Friday, February 26, 2010

The hilltribe flower series

Some people are under the impression that we’re working with the hilltribe artisans exclusively but that’s not the case. The hilltribe artisans work for themselves, and have been doing so for many years. The majority of work they do tend to be of heavily derived from their cultural traditions – we often see stamps of ethnic symbols: local animals and the ubiquitous elements of nature like the sun and clouds.

While beautiful in their own right, these design influences didn’t quite gel with the label’s own design philosophy. Thus, one of the things we often request the hilltribe artisans to do are abstract, geometric shapes that have a less obvious ethnic aesthetic to it. We sometimes give general guidelines or certain dimensions and shapes and textures and the final product is dictated by them, while other times see us giving specific samples of what we'd like done.

We believe that this is a mutually beneficial situation – we have the privilege of working with a group of artisans who are gifting us with a centuries-old skill of silver-smithing. On the other hand, our requests help to expand the hilltribe artisans’ portfolio which enables them to reach other clients with a less ethnic-aesthetic more successfully.

Having said this, the flower series is a series that is almost entirely design-driven by the hilltribe artisans. We merely touch it up a little bit, and possibly texture and gild it a little, while adding tiny gemstones for added glitz. It is by far the simplest of all our collections, but we love it for its wearability and its inherent karen aesthetic.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A bespoke layered necklace

In the midst of working on the ready-to-wear collections, I was commissioned to work on a bespoke piece. D wanted a classic, long layered necklace that she could throw on anything plain. I was happy to take a breather from the ready-to-wear work, which can be intensive to say the least, and indulge the craving for creating. And even happier when she basically told me to go ahead do whatever I want. :)

So we stuck to the original classic idea, albeit switching it up and making it our own. We chose aquamarine cabochons - mossy ones with black dendrites running through it, baroque fresh water pearls, blue-green sapphires and the kicker... cognac diamonds. The combination of gems we hoped would create a rich burst of luxe textures and yet, keep it subtle enough for work.

The necklace was easy enough to conceptualise, because it was an intuitive process of laying out the gemstones in a particular order that we found aesthetically pleasing. What was less clear cut was the technical construction of it; specifically, we had to work with chains that were thin enough so it didn't overwhelm the tiny baroque pearls we had chosen and yet, we had to be cognisant of the heavy weight of the aquamarines (>100 carats) which might cause the thinner chains to break.

After a somewhat painful trial and error of trying out a bunch of combinations of lengths and thickness of the chains, we finally found on one that seem to fufill both our aesthetic requirements and functional requirements of the piece. :)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The karen artisans' way of life

One of the first things journalists invariably ask me is why I started work with the hilltribe artisans. The easy answer is that they make beautiful silver work that fit into the label’s design philosophy of organic beauty and asymmetry.

More than that however, is that the hill tribe people come from a rich history of silver-smithing. Historically, they have a huge distrust of paper money, preferring to trade and keep silver as assets instead. The different hilltribe cultures have their women decked out in silver, some more lavishly than others, but the sentiment underlying all the tribes was the same – silver was revered and valued.

As with most indigenous cultures all over the world, it is fast beginning to be replaced by the ubiquitous “modernity”. There is nothing inherently wrong with that of course, because culture is fluid and change is inevitable.

However, there are times where we forget that there is inherent beauty and meaning and utility in the rich diversity of cultures; I was especially moved by Wade Davis’ lecture on TED, whereby he articulated the tragic consequences of the loss of endangered cultures.

I doubt that he is advocating for the forced or artificial preservation of indigenous cultures and neither am I, but rather, in the course of the label’s work, I have hoped and advocated for a more organic development and evolution of culture. Additionally, we have hoped to facilitate their choice to preserve their centuries-held silver-smithing culture while embracing whatever change they may choose to at their own pace.

I visited their villages in early 2009, and perhaps it was telling that I could get no classic National Geographic-type shots of their work and their life. There were young girls who were listening to Mariah Carey on MTV and wore large, rhinestone necklace pendants. The silver work was amidst plastic buckets and beer cans, and myriad mobile ring tones could be heard. In the midst of all of this, the older Karen people were still dressed in their traditional clothes, and looking at all of this with seeming sense of calm and peace – as if Mariah Carey and traditional silver-smithing belonged in the same universe. And it did, or at least globalisation enabled that, for good or bad.

What I liked about what I saw though, was that it was a unique combination of traditional and modern, and this was seemingly determined entirely by them. For example, I was told that a significant amount of the traditional way of life was continued. During agricultural months, silversmithing production would slow down, as everyone would be called to help – client orders be damned ;). The guide, who had lived amongst the hilltribe people for years, told me that the money gotten from silversmithing was used to supplement other material goods, some necessities (like food) and others, modern luxuries – like cable TV, cars (sometimes multiple ones) and rhinestone necklaces. Education was also important.

The main takeaway for me was that there was a choice to how they’d live; they could choose to make a financially viable living through doing traditional silversmithing. This which would allow them to remain in their villages and continue a relatively traditional way of life, or they could choose to leave their villages after school to go to the cities to work in a classically “modern” job.

I have hesitated to write about this for a long time because I didn’t want to come across as romanticising “the noble savage”, nor did I want to applaud economic progress over a less "developed" culture. Because neither is true – the reality is that it’s a wonderfully nuanced integration of the two worlds, for good or for bad, and they have chosen it for themselves.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The characteristics of hilltribe silver

The hilltribe artisans work exclusively with 99.9% silver, also known as fine silver. After working with it, there is a slight contamination with the elements which would bring the actual silver content between 95-97%. This extremely high silver percentage – a little higher than the international sterling silver of 92.5% - makes the metal very soft and malleable, significantly more so than its sterling silver counterpart. It’s also a lot more tarnish resistant, although in our humidity, tarnishing still takes place.

Separately, hilltribe pieces are always handmade. As a result, no two pieces are completely alike. A hammered piece may not come out exactly the same way we want it, even with a sample given. Such is the nature of handmade work, and we’ve learnt to love the little idiosyncracies that comes with working with the hilltribe artisans. In contrast, 92.5% silver, the international hallmark for sterling silver, can either be handmade or casted. If handmade, it’s likely to have the same organic idiosyncracies that hilltribe silver has, but if casted, the consistancy is a likely to be a lot higher.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Inspiration for the dewdrop series

The dew drops – bezel-set sapphires and other assorted gemstones dotted with tiny silver drops - have become a signature look of the label, and it features greatly in many of our designs, bespoke and ready-to-wear. What many people don’t know is that I first got my inspiration of the dewdrops from the hill tribe artisans.

Back in early 2009, when we first ventured into doing ready-to-wear pieces, we were working almost exclusively with the hilltribe artisans. The artisans do wonderful textured silver pieces, and they work as bare canvases for us to draw on. We wanted something organic and asymmetrical, in line with our design philosophy, and thus the choice for dewdrops seem to emerge naturally and easily. These embellishments were almost always placed toward the side of the silver pieces (as opposed to the middle) as they seemed like natural, almost-quirky embellishments of the jewellery, without detracting from the hilltribe artisans’ base canvas of textured silver work.

Thus, it is with great sentiment that we launch the hilltribe dew drop series again, this time with slightly more sophisticated detailing – stronger textures and more unique silver shapes.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about my work with the hilltribe artisans and sharing about hilltribe culture in general. In the meantime, they're available for purchase at Cate and Tang+Co Singapore; in addition, there's a 15% discount off hilltribe pieces till end-March 2010.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Our cleaning kits

Each purchase comes with a cleaning kit. We often get queries from clients on how to use it so we thought we'd blog about it and send future queries to this link. :)

Basically, the cleaning kit is used primarily for tarnished metals - silver to be specific, but jewellers have used it for gold and other non-precious metals too. It is also used by the lapidary artisans to give stones a quick buff but we've found that it's not quite necessary if we keep the stone away from sticky substances.

To polish the metal, put some of the white powder onto the cloth (or any other soft cloth for that matter) and rub over the tarnished parts. The tarnishing will be extremely visible on the cloth - usually characterised by blackened marks.

We also get requests from clients to purchase the cleaning kits separately from the jewellery. We're happy to announce that you now can via Cate. 100% of the proceeds will be donated to a transparently and efficiently run hilltribe charity - details in the next few days. :)

Project Henpecked

K-boy and K-girl are a couple I know very well. I’ve known K-boy since I was 11 while I’ve grown to love K-girl dearly since she got together with K-boy many years ago. They’ve been dating for over 9 years and they are often teased by our common group of friends on when they’re going to tie the knot.

Late last year, I got an e-mail from K-boy asking me a few questions about a “ring”. I think I squealed in excitement but was obviously quickly sworn to secrecy. K-boy made me swear not to tell anyone at all because our social circles were too closely overlapped; in addition, out of added security, we conducted all correspondence over a secret e-mail account he created and skype (to which he proceeded to delete all conversations).

K-boy was quite vocal about his opposition to a diamond solitaire and asked instead to get a sapphire. Coincidentally, he chose the exact same colour as my previous client. He was amenable to having the stone in any shape, although he did state his preference for something with edges (as opposed to curves) so we found an emerald cut one that originated from the Ilagaga mines in Madagascar.

As with Project Sunshine, we got John to re-cut the stone to add a little more brilliance to the blue-green stone – we scissored the table and added a few facets to the base. This brought about a surprise which John told us could happen with some stones; the blue-green sapphire now had two tones to it: blue-green was its primary hue, but under certain kinds of light, it glowed violet. I was pretty chuffed.

Because I knew K-girl pretty well, designing the ring was wonderfully natural and easy. K-boy gave me some design guidelines but other than that, gave me a free reign on what I could do. We deliberately stayed away from the classic styles which was freeing as a designer and this gave me the opportunity to work with some difficult techniques that I had been itching to try for awhile.

For one, I wanted a bezel that was patterned, but not a traditional filigreed one, Specifically, I wanted to work with paved diamonds and milgrain in the label’s asymmetrical design aesthetic. K-boy agreed that this was something K-girl would probably love, and gave me the go ahead.

In addition, because we both wanted to stay away from the ostentatious but yet, I had wanted to convey strong artisanal craftsmanship in such a high-significance piece, I recommended that we work with tiny diamonds studded into the shank, again situated in a micro-pave along with a milgrain bordering. That, together with the curved and textured shank, completed the ring. It doesn’t look like it, but this ring has 77 diamonds.

This part made me laugh out loud but K-boy often does. Here’s what he chose – “K, henpeck me. Yours always, K-boy.” An unorthodox declaration of love but so wonderfully authentic. :)

K proposed last week and it's been a big flurry of excitment and joy amongst all of us. And now to wait for the wedding…I can’t wait! :)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

heirloom family bangles

C, a friend and a client, isn't very much into jewellery. But she came to me sometime last year wanting a family bangle set, each family member represented by their birthstone. After throwing out loads of ideas, we decided on a very simple concept of each birthstone being attached to a hilltribe silver hammered bangle. We liked it because each bangle was a complete piece by itself and she could choose to give it away to each family member. However, it could be worn stacked in a way that clearly indicated it was a family. We also got her some plain, hammered bangles so that she could grow her series by adding in gemstones for future family members.
Initially, I was a little concerned that the multiple colours of the gemstones would be a rather jarring, clashing effect if worn together. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. :)

For a greater personalised touch, we engraved each individual's initials and birthdate to the bangles, which would be especially useful if there were multiple family members born in the same month.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

mixing and matching

One of the things we do as part of our private events is to have clients pick out from a wide array of gemstones and make stackable rings and bangles. They combine the best in ready-to-wear and bespoke in that they're simple enough to be done without extensive consults and yet customisable to make each piece personal.

This is an example of how very non-descript gems can be combined together to form a rich bouquet of colours.