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Redesigning the art of jewelry making

How many Singapore businesses can boast the Queen of England as one of its clients? Foundation Jewellers has that honour.


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Published by Enterprise Singapore
on 01 Apr 2018

Redesigning the art of jewelry making

How many Singapore businesses can boast the Queen of England as one of its clients? Foundation Jewellers has that honour.

In 2012, an intricately designed diamond-encrusted gold brooch made by the company was presented to Queen Elizabeth II by the Singapore Government. Since then, she has worn the brooch at 14 different occasions, including recently at the christening of her granddaughter, Princess Charlotte.

Foundation Jewellers was set up by Mr Thomis Kwan’s father in the 1970s. At that time, the goldsmith shop, which was located in the Joo Chiat district, sold mostly jewellery imported from Hong Kong – then the region’s fast-emerging exporter of precious jewellery.

In 1988, when Mr Thomis Kwan (pictured above) and his younger brother, Mr Johnson Kwan, took over the business, they adopted a different approach. The brothers decided to design, manufacture and sell unique, made-in-Singapore, Peranakan jewellery in an effort to keep the Peranakan culture and legacy alive. Today, Foundation Jewellers is one of the few remaining master crafters of Peranakan jewellery in the Asian region.

“The Peranakan culture has a long history in Southeast Asia and Singapore, dating back to the 1900s,” says Mr Thomis Kwan, Director of Foundation Jewellers. “Our jewellery pieces, which blend European influences, Malay designs and Chinese craftsmanship, are designed to give our clients a sense of that period in history,” he explains.

A boost for productivity

As demand for the company’s handmade jewellery grew, so did the need to hire more craftsmen. “The more we expanded, the more craftsmen we needed to undertake a number of long, tedious, manual processes, such as moulding, cutting and soldering,” Mr Thomis Kwan explains. “Jewellery crafting is a niche skill and it isn’t easy to find quality craftsmen.”

Mr Thomis Kwan turned to automation to address this challenge. In late 2015, leveraging SPRING Singapore’s (now Enterprise Singapore1) Capability Development Grant (CDG), Foundation Jewellers invested in a fibre optic laser marking machine and lasercutting machine – a bold move, given that these equipment are typically used in heavy metal manufacturing.

When used concurrently, both these machines automate the manual sawing of motifs, the first stage in the Peranakan jewellery manufacturing process.

Now, craftsmen need only transfer their hand-drawn jewellery designs to the fibre optic laser marking machine system. Through computer-controlled technology, the machine automatically engraves elaborate and complex Peranakan designs on jewellery moulds.

Once that’s done, the laser-cutting machine, which uses the same technology, cuts the jewellery pieces into consistent shapes and sizes. This innovative strategy has resulted in significant productivity improvements.

The manual method allowed for only one design and one item to be created from each mould. With both machines, more jewellery designs can now be developed.

Previously, it used to take the company up to a week to come up with a new design, and three weeks to fabricate a piece of jewellery. It would take even longer if errors were made.

With the lack of skilled craftsmen, the company could only produce up to three new jewellery designs a year.

“Today, creating a new piece of jewellery piece takes only 30 minutes, and we can produce up to 10 different designs a year,” Mr Thomis Kwan explains. “Our jewellery craftsmen now focus more on chiselling and shaping moulds.”

Tradition meets modernity

Greater operational efficiency and productivity have enabled Foundation Jewellers to roll out a new, more modern brand to attract younger customers. “This is as a result of our craftsmen having more time and the right equipment to experiment with different types of designs and styles,” Mr Thomis Kwan adds.

The result? A 15% increase in sales since January 2016, when the machines were deployed and new designs were introduced. “In a way, these machines motivate our craftsmen to develop, test and refine their ideas, thus ensuring that we’re constantly innovating as a jewellery brand.”

With automation, it has also been easier to attract young designers with fresh ideas. “They want to work with us as we now offer jobs that build skills for the future. In turn, their creativity helps us keep up with the latest trends in the jewellery industry.”

Preserving cultural value

Mr Thomis Kwan believes that automation should complement and not replace the company’s high quality, authentic Peranakan craftsmanship.

“Our new equipment helps us save time, but it’s the fine details and cultural value of each jewellery that keep our customers coming back for more, especially those from overseas,” Mr Thomis Kwan explains.

Overall, he says, automation has helped the company innovate and achieve higher productivity. “It is primarily an enabler that allows us to produce more and, at the same time, maintain a high level of artisanal care and handmade quality in all our jewellery items.”

 

1SPRING Singapore merged with IE Singapore to form Enterprise Singapore on 1 April 2018.

Last Modified Date: 09 Jan 2020