseer, from her experience, can feel that consumers, especially the younger ones, have an aversion to walking into a high-end jewellery boutique. To that end, she has designed a range of jewellery—a diffusion line, of sorts—that comes with more palatable price points. The pieces take inspiration from her main collections but are less intricate and the gemstones used are of slightly smaller sizes. “This is a good way to for customers to overcome any ‘obstacle’ and also an easy way for them to ease into the situation,” she tells Jewels & Time. That the former banker incorporates a lot of colours and motifs into her designs also makes the pieces easier for customers to mix and match and wear her creations.
What’s Next? Looking ahead, then there is this question: Is there still space for budding jewellery designers to set up their own label? Are there equal opportunities for the next Caratell or Madly Gems in the next five to 10 years? Most of the marques Jewels & Time spoke to feel that there is still room for new entrants. But the learning curve will be steeper with challenges from many different aspects.
Simone Ng, whose label Simone Jewels has recently celebrated its 12th anniversary, stresses the importance of lasting power. New brands have to steel themselves to brave the tough times in a rational and calculated manner. She says: “I think it is very important to know yourself and your own style. Passion and staying consistent is key. A lot of budding designers may not be able to endure the test of time and may find it challenging to constantly reinvent themselves throughout the journey.”
Barber also concurs with the need to developing a strong brand identity and that a young designer should not rush into setting up his own label—even with strong financial backing. Setting aside time for one to grow and be more experienced is just as necessary—and more so for longevity.
“Give yourself time and enough exposure by working in different areas of the field to find your very own style and unique voice in an already crowded market,” she says. “There is more than one way of making a name for yourself in this industry. And being part of a stable and growing company that embraces your artistic identity, it gives you a platform to showcase your talent—that can be equally fulfilling and definitely less stressful.”
Local jewellers are as good as—if not, better than—big brands when it comes to ideas, design and craftsmanship.
From left: Whether it’s diamond or pearl jewellery (like this necklace by Temptations), there are many local jewellers, who can produce top drawerquality designs; Caratell’s Michael Koh at a jewellery crafting workshop.