THE GAP CY­CLE

The lo­cal jew­ellery scene is bright and buzzing. But can its lus­tre last be­yond this gen­er­a­tion

Singapore Tatler Jewels & Time - - Contents - Text Ter­ence Lim

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.

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