What do I need to make it in the jewellery business?
Jewellery crafting isn't exactly the most difficult thing in the world – a lot of people do it as a hobby – but turning this from a pastime into a thriving business is a different matter altogether. Yet as the jewellery industry is as vast as it is multifaceted and with numerous tiers and sub-tiers, the barriers to entry aren't that many.
In addition, more people today are drawn to the works of local designers, mixing eclectic looks with high street or high jewellery, so there is probably no better time than now to enter the business. Take a leaf from those who took the plunge a few years ago and who are reaping rewards today.
One of Singapore's best-loved jewellery brands, Carrie K. launched its first collection in 2009 and today is sold in seven countries other than Singapore, offering modern designs spiked with a distinct quirkiness that's rich in meaning and heritage.
Its latest line, the Modern Heritage Collection, was conceived two and a half years ago, and is founder Carolyn Kan's most ambitious one till date. Find out more about the three pieces we absolutely love.
Her success story reads like the plot of a classic feel-good movie. Kan took a gap year at 36 years old to rediscover the meaning of life, dabbled in food and wine, travelled to Europe, took up jewellery-crafting, had an epiphany, and one year later – boom! – Carrie K. was born.
But the 45-year-old entrepreneur would have you know that it's not all sunshine and rainbows running your own jewellery label. Indeed, the first few years was spent working night and day from her kitchen table.
In this exclusive interview, Kan talks about the nuts and bolts of the local jewellery scene, what the biggest challenges are, and how to remain unique in a saturated business.
AUDIO EXCLUSIVE: Listen to our full conversation with Carolyn Kan (founder, Carrie K.)
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What are the key challenges in the jewellery industry?
Carolyn Kan (CK): My background is not in design and this is what I'd call my second life. In my first life I was in a corporate job doing advertising and I had the opportunity to travel to Italy where I was introduced to a silversmith who taught me how to make jewellery. I loved it so much that I knew it was going to be my new life. I came back to Singapore to continue silversmithing.
The good thing of not having baggage is I could do things in a fresh way. The bad, I had a sense of naivety and not knowing what I didn't know, I spent the first couple of years literally going back to school, but also going back to the school of life in starting the business. I did take a little longer but I had the luxury and not the pressure of time, to be able to enjoy the journey of learning and rediscovering my own passions and voice, and that takes time. It's also quite daunting when you start something. When people as you what's your story, what's your brand about?
The first two years I worked off my kitchen table, and I had the luxury of being able to explore. I would say the challenge is the lack of knowledge but the good thing was it was an opportunity to discover. The other is the lack of craftsmen in Singapore, very little production and craftsmanship, even sources of materials from gems to precious metals.
To set something up, especially a jewellery business not having a production capability that's commercially viable, because it's not cheap to get local craftsmen to make, didn't allow for experimentation. One of the good things of the way I started, learning silversmithing in Florence, I not only thought of design, concept and story, but I could also make the pieces to see if those designs are workable.
The other challenge when I started, Singapore was still very much a market where people looked to international brands rather than local. Very little awareness and even less appreciation. People were more in love with disposable fashion because it was new and big then. And the fact you can get a hundred things for the price of one handmade thing was a big challenge we had to overcome.
To deal with it, I figured why don't we look for opportunity and create experiences that allow people to meet unique designers and craftsmen, understand the process, so people who seek things of quality and not quantity would know where to find designers like us. That's where Keepers our CSR initiative start. It was our own way of tackling where the market was. It's changed a lot. Now people are starting to seek out local designers.
How important is it to actually know how to handcraft?
CK: If you don't know how it's made, you'll always be dependent on someone. You'll never be able to solve design problems to fit your concept. If you don't, you really need a very good craftsman or production person to partner with. Some people work very well like that. For myself I needed to understand the skills involved, in order to find the right people who know more than me about those skills. That was the critical way Carrie K grew.
If you want to be able to lead the business in a direction that's always forward thinking, the core is understanding how the product is made and how you could make it better. Design and engineering of the pieces is the core of our business. Everything else is nice to have. If you don't have something that can stand the test of time, you don't really have a business that's sustainable.
What surprised you the most about being in this line?
CK: One of the things I always tell designers I wish I had done was learning about merchandising. I didn't even understand what it was. It really is the business side of fashion and design. One of the biggest challenges I see, even with new designers, everybody is in love of the idea of design, but not necessarily aware of how they marry their design aesthetic with what customers really want.
Ultimately we are here to develop a design or product that people will covet. If you don't know what they go after, then you're designing for yourself and you might as well be an artist. Merchandising is the marriage of the art and science of design and the development of the product, and understanding what people go for, and at the price point that's comfortable, down to all the nuts and bolts. Once we changed our outlook, married design with merchandising, it brought our business to another level.
How did you find your voice when it comes to branding?
CK: It naturally grew from my past in advertising and my passion for storytelling. Also how Carrie K started as a brand in Florence. I was in awe of the craftsmen I met on the street and learned from. That was a great point to start Carrie K's journey. With our brand, Carrie K is a marriage of storytelling and craftsmanship.
As we developed as a business, I realise people gravitate towards us for our stories but stories that are universally meaningful. Might be something about wishing someone luck, or love. You can find meaning and significance in many things and include that in design and story.
Ultimately people want things that are more than just beautiful. The depth, meaning and memory and story are what make them significant. We all hold on to totems and symbols important to us. That evolved into what we focus on in the stories that we tell. Modern Heirloom took us over two years, as we needed to figure out how to tell the complex Singapore story in a way that reflects who we are, the old and the new, different cultures, diverse tastes and interpretations.
It's our most ambitious project. At the same time, it's aesthetically pleasing and if interested you can uncover the layers of the stories that we hope each collection takes from a culture to be passed on to the next. That is our intention, when we create these pieces, it has a meaning and not just a pretty thing.
In this digital age, isn't storytelling more important than ever?
CK: Absolutely. I often lament the lack of communication, or ability of people being able to communicate, in spite of technology. We keep looking at our phones. We're looking for opportunities to give people authentic tools for communication. Sometimes, when we become a society that cannot open our hearts to just be honest, giving something that symbolises what you mean to say is a good way of breaking the ice. I love letter writing, anything that allows people to tell a story and share what they feel.
Have you used technology to further your business?
CK: Social media is one thing levelling the playing field. As a new brand or entrepreneur, if you employ social media effectively to tell your story in an honest and open way, it's a great way to bring a community of people who can relate to what you're about together to form a dialogue. And it's not a one-way communication.
Facebook and Instagram are fantastic because I could post pictures of what we're working on, I could post a picture of what I was working on, and ask even a simple question like which gem between three colours [should I use], and you can get all this amazing information. This lets me connect with people from all over the world.