Feature: Sustainable Jewellery Design and CSR

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Gem of an Idea
Exploring sustainable design in jewellery making

A former research analyst with the civil service, Choo Yilin left her career and familiar turf to relocate with her diplomat husband when he took up a posting in Bangkok. There, Choo Yilin started her eponymous artisan jewellery label, working with European and Thai craftsmen trained in the ancient arts of lapidary cutting and metal-smithing. From purist craftsmanship, where almost everything is hand-forged and hand-crafted, to only using organic gemstones and metals in an homage to the old European luxury houses, the jewellery label is an amalgamation of her personal values.

From this budding entrepreneurship, Choo Yilin decided to take her business one step further. She incorporated her concept of practising corporate social responsibility, investing considerable time and effort in sustainable design by helping to continue the hill tribes’ centuries-old silver culture.

The hill tribe silver is being prominently featured in her inaugural collection, The Lanna, where Yilin has put together modern-cut gemstones fused with fine silver ornaments. These textured silver pieces, hand-forged by hill tribe artisans, give each piece an old world charm. There is little or no sterling silver in this collection – the traditional hill-tribe craftsmen only work with fine silver 99.9% grain, instead of the more modern sterling 92.5% variety. The result is that the jewellery pieces are more tarnish resistant than the usual 92.5% silver.

Her choice of this hill tribe silver, albeit more costly and difficult, was an attempt to keep this artisan craft going before it became obsolete with the mass production of 925 silver today. This collection renewed the demand for hand-forged silver, allowing the tribe artisans to continue with this traditional craft without leaving the villages for the city to find employment.

In addition to sustainability, Choo Yilin has committed that part of the proceeds of the sales are to be donated to the Scholarship Committee of the American Women’s Club of Thailand (AWC), which she actively volunteers with. The money will help fund Thai girls’ last three years of high school education, to ensure that they graduate with a high school diploma. This is a fully transparent charity where she knows exactly where the funds are allocated and is a project to encourage education for girls.

Unlike most artists and designers striving for symmetry and perfection, Yilin craves the asymmetrical and rough edges that inspire her designs. While colours compliment the seasons, it is largely an intuitive and ongoing investigative process of picking the precious stones in the rough to piece something together. For winter and spring, her designs favour blue sapphires, green-grey aquamarines, pale icy pink and green amethysts as well as black spinels generously woven together with the silver, creating a different texture and colours, highlighting contrasts.

As for advice on how to select and purchase semi-precious stones, Yilin clears the misconception of the term “First of all, there is no such thing as a semi-precious stone. To say something is semi-precious is the equivalent of someone saying they’re semi-pregnant. It was just a term that was used to classify all gems that wasn’t a diamond, ruby, sapphire or an emerald. Those four were the original ‘gemstones’, and anything else fell into the category of ‘semi-precious’. Today, the term doesn’t hold anymore because there are a whole range of non-traditional gemstones like rubellites, tanzanites and tsavorite garnets that can cost as much or more than the big four.” Of course, there is a large range of gemstones that are relatively inexpensive. Quartzes for example, are beautiful and widely used. It will, however, never be in the same league as the tourmalines or the beryls. “The thing about purchasing such non-expensive gemstones is to realise that they’re really solely for aesthetic purposes and not for investment.” Yilin believes there isn’t any hard and fast rules to follow and boils down to your personal preference -you buy what you like and most of the time, also what is within your budget.

As for investing in gems, Yilin recommends some reading, such as Secrets of the Gem Trade: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Precious Gemstone by Richard W Wise. She also cautions about making these decisions based merely on reading materials. It takes many years of hands-on experience to make important purchasing decisions and stresses the importance of consulting an experienced and certified gemologist first. Still on the continuous learning journey in gems and design, Yilin believes that it is important “to purchase investment stones not solely for their value, but there should also be an emotional engagement with the item.”

“Fakes are everywhere, as with anything of value. Synthetic stones of every kind are available on the market and it is important to only buy from a retailer you can trust.” Imitation is done so well today that even with the experience and proper equipment, it is sometimes impossible to discern the fakes from clean organic stones. Sometimes, even jewelers with decades of experience can be fooled. However, the good news is that with “semi-precious” stones, “there’s little incentive to create the synthetic versions, simply because it’s not worth their money to do so. For example, the real organic quartzes don’t typically cost an arm or leg, and sometimes, the synthetic versions can cost more than the real version.”

While everyone has their own style, it can sometimes be difficult to match accessories when you want to put on your favourites all at one. Yilin advices to do whatever you like but try to steer clear of looking like a Christmas tree. The basic rules apply: If you wear a heavy necklace, lay off the dangly earrings, and vice versa. Chunky rings and bracelets could complement either the necklace or earrings. And while it’s increasingly common these days, it’s Yilin’s personal idiosyncrasy that she believes people rarely pull off gold and silver, given that the former is a warm color and the later cold.

With a unique approach towards design, Yilin’s immaculately put together jewellery is more art than fashion, with a certain depth of aesthetics. Her philosophy of embracing imperfections that is every part of nature brings us back to her concepts of sustainable design. “My personal draw is always towards the organic and hand-forged, as well as the asymmetrical. In short, a movement away from the symmetrical perfection of industrial production as well as the high-polish that was so popular in the 80s. Even with gemstones, I love the flawed stones with inclusions, as it’s an indication of my philosophical belief that there’s beauty in imperfection. (Not to mention, you also don’t have to worry about whether you bought a real stone.)”

With more charity and corporate social responsibility projects in the pipeline, Choo Yilin is open to dialogue and collaborations to further develop sustainability in her business or businesses in general. She believes that people should “build organisations and businesses that are sustainable, and will demonstrate lasting positive impact in society”.

For more general information, as well as a peek behind the scenes at her creative process, visit www.chooyilin.com or if you’re interested in purchasing The Lanna, please query at info@chooyilin.com.



Side bar:

Bio: During her college years, Choo Yilin spent most of her summers backpacking in Europe alone. She started creating jewellery as a homage to her travels after graduation, as Europe had served as a major inspiration for her aesthetic. That line of semi-precious jewellery sold at independent luxury boutiques. In 2007, she left her job in Singapore to move to Thailand on an expatriate adventure with her husband. There, she conceived her artisan jewellery label, where jewellery was made the old-fashioned way. While maintaining her European aesthetic, she started working with exceptional craftsmen who were trained in the ancient arts of metal-smithing and lapidary cutting.

Separately, Yilin has also co-founded a non-profit programme in Thailand, where it seeks to help expatriate trailing spouses find their professional niche in a foreign place. Even if paid work is not a possibility, professional engagement through meaningful volunteer work is.

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