Having come from a multi-generation Sri Lankan family of gem traders, the Gunawardanas, many of my fondest memories have to do with gemstones. The earliest memory I have of “playing” with gems is of me propped up next to my dad at the age of four, observing him as he arranged an array of coloured stones in lighter to deeper shades. Growing up, I also always saw my late mother sitting on the bed before taking off her earrings lest they dropped on the floor.
I remember her falling in love with a Cat’s Eye chrysoberyl, and my father surprising her a few weeks later with the stone set in a ring surrounded by diamonds. It was a “just because” piece of jewellery, for no particular occasion, but the sweet gesture left a lasting impression on me. While her life was surrounded by all things bedazzling and she was no stranger to fine jewellery trends, the majority of her own pieces were customised. And it is the same for me.
At a young age, I was made aware that gems offer a whole spectrum of colours and sizes, and not everyone’s taste is the same. My passion and knowledge of gemstones compelled me to start designing jewellery for friends and associates as a hobby business since my 20s. This year, I’d finally re-launched it as my private label offering ready-to-wear pieces as well as bespoke services.
And why not? Although I am a medical doctor by day and trade, I have never forgotten my heritage. Besides, having become a Singapore citizen and lived here for 13 years, I have a burning desire to share what I know after encountering so many women who only buy jewels from stores and never thought to make their own.
Perhaps they don’t trust private jewellers as much as large, international houses, but what they may not realise is that these jewellery brands buy stones from wholesalers like my father. Perhaps they cannot envision the end product, as customising involves looking at the gems and imagining what they might look like once assembled. Or perhaps, they simply prefer instant gratification.
Thankfully, this is changing for the better – not just with consumers who prefer to be more involved with their jewellery creations, but also the local jewellery and gemstone industry, which is seeing more independent businesses making waves and getting noticed.
For me, the vivid and vibrant colours of the diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies I grew up with captivated my imagination but also cultivated within me an innate sense of how best to harness their beauty as well as a burning desire to do them justice.
Moreover, I feel a strong sense of familial and cultural duty. Sri Lanka’s history of high-quality jewellery craftsmanship dates back to the days of the various kings and caste systems, when part of the family name denotes the ancestral occupation. This means even today, Sri Lankans observe the tradition of commissioning pieces with jewellery artisans, whose names signify that they have learnt the rare skills from their ancestors.
This is one of the main reasons in launching my own jewellery brand – to ensure these artisans who depend on my family for a means of living continue to have a source of income, and that their traditional expertise doesn’t become a forgotten art. In creating a jewel made by such artisans from scratch, you could say my clients are patrons of heritage, which is something even the most influential of maisons are espousing.
As a personal experience for my clients, there is never a time when they don’t enjoy the entire process. While they are usually overwhelmed by the endless possibilities at first, I guide them into understanding what they really want, and then the fun begins with designing. Imagining what the end product looks like is always difficult for them, but that actually adds to the delight when they receive the completed piece. Almost always, they are taken aback by how beautiful it is, and they get addicted to the process of creation.
Weaving their own inimitable style into the design and being involved in the process lend more meaning, and give them control over the budget. Because of their inputs, the jewels assume the dignity of a one-of-a-kind heirloom, an object of beauty, for which posterity will remember them. I have helped clients design jewellery pieces that offer more mileage, such as unique rings that double as scarf holders and brooches. With a bespoke service, the sky’s the limit.
A private jeweller can also change aspects of a design to tune it to a client’s exact taste at any time during the process. In a way, the relationship with a private jeweller is much like that with a hairdresser or doctor – long-term and intimate.
In my family, jewels have been passed down four generations. I have a Sri Lankan ruby hair accessory that no one in this day and age wears. It is supposed to be inserted into a hair bun, and is around 80 to 100 years old. Just as I can’t wait to pass it on to my daughter, Aiyana, I would also love to see other women do the same for their kids, and start their own precious family tradition.
Text by Iroshini Chua
This article was first published in WOW.