Jewellery designer Yasmin Tjoeng picks up a ring in her hand — a dozen perfectly egg-shaped turquoise stones sit on an intricate solid gold band, crowned with a ring of sparkling diamonds. This was a ring that Tjoeng designed for her two-year-old Singapore-based contemporary fine jewellery label christened Maison Tjoeng.
Her designs are largely inspired by the cultures that she has been exposed to since childhood. "All my schooling was on the Gold Coast, and I travelled back and forth to Papua New Guinea. It's aboriginal, they do a lot of paintings on the skin. I guess I was more influenced by that — traditional culture, geometry, elements of design, repetitions, animal influences, that comes through in my pieces," the Australian-born Tjoeng explains.
She couples this underlying design intention with artworks such as Henri Rousseau's jungle paintings, Hawaii-based artist, Chris Manaseri's painting called "Outrigger", and the late American-Armenian painter, Arman Manookian, who lent his eye and techniques to depict snapshots of Hawaiian life. The statement neckpieces that Tjoeng designed from these artworks earned her artistry prizes from the annual contemporary jewellery contest, Artistar Jewels, in February.
Despite her accolades, the candid Tjoeng admits, "Sales are harder, especially in the luxury industry. You have to get people to trust you first."
By trust, she is referring to how consumers are increasingly socially-conscious and critical of these precious materials' sources. "Someone did say to me, people are more likely to spend $6,000 on a handbag than $10,000 on jewellery." The willingness to invest in a luxury object is arguably dependent on the industry's level of transparency. When in stores, consumers can easily question the source and types of leather used in a bag. However, the jewellery sector is comparatively opaque.
"There are a lot of middlemen —10 or 20 people in-between [the start and end]. Each person, depending on which part of the chain, is responsible for knowing the origins," Tjoeng explains. "The buyer getting raw diamonds from the mine has to know if the mine has humane working conditions, if they pay their employees well, so there are no conflicts. It goes up the chain like that."
In an ideal situation, a jewellery designer like Tjoeng would look at the different diamond accreditation standards around the globe — be it Antwerp or Hong Kong, and trace back these supply chains, step by step to discern which lineage is the cleanest.
Tjoeng acknowledges that despite her best efforts, the diamond supply chain is shrouded at many points, and it is difficult to gain a fully transparent understanding of it. As an independent designer, her best bet is to go for the highest industry standards — diamonds processed in Antwerp, aligned with the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. "Buyers in Antwerp won't buy a conflict diamond," Tjoeng explains.
Compared to the diamonds industry, the precious metals sector is an even more muddling one. "There are so many countries that mine gold. Once it's melted down, you can't trace it. Diamonds have numbers scripted. With gold, it's harder." Since there are no strict accreditations, all designers can do is but trust the words of their suppliers. "I'm assured that it's all humane," Tjoeng muses. "It's hard, I don't want to buy something if people are dying. I try my best to know as much about my source and be open and transparent."
For a jewellery designer like Tjoeng, her role has transcended creativity and artistic expression, but has stretched to include social responsibility auditing. "The responsibility falls on your shoulder. It does fall on the shoulders of the designers and the producers."
I asked if all these sustainability research has hampered her creative flow and design process. Tjoeng thinks otherwise. Although sustainable and socially conscious materials may seem like a checklist that brands merely tick off, but to Tjoeng, these are necessary parts of a designer's design intention.
"There is value in something that came out of the earth, cut by someone who was trained and has the speciality." Every step along the way contribute to the hefty symbolic meanings embedded in a piece of jewellery. "It's the most sentimental thing people buy in their lives. It's part of your life, and it becomes a story in someone's life."
Subscribe to our newsletter