Queen Elizabeth digs Singapore designer Thomis Kwan’s jewellery

Mr Thomis Kwan and his wife Caroline run Foundation Jewellers, which sells Peranakan-style pieces designed by him as well as contemporary pieces. Queen Elizabeth II (above) wearing Foundation Jewellers' Bird Of Paradise Pendant & Brooch (left) at the
Mr Thomis Kwan and his wife Caroline run Foundation Jewellers, which sells Peranakan-style pieces designed by him as well as contemporary pieces. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Mr Thomis Kwan and his wife Caroline run Foundation Jewellers, which sells Peranakan-style pieces designed by him as well as contemporary pieces. Queen Elizabeth II (above) wearing Foundation Jewellers' Bird Of Paradise Pendant & Brooch (left) at the
Queen Elizabeth II (above) wearing Foundation Jewellers' Bird Of Paradise Pendant & Brooch at the christening of Princess Charlotte in July last year.PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Thomis Kwan and his wife Caroline run Foundation Jewellers, which sells Peranakan-style pieces designed by him as well as contemporary pieces. Queen Elizabeth II (above) wearing Foundation Jewellers' Bird Of Paradise Pendant & Brooch (left) at the
Queen Elizabeth II wearing Foundation Jewellers' Bird Of Paradise Pendant & Brooch (above) at the christening of Princess Charlotte in July last year.PHOTO: REUTERS

Queen Elizabeth II wears a Peranakan-style brooch crafted by Singapore firm Foundation Jewellers

When Mr Thomis Kwan started designing his own Peranakan-style jewellery in the 1990s, he dreamt that his pieces would be endorsed by a famous Singapore celebrity such as Dick Lee.

Three months ago, the Singapore jeweller found out that one of his pieces is owned by someone even more well known: Queen Elizabeth II.

"It is a miracle. Ten years ago, I would have thought that the Queen wearing our brooch would be impossible," says the 61-year-old owner of Foundation Jewellers at Holiday Inn Singapore Orchard City Centre.

The brooch, a diamond-encrusted gold piece, was presented by the Singapore Government to the Queen as a gift for her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Mr Kwan's wife Caroline, 51, who helps him run the store, says they found out about the brooch's royal owner only in October last year.

"We were at a Peranakan convention and one of my regular clients congratulated me and told me the Queen has one of our brooches. I was shocked, I didn't know," she says.

Her client, a collector of Peranakan jewellery, had recognised the brooch from photographs of the Queen wearing it on the website From Her Majesty's Jewel Vault (queensjewelvault.blogspot.sg), a blog dedicated to the jewels worn by the Queen.

The blog identified the gold and diamond brooch depicting a bird of paradise as a Diamond Jubilee gift to the Queen in 2012 from President Tony Tan Keng Yam, listed on the 2012 official Diamond Jubilee gift list.

After checking her company's records, Mrs Kwan found that a piece called the Bird Of Paradise Pendant & Brooch, made with 18K yellow gold and 61 brilliant-cut diamonds, was bought by an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in July 2012.

Though the ministry did not disclose whom the brooch was purchased for, the pictures on the blog of the Queen wearing the brooch as well as the description of the piece confirmed its connection to Foundation Jewellers.

According to the blog, which is run by an American who declines to be identified, the Queen has worn the brooch on 10 different occasions, including the christening of Princess Charlotte in July last year.

In an e-mail to The Straits Times, the blogger says the brooch has "been worn more than official gifts are usually worn", suggesting that the Queen is fond of it.

Mr Kwan says he is proud that the British monarch has worn something that is made in Singapore.

"It is truly a blessing that the Queen has chosen to wear our brooch so many times."

The Bird Of Paradise Pendant & Brooch costs $6,800 and is sold out at the store. After word spread among the Peranakan community that the Queen owned the brooch, six pieces were snapped up by buyers. Mr Kwan says he now has 11 orders for it on the waiting list.

This is not the first piece purchased by the ministry. Foundation Jewellers records show that it first bought a piece of Peranakan-style jewellery in 2010 and has since purchased other pieces, including pendants and earrings. Foundation Jewellers declined to disclose the exact number of pieces the ministry has purchased.

The Singapore company was started by Mr Kwan's father in the 1970s. His shop in Joo Chiat sold gold and jewellery mostly imported from Hong Kong.

That changed when Mr Kwan inherited the shop in the 1990s and decided to take a more active role in designing the pieces it sold.

One day, a client brought in a Peranakan-style necklace to be repaired and Mr Kwan discovered that one of his craftsmen could do it as he had been trained to make traditional Peranakan jewellery.

Through watching the craftsman work, Mr Kwan fell in love with the Peranakan genre of jewellery and encouraged him to start making more pieces.

"I watched him working on the piece and thought to myself, this is not jewellery, this is art. It is a part of Singapore and brings together so much history; Malay designs, European influences and Chinese craftsmanship," he says.

That craftsman has since died, but Foundation Jewellers now has five others who make about 80 per cent of the jewellery sold at the store, half of which are Peranakanstyle pieces designed by Mr Kwan. The other half are contemporary pieces.

The Singaporean, who is not Peranakan and works with his craftsmen to create new designs, draws inspiration from Peranakan fashion, ceramicware and furniture, but adds his own modern touch to the pieces.

This can be seen in the ornate wrap-around rings that extend along the length of the finger and brooches which feature certain animals in the centre, such as cats and horses.

Foundation Jewellers also makes traditional Peranakan pieces such as the kerongsang (the Malay word for a series of three brooches worn on the front of a Malay kebaya).

Prices range from $600 for a small pair of earrings to upwards of $30,000 for intricate bracelets.

Mr Peter Wee, 70, president of the Peranakan Association Singapore, says that although Foundation Jewellers is not the only onemaking Peranakan-style jewellery, it is well-known in the Peranakan community here.

"There are other jewellers, older ones like BP de Silva and Poh Heng Jewellery. Foundation Jewellers is one of our supporters, we have seen its work and our members love its pieces, so we have many people who commission work from the shop. Its designs are very much to Peranakan taste. Its interpretations are well received by the current generation too, and its workmanship has improved over the years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Making jewellery fit for a queen'. Print Edition | Subscribe