‘Good craftsmanship has intrinsic value’
Most historical museums around the world dedicate a section to jewellery, as significant societal and historical context can be gleaned from past goldsmithing techniques, designs and aesthetics. Similarly, Peranakan jewellery holds the same virtue. It represents a unique culture and is inherently distinct in its form, despite, or maybe in spite of being a melange of different cultures.
Hence, for Caroline Tay at Foundation Jewellers, there are often moments when she advises clients to retain an original piece. “I judge antique jewellery on the craftsmanship. Sometimes, we have to explain to clients that some pieces are beautiful and have such refined craftsmanship that we would not be able to replicate today. My job is to educate the client.” However, when a client chooses otherwise, she and her husband Thomis Kwan work with her to craft a modern piece of Peranakan jewellery. The traditional style is typically distinguished by intricately crafted yellow gold that has been sculpted to emulate an animal or a flower, each individual motif reflecting a different aspect of the lady’s character or personality.
Although Peranakan jewellery suffered a setback in the 1990s when white gold designs rose in popularity, Asians are increasingly returning to their roots and recognising the heritage and the beauty of this style. One of the rare jewellers specialising in Peranakan jewellery, Foundation Jewellers has modified and modernised the genre without losing its quiescence. It has, for instance, replaced the dull intan stones (the “skin” of diamonds) with brilliant-cut diamonds, and has also added coloured stones in the mix for jewellery collectors with bolder tastes. Moreover, the 18K yellow gold used is not polished, and has a matte finish compared to the more old-fashioned, gleaming pieces.
When it comes to refurbishing vintage pieces, Tay reveals that only jewellery made of 18K and 20K gold can be melted, and they typically will replace intan stones with diamonds. Rose-cut diamonds, however, are a different story: “The bigger stones have retained their investment value,” says Tay. “If they are of a D colour, and more than 30-pointer in size, I can imagine that a pendant or necklace that holds these stones would be valuable.”
‘Hold on to those big stones’
The premise of Exotic Gems is built upon founder Joanne Chua’s eye for exquisite and rare stones. Apart from sourcing for precious stones, she also refurbishes vintage pieces for her clients, or creates entirely new and contemporary designs using the same stones or gold.
Often, the motivation to refurbish a piece is emotional—the client wants to retain a keepsake from her ancestors, but realises that the design is outdated and irrelevant today. Hence, she might want to set the stones in a contemporary design that will most likely be passed down to her daughter or granddaughter.
Another reason is the increasing costs of gemstones today. Joanne’s daughter, Venessa Lim, who is Exotic Gems’ marketing manager, says that some of their clients bring in magnificent stones that their mothers had purchased years ago at very competitive prices. “They save a lot on the master gemstones, because it would be impossible to get the same stones today for the same price that their mothers had paid.”
While it might be easier to evaluate the value of the “big four” stones (diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies), Chua says that the other gemstones have also retained their value over the years: tanzanite, rubellite, tourmaline, Paraiba tourmaline, honey cat’s eye, alexandrite, imperial topaz, spinel, and tsavorite. A good way to gauge their value is to judge their cut, colour, clarity, size (“about three carats is a popular size; as a rule of thumb, five carats is a collectible size”), an unconventional body colour and whether it was a hitherto unknown gemstone. For instance, when tanzanites were first discovered in the 1960s, they sold for about $100 a carat in the 1990s, she says. Today, a fine-coloured tanzanite could command as much as $1,000 a pop.
Another compelling reason for savvy customers to hold on to vintage stones is the ethical question. International brands like Cartier are making their stand by using only vintage coral, as the marine creatures are crucial for maintaining endangered reefs. Says Chua, “Although it is a slow process, there is a growing awareness and we have to question and behave responsibly for a sustainable environment. We do occasionally get questioned regarding the reliability of our source and our ethical stance.”
‘Even “aunty” gemstones can be modernised’
As the daughter of a jeweller herself, Goh Shuet Li, co-owner and director of La Putri, has seen it all in her 20 years at the helm of her family jewellery brand. She is well placed to inform and advise her clients on whether a vintage bauble should be overhauled or not, and the lengthy discussions will often cover topics such as the client’s lifestyle, likes and dislikes, as well as the sentimental value attached to the piece. After finalising the design, a piece takes four to 12 weeks to complete, depending on its complexity.
Of course, there are instances where Goh has advised a client against tampering with the original item. “If there is a possibility that a piece holds more monetary value in its existing form, I will inform the client. I’ve had a client make a decision to melt down a Nonya gold belt—it broke my heart. But it was not a choice for me to make.”
In another instance, a young woman wanted to reset a glamorous pair of ruby chandelier earrings into smaller, more wearable pieces. This was 13 years ago. Ten years later, she came back to La Putri and requested for the original design. Unfortunately, it was impossible to reuse the old casting as it had been damaged with the removal of the original gems. Says Goh, “I had from the onset highlighted to her that the craftsmanship of the original earrings could not be replicated today. So although the gems had retained (and in fact very much appreciated) their value, the artisanal aspect had been lost.”
Jade is another stone that is often disregarded as being archaic. “The perception is that aunties and grandmothers wear jade. This could not be further from the truth, in my humble opinion. As one of the more scarce and rare gems in the world (hence the lack of availability), it means that old pieces are often reset and transformed into modern day styles of jewellery. The key is the design. Any gemstone, regardless of the type, if interpreted in the right manner, can be contemporary in styling and totally relevant to today’s sense of fashion.”
This was demonstrated by a jade bangle that a grandmother wished to leave to her four young granddaughters. The clever result was four individual pendants (top), each featuring a quadrant of the jade and accentuated with a heart-shaped motif—instantly wearable pieces that they will surely cherish for a long time.