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Gems For Generations
Vinod More of The Jewel Box
THE JEWEL BOX is one of Singapore's first bespoke jewellery ateliers, having been in operation in Singapore since 1993. Over the years, founders Vinod More and his wife Sangeeta have received various challenging tasks from their clients. One of the memorable ones was to conceive a "cat ring" around a 9-carat spessartite garnet. Mr More recalls: "The client had this large stone for a long time and had been looking around for the right design for it. She wanted the cat to surround the stone but wasn't sure how."
Mr More and his team created several sketches of the cat. They finally settled on a design which had a black cat looking intently at the stone while its long tail wraps the stone securely around it. The cat is made of black enamel, but its eyes are in green tsavorite garnet lined with 18k white gold. "We made sure its paw, mouth, eyes and ears had a level of detail and realism that satisfied the client."
When creating a piece of jewellery that can be passed down to future generations, it needs to be "appealing, elegant, and not over-the-top", says Mr More. "We want designs that people won't tire of easily, and stay with them and their loved one for a long time. And more than anything, we want them to be worn with pride."
Mr More has a broad artistic sensibility and has created designs for clients across the world. His inspirations include flora and fauna, spiritual concepts and various aesthetic traditions. One of his current in-house designs is a stunning ruby and diamond handcrafted elephant bangle that features eight miniature elephants, each with a different pose, expression and dress. The one-of-a-kind bangle is tagged at S$35,000.
Mr More says: "What's most rewarding about the job is understanding the client's brief and working with our master craftsman to fulfil it to the client's satisfaction."
Choo Yilin of Choo Yilin Fine Jewellery
When clients approach contemporary jade jewellery designer Choo Yilin to create unique family heirlooms, she guides them through the story they want to create.
"A piece of jewellery is like a visual idiom, telling the stories of you and your loved ones for generations to come. What do you want to capture in it?"
A commissioned piece should typically reflect the personality of the client and the milestones in her or his life. When the client is Asian, appropriate heritage motifs come into play.
But not all commissioned pieces need to be elaborate. Some of Ms Choo's favourite bespoke projects are intimate pieces such as engagement and anniversary rings, that blend easily into everyday wardrobes. "What these projects do have are hidden motifs and engravings that are only visible to the clients," she explains.
Since Ms Choo started her eponymous brand in 2009, she has cultivated a strong following for her contemporary designs of jade bangles, earrings, rings and necklaces with brightly coloured stones and sophisticated metal work. In fact, her ready-to-wear pieces are often more technically complex than the bespoke pieces that clients co-create, which may necessarily be quietly elegant and inconspicuous for everyday wear. That said, the one advice she always gives to them is not to compromise on the quality of gemstones. She says: "One of the most common queries for us is to work with sapphires that are of the precise tone of Kate Middleton's engagement ring. Now there are many ways to get it: irradiate a sapphire, heat it, or find a completely untreated stone of that colour. Of course, we are looking at a price difference of tens of thousands of dollars.
"But irradiating a sapphire, for instance, comes with risks - you don't know how stable the colour is or what the original colour was. And basically, with something that you aim to pass to your next generation, you want it to last hundreds of years. So having a gemstone as untreated as possible is key."
Ms Choo and her clients typically work with rare and precious material which belong to less than 0.5 per cent of all the stones in that category. For instance, when using jade for a bespoke project, the jade must be in less than 0.5 per cent in the category. For unheated sapphires and rubies, they're again less than 0.5 per cent of all material mined each year. "One of our favourite stories is finding a single piece of jade rock with a beautifully mottled imperial green colour. It was very rare and we were so chuffed we found it."
Marilyn Tan of Marilyn Tan Jewellery
Marilyn Tan has been designing jewellery for nearly 30 years. While some designers advise clients to keep designs "classic and elegant" so it can withstand the winds of fads, the former lawyer-turned-designer takes a different view: "The most important thing is to know that wearer's taste, rather than trying to imagine if the piece might still be fashionable 30 years from now. Does she or he want something eye-catching or understated? Intricate or simple? You want to make sure that person wears the jewellery instead of keeping it locked away somewhere because she or he is too embarrassed to wear it."
A female client once wanted Ms Tan to create a set of jewellery for her prospective daughter-in-law whom she described as "unconventional". Because the latter disliked "anything traditional or too bling-bling", Ms Tan designed a si dian jin set of chain, pendant, brooch and bangle in white gold, incorporating three raw 2-karat diamonds. The delicate and tasteful designs reflected natural elements like buds and plants. The daughter-in-law was thrilled to receive the set and continues to wear the pieces regularly.
"So many people inherit jewellery that they don't wear because it's not their style. But in this case, the jewellery became a way of strengthening the bond between the mother and daughter." For her own in-store designs, Ms Tan prefers 18k gold - which is 75 per cent gold and 25 per cent other metals - because it is "less 'bling' and more contemporary-looking" than 24k gold, which is pure, bright-yellow gold.
Another recent commission was to create an Ethiopian cross necklace for a local client to commemorate the latter's trip to Ethiopia. Drawing inspiration from the rich variety of Christian cross designs found in the region, Ms Tan created a five-cross necklace using gold that's less shiny compared to gold commonly preferred by Ethiopian women. As the client is tall, the necklace was created with an adjustable device so it can be worn long or short to match the client's outfit.
Ms Tan says: "Always cater to the wearer's taste instead of imagining what the future holds. As a matter of fact, I happen to do a lot of redesigning work on jewellery that has been handed down from previous generations, but which looks too 'old' for my client. We take the pieces of jade, pearl or diamond that's embedded in the existing piece, and rework them for contemporary wear. Fashion changes, so we move with the times."
Michael Koh of Caratell
Since Michael Koh founded Caratell 15 years ago, various clients have sent him on a hunt for some of the rarest gems in the world, such as the Kashmir sapphire, benitoite, bixbite (red beryl), demantoid garnet from Russia and canary tourmaline with manganese bearing. But these are challenges that Mr Koh takes on with relish, if only to help create a bespoke piece of jewellery that the client can truly call her own.
Mr Koh describes his clients as "savvy, sophisticated, intellectual individuals who have some knowledge of gemstones and typically collect art.
They go not only for rare and unique gems, but also untreated gemstones that appreciate in value over time… For a bespoke creation, the all-important main gemstone must have a certain gem quality that is accompanied with reputable certification, for instance, a non-heat cornflower blue sapphire that displays good brilliance and with an acceptable level of inclusion that doesn't affect its beauty."
Mr Koh is no stranger to extremely complex pieces. Some of his works include intricate, ostentatious pieces designed to take one's breath away. Small wonder then that Caratell has attracted a number of commissions from royalty (who cannot be identified due to confidentiality agreements.)
He recalls: "We had to design a brooch for a royal figure, for which there were strict requirements. The piece had to be exactly 8 cm long and with a total carat weight of the diamonds at exactly 8 carats. We had to conceptualise and develop the design within a day or two where we researched the profile, family history and also what is permitted and prohibited whilst designing for royalties... All in all, we completed the entire project within two weeks."
There was also another royal project to design a tiara for a princess. "That, too, was full of detailed research because we had to understand the do's and don'ts. We had to make sure what kind of tiara is best suited for the princess due to the fact that different tiaras are meant for different statuses. In addition, the final tiara was not supposed to overpower the overall look of the princess... In the end, we presented a multi-functional piece, which was a tiara that could be transformed and worn as a choker as well."
Royalty aside, Mr Koh also creates heirlooms for the average well-off client: "With heirloom pieces, we think hard to create a design that is suitable for both mother and daughter as it is going to be a passed down to the future generation… We make sure our bespoke pieces are special and meaningful to our clients."
Thomis Kwan of Foundation Jewellers
When your jewellery is worn by a personage no less than Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, you know you've arrived. In 2012, Singapore's then-president Tony Tan Keng Yam gifted the queen an ornate gold and diamond Peranakan brooch designed by Thomis Kwan of Foundation Jewellers. The queen has since been spotted wearing the brooch about a dozen times, including at the christening of her great-granddaughter, Princess Charlotte, in July 2015. Royal observers say the queen likes the brooch more than most of her other official gifts.
For Mr Kwan, the honour was his. With his wife Caroline Tay, he runs Foundation Jewellers which has been in business for more than 30 years. Mr Kwan himself is the eldest son of goldsmith Kwan Chan Yew. In the 1990s, he and his brother Johnson took over their father's business. And it was only while tasked to repair a customer's Peranakan-style necklace that Mr Kwan discovered his fascination for Peranakan aesthetics. Since then, he's thrown himself headlong into Peranakan history and culture, creating tradition-inspired pieces that draw praise from Peranakan celebrities such as Dick and Peter Lee.
Foundation Jewellers attracts a lot of clients from both Singapore and China - the latter because of the exotic value of Peranakan culture. Mr Kwan, who is 64, says: "When I'm creating a bespoke piece for a client, I will first ask: Who is it for? Man or woman? For women, I make earrings, rings, brooches and necklaces. And I usually recommend using the phoenix as one of its motifs because it's a mythical bird and a symbol of feminine strength - or else butterflies because they they signify the passing down of an heirloom.
"For men, I usually recommend they make brooches or cuff links. Motifs-wise, I like to use the deer, a qilin (a heavenly creature in Chinese mythology) or a star to signify good wishes. The materials I like to use include 18k gold and silver, pearl and jade, as well as coloured stones."
Mr Kwan takes at least half a year to complete a piece, which costs S$3,000 and beyond. He typically spends a lot of time mulling over his designs to ensure that they carry meaning and symbolism beyond their obvious physical beauty. Beside Peranakan culture, his immediate environment is also a source of inspiration. He says: "One piece I've created is called Garden City of the Kingfisher. It is a brooch which uses corals for the flowers, jade for the leaves, and turquoise for the kingfisher. It is inspired by Singapore's reputation of being a Garden City, and also by the regular sight of kingfishers in my estate."
Afzal Imram of State Property
Contemporary jewellery label State Property specialises in edgy, minimalist designs that are perfect for the effortlessly cool fashionista. Run by Afzal Imram and Lin Ruiyin, the duo has attracted commissions from people who are specifically drawn to the brand's sleek, sculptural designs.
Mr Afzal says: "Fine jewellery holds an important place in our lives. They are, among many things, objects of legacy, aspiration, achievement and endearment. An heirloom is not just something precious, but also something that triggers memories, like your grandmother's ring that you remember her always wearing. For these reasons, we make sure we design pieces that become a seamless part of people's lifestyles."
He cites: " We had a client come to us looking to make an engagement ring for his now fiancée, who works in a research lab. We came with several proposals, from which he selected a marquise-cut diamond ring with ppavé-set blue sapphires. The ring consisted of three bands, each representing an essential aspect of their relationship. The diamond is also bezel-set so that his fiancée would be able to wear latex gloves over the ring without tearing the gloves. And because his fiancée is a tactile person, we designed two of the three bands to be able to spin, as a fun feature."
The duo has also applied their simple but chic sensibility to creating the perfect si dian jin set for the modern woman. For one bespoke project, Mr Afzal says: "We were handed a set of si dian jin from a thoughtful mother whose daughters were soon to be married. She wanted to extend the life of the four-piece set of jewellery gifted to her at her wedding years ago. She wanted it reimagined and transformed into si dian jin sets for her two daughters. So we designed two very different sets to suit each of the two daughters' different personalities - each set consists of a ring, a pendant, a bangle and a pair of earrings."
Mr Afzal adds: "We prefer working in precious metals like gold and platinum because of their enduring qualities. They retain their value well, are generally resilient against tarnishing, and can be easily updated when the piece no longer reflects the style of its wearer. And this said, we always recommend our clients to select designs they are comfortable wearing."