Possibly the youngest gemologist this side of the island who runs her own successful business, Kristine Wong might just be our country's best kept secret when it comes bespoke jewellery. Why, you ask? Because you can't get in with the jeweller without being first appointed by her existing clients. Oh yes, it's that exclusive — which goes without saying that any and every piece Wong turns out is a one-of-kind treasure that's begotten with a unique story in every sparkle and facet.
So what's the formula in the finery that's kept Kristine Wong Fine Jewellery (KWFJ) comfortably flying under the radar for nearly six years since it was first established? Contrary to popular opinion, it isn't some misplaced uppity entitlement that has her well-to-do clientele coming back for more; Wong is just that good. Besides being certified a GIA Graduate Gemologist, she's backed by a driving passion for all things bejewelled and steers a tight ship of uncompromising quality and dedicated service so as to give her customers the best access in crafting the bespoke piece of their dreams.
Of course, it helps that she has had exposure in Singapore's Jewel Fest in the early days of her burgeoning brand and being featured in a handful of publications — such as The Straits Times, Singapore Tatler and Prestige — certainly gave her a profile a bit of a leg up. And if skeptics aren't convinced that this young entrepreneur has got the chops to lead a new wave of bespoke fine jewellery, then you'd best hear it from Wong herself on why her inimitable work is worth your investment in our exclusive interview. (Disclaimer: This does not automatically grant you an invitation to her atelier, but it's a start.)
Can you share with us how your love for fine jewellery came about?
Wow, it goes quite a while back. A friend and I used to make bead earrings when we were teenagers and started selling them to my parents' friends, so I guess that kind of gradually grew. But I first worked for three or four years after graduation and though I was learning a lot, I just felt really dissatisfied and was itching to do something. That's when I did some soul searching at 23 and my dad suggested to me, "Hey, you used to do this and you really enjoyed it. Why not go be a gemologist and start something on your own?" And I was like, "Sure!"
I was ready for any given opportunity and during those years that I was working, I felt ready to take on something new. I had been mentally preparing myself so I just jumped at the chance, enrolled in gemology school and got my brand off the ground running. And I've just been doing it ever since.
How did your label find its footing in the industry? Were there any motivations that spurred you to start your own line?
I really started from nowhere and even up to this day my growth has been very organic. Everything has been word of mouth. What helped create more awareness of my brand was when I took part in Jewel Fest in 2012 and 2013. That was when the press picked me up because I was still pretty young and in this trade, jewellers tend to be a bit older. I think they were excited that there was fresh blood — first-generation that was unaffected by the jewellers before. So my style and my ability to provide a new perspective on jewellery were well received and through that, it created a really great platform in the following years.
I've been more private for the last few years but it was that initial exposure that helped spiral things into motion for me. I've just been very thankful for the favours I've received because I've never gone to sought the press or tell people about what I do. It's just been very steady and consistent. I've just been very blessed and I recognise that it's the people I know who have been very kind to share about what I do with their friends.
I also have my dad to credit because it takes someone who knows you to highlight what your strengths are and where can your passion take you. He was very instrumental in pointing me in the right direction, letting me figure it out on my own and asking really pointed questions to help me find my way.
What can customers expect when they look to KWFJ to curate a collection?
As I'm a trained GIA gemologist, what my clients do is to commission me as their jeweller to source something unique for them within a given budget. I will give them options, go through the stones with them and in a way give an educational aspect by showing them what their money is going buy them. Once you find your main stone, we start the design process. I'll come up with sketches and there'll be an exchange of images or ideas between the both of us. And it's continual sketching and refining until there's a great design before it's sent off to be made and fitted. Then there's one more final polish and the client will receive the piece.
So you work very closely with your customers when they come in with a custom request?
Yes, and I will make recommendations. These days, there are a lot of men who come to me who want to surprise their girlfriends with an engagement ring or a present. It's very intimidating if they've never bought fine jewellery before and this is a big amount to be spending. So I'll ask them what they know about jewellery and try not to overwhelm them. It's really reading your client to see how ready they are to receive the information. But yeah, we work pretty closely.
Some have no idea what their girlfriends like and they'll even send me pictures of their sweethearts (laughs). So I'll force them to tell me three things to describe their girlfriend, what they want the gift to symbolise and what story they're trying to tell with it. To me, jewellery is very much like storytelling and a lot of them are milestone markers, so I have to get this kind of information from my clients.
My process is a minimum of three months and a maximum of six months. Each job has to be completed within that timespan. Unless it's a huge project — say a ten to fifteen carat diamond — then that obviously takes a while more to find a good deal. Or perhaps a fancy blue, pink, or any coloured diamond that's more rare than a usual gemstone.
What is a typical workday like for you?
Factory runs (laughs). Because I'm always working with the craftsmen, looking at the details and how certain things are set. It's fun for me because I'm learning too as I don't actually set the jewels myself. I work with a team of craftsmen and there's a lot of reading because new information is released with new gemstones. Gemology is the study of gemstones so there are certain things such as new technology that you should be aware of. For instance, synthetic diamonds or very sophisticated treatments of certain coloured gemstones that shouldn't be done. It can be controversial so it's keeping abreast of what the latest techniques are as well. There's a lot of reading and surfing the Internet to look at new designs but it's pretty chill (laughs). But in a good way, you know. It's quite consistent.
So you're a pretty much a one-woman-show.
Yeah. There's also setting up, taking photos and doing admin. From front to end, I do everything. Though to be honest, sometimes you need inspiration and when I have designer's block, I'll go out of the studio to experience things and get inspired by stuff outside. And that's my typical workday.
What are some of the most common materials you work with and where do you source your gems?
I usually work with minimum 18K gold, all the way up to platinum. Those metals are the only ones that I would consider because it's fine jewellery. You need the purity of the metal and the gold; I wouldn't go anything lesser than that. And in gold alone there are 18K, 20K, 22K, and 24K types so it's all different percentages. Is this information overload? (laughs)
Alright, let me explain. So 18K gold is 75 percent pure gold. Why it's 75 percent is because pure 99.9999 percent gold is very soft to the point you can bend it with your bare hands. So the other 25 percent is an alloy to make it stronger. Therefore 18K percentage is the lowest I would go. More pure gold also means a smaller chance of breakage, damage or tarnish as you're playing with metal alloys which do affect the overall quality of the ring.
If it were heirloom or milestone pieces, then I would recommend using purer gold than 18K despite its stability because it's considered value for money and is a little on the more affordable side. And if you really like the white gold look, then I would go with platinum even though it is more costly as you need much more of it to make the same thing compared to gold. However, it doesn't tarnish as it's a naturally white metal and it wears down a little better. But due to its softness, it'll leave dents if you hit it against something so you have to exercise gentleness with fine jewellery.
For gemstones, I get more rare requests like padparadscha, which are 50 percent pink and 50 percent orange sapphires. Padparadscha means 'lotus flower' in Sri Lankan so it refers to the colour of the lotus. Those are quite popular but I also do a lot of emeralds, rubies and sapphires. These can be pretty standard, but the rare ones are padparadschas, spinels, paraibas, tourmalines, and I also have jade pieces. If I see a good deal, I tend to buy it first so I'll have these gems to show my clients. Otherwise it'll be sourcing, and I do that from scratch.
Are there any particularly memorable custom pieces you've designed?
There's a local brand called Fleurapy by a florist named Pauline and I did a ring for her. I really love this because there was a story behind it. She's a florist so her fiancé chose an emerald that has no oil in it — something that usually tends to be included — so that's quite a high quality emerald. He really put a fair bit of thought in it as he really wanted to give her the best. The marquise diamonds represent leaves growing on a vine and the ring has a texture like a tree's bark. Since she's a florist, it was a representation of what they were doing together as a couple. I really had fun creating this ring and it was really memorable.
I like it when my clients have really sincere intentions. I feel very invested when I'm finding the jewels, as I get very involved. So it's nice when you see someone truly sincere who means to have the ring represent his or her affections. That's so old school. A lot of people just go to run-of-the-mill places these days and buy a piece off the rack that fits the budget. But I want to be able to give you something that's really value for your money. I always tell my clients who are looking for wedding bands that if it's for the ordinary kind, it won't really make sense to come to me, as I don't have economies of scale. But if you want something unique, I'll be more than happy to work with you within your budget and come up with a special piece.
What are some of the challenges you face as a private bespoke jeweller?
Well, the massive international brands really have a foothold in Asia, such as Cartier, Bulgari and Tiffany. I don't know how many people buy it, but they do tend to spend on the really iconic pieces. However, there's a niche and I think the clients that come to me want the process of having their gems sourced and being involved. If you were to go to a big store, it's what they have on display and their standard designs. So I think there are limitations to what the big boys have compared to what KWFJ has.
I find the jewellery scene is levelling out in terms of accessibility when it comes to finding beautiful stones. A lot of the monopoly has been removed due to globalisation, people wanting to do more businesses and generally not being restricted to just the international names anymore. So on a business sense, it's worked to my advantage. As for challenges... maybe culturally a lot of Asian people still prefer the big brands. But my market is too niche for that to be a challenge per se because my clients want something a little more personal. Honestly, the real challenge is just a lot of hard work (laughs). It's putting in your heart and soul, and that's a scale you can't compete on so you just give all you've got.
Do you have any advice for first-timers looking to create a custom fine jewellery piece?
Can I be the person they're gifting it to? It'll be easier, right? (laughs). Well, it's not easy when people don't have an idea of what they want. What I would advise is do your homework. Go on Pinterest, have a look and shortlist ten to twenty things. Ask yourself what are the things you already like, what colours appeal to you, what's in your wardrobe, and how you would describe your style. Tell me what you want to embody in a stone and maybe I can make recommendations from there.
It's getting an idea of a person's identity and what they want to project, and from there it's much easier to work on. Actually, it's like a dialogue. Having to ask the person what is it they want, where and what do they think they are right now, and trying to draw a line to connect the dots. I think the most helpful thing is to first establish a budget, and then seeing if that budget can get what you want.
Your line has grown a lot in its six years; where do you see yourself going from here? Is there a collaboration in the works or a project down the line you're eyeing?
I feel that even though it's been six years, there's still so much to learn. And while I have people approaching me to do collaborations, I still very much enjoy the organic process of my work. At the end of the day, I'm only one person so sometimes I can't take all the jobs that come to me. That would be my struggle right now because I want to be focused and not overstretch myself, and end up having quality dip due to that.
Maybe in the next year or so I can think about a collaboration. I personally feel I should nail everything first before taking on anything else. That was also my takeaway from Jewel Fest; I felt like I was such a noob, for lack of a better word. Because these other brands have been doing this for eons before me. So I'm going to keep learning and make mistakes along the way but I'm going to do my best each day, as long as my clients allow it.