The Life Interview with jewellery designer Marilyn Tan: Thinking out of the box

Jewellery designer Marilyn Tan gave up a law career to look after her children and discovered a love of jewellery design

In another life, veteran Singaporean jewellery designer Marilyn Tan might have been a partner at a law firm, crafting contracts and poring over documents late into the night.

But instead, her craft has taken on a very different form - that of earrings, brooches, necklaces and the like, all made of sparkling semi-precious stones and metals such as gold, silver and bronze and housed at her cosy atelier in Tiong Bahru.

Inspired by nature and her extensive travels, the 64-year-old lawyer-turned-jewellery designer's carefully crafted pieces are a labour of love, the moulded metals and multicoloured stones paying homage to the lone Patagonian tree or flame-of-the-forest flowers that inspired them.

And in many ways, her bold and out-of-the-box designs - think jade set in copper and pearls set in stainless steel - speak of a woman who has always gone against the grain.

For one, though the College of Law London graduate had a career on the up-and-up and was qualified to practise in not only England but also Singapore, Brunei and Australia, she decided to hang up her robes and dedicate her time to her children when she became a mother at the age of 32.

  • My Life So Far
  • Marilyn Tan with sons Alex (centre) and Ian in 1989. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MARILYN TAN

  • Marilyn (above right) chatting with friend Teo Hee Lian at a classmate's birthday party in 1962, and with buyers from Britain and Paris at her first overseas trade show at Tranoi, Paris Fashion Week, in 2011.


  • Marilyn chatting with friend Teo Hee Lian at a classmate's birthday party in 1962, and with buyers (above) from Britain and Paris at her first overseas trade show at Tranoi, Paris Fashion Week, in 2011.

  • Marilyn (second from left) with sisters Kathy Khoo (from left), Jacqui Khoo Blower, niece Sophie, sons Ian and Alex, and parents Khoo Hock Choo and

Later in the 1990s, when she delved into jewellery-making as a way to occupy her time, the gutsy woman opted to design using semi-precious stones - even though the fashion of that era veered towards fine jewellery made from precious gems such as diamonds.

And even today, as many of her friends are settling into lives of comfortable retirement, the silver- haired businesswoman is still going at it strong - she has been stocked by British fashion designer Paul Smith and the Chicago Museum of Modern Art, and, most recently appointed American agency Bridge Showroom as her US agent, meaning her pieces will be stocked in America for the first time since she starting selling jewellery in the 1990s.

"My friends must think I'm crazy," she says with a laugh when talking about how she is still so invested in her business, more than two decades on. "But I've been lucky to find a passion that energises me. I don't think retirement is an option."

Tan was born in England in 1952 to a Singaporean stockbroker father and secretary mother, who were then based there, but moved back to Singapore when she was a baby.

Her childhood was spent growing up in a multi-generational home in the Tanglin area and attending Marymount Convent.

"Because my father was well- travelled and my mother was a big reader, the two encouraged a lot of reading and imaginative play, which pushed me to be confident and outgoing from a very young age," she says.

The 15-year age gap between her and her youngest sibling is also what the oldest of four daughters attributes to her very vocal nature.

"Even as a child, I had a mind of my own," she recalls. "It's perhaps why later in life my career adviser at school recommended a career in law or design - those were definitely the two industries that best suited my curious and opinionated nature."

But despite her inquisitive streak, as a child, Tan found it hard to adjust to the education system in Singapore, especially given that she was "particularly hopeless" at Chinese.

Seeing her struggle to cope in Singapore, her parents sent her to a Catholic boarding school in Surrey, England, at age 14, where the new environment helped her to finally flourish academically.

Staying on in England till she graduated from the College of Law London with her law degree and passed the English bar, Tan returned home in 1976, aged 24, to do her pupillage and begin work at law firm Advani Hoo Morris and Kumar.

She met her future husband through mutual friends not long after returning home.

Within a year, the two had wed in Sydney, where her husband was doing his MBA. The Singaporean businessman is chairman of a public-listed company and a grassroots leader.

I'm constantly inspired by things I see - from bonsai plants to the colours of sunlight hitting the gravel. The challenge, however, is to translate that to a piece and then find someone who can see value in your design. My customer is not the woman who asks why sapphires are being set in bronze instead of gold. She's the one who asks, 'Why not?'

MARILYN TAN on the challenges of design and her ideal customer

The two have been married for 39 years.

The young couple ended up staying in Australia for the next four years, but Tan did not let their move affect her career.

Instead, she was called to the bar in New South Wales and began work with a legal firm - no matter that female Asian barristers were practically unheard of in 1970s Australia.

In the end though, it was not the long hours or periodic discrimination that turned Tan away from the legal world. Instead, her decision to shelve her law career was one she made for herself.

"Having had two miscarriages before giving birth to my first son at a rather late age of 32, I decided to step away from my job and become the primary caregiver for my children," she says, her clipped British accent serving as a reminder of her years in England. "It was a tough decision, but I have no regrets. I wanted to be there for them."

And though she enjoyed taking care of her young sons, as it turned out, the stay-at-home life did not suit her.

Her older son Alex, 32, is a manager at sports marketing company Lagardere Sports and her younger son, Ian, 29, is founder and programme director at Ritual Gym.

Tan says that though she loved being a mother, she wanted something that would keep her mentally stimulated and decided to pick up a hobby related to her other passion, jewellery design.

"I'd grown up looking at the treasure troves of precious and costume jewellery my mother and aunts used to own and had always been a bit of a magpie when it came to shiny things," she says with a laugh. "So when I finally had some time to learn jewellery-making, I jumped at it."

In 1989, she signed up for a part-time jewellery design course at Lasalle College of the Arts, which taught her not only the basics of design but also the language of the business.

Though she started out just designing beaded pieces for her friends, things changed when her friend, Ms Judith Chung - then owner of designer multi-label fashion boutique, A Man and His Woman, which was well known in the 1980s and 1990s - asked her to create 10 pairs of earrings for a fashion show she was staging.

In many ways, that request kick-started Tan's journey as a serious jewellery designer.

"Till then, I had been creating only one-off pieces at home, but when Judith told me to go register myself as a business and make her 10 pairs of earrings, I knew I had to do it," Tan recalls. "With that one request, Marilyn Tan Jewellery was born. It was the first push I needed to finally get serious about my business."

In 1990, she approached Tangs department store and multi-label fashion boutique Tyan to stock her pieces, which they readily did.

With a counter at Tangs and another at Tyan, the business was looking to be on the up-and-up for the aspiring jewellery designer.

But then the global recession in the early 1990s hit.

Before she knew it, Tan found herself unable to staff her counter at Tangs and, in 1992, had to pull out.

"It was a challenging period for me," she recalls. "As a one-woman show, I did not have the money or manpower to staff the counter so I just stuck to what I had always been doing - operating my somewhat 'cottage-industry' style business out of my home."

During this time, she also focused her energies on expanding her knowledge of jewellery making - taking time to learn about using more expensive materials such as gold, and consulting her craftsmen and suppliers to learn more about the industry.

Things picked up steam in 2011, when Tan decided to start her first diffusion line. Named MTJ, the collections used less-conventional materials such as bronze, silver and resin and had a lower price point, between $49 and $300, that made her jewellery more accessible to buyers and customers. Her Marilyn Tan Jewellery line retails for upwards of $600. She gets her raw materials from places such as India, Brazil and Thailand, and works with craftsmen from Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Medan.

Also in 2011, Ms Cat Ong, who had previously been fashion editor at Elle Magazine and sat on the selection committee for Singapore's first ever instalment of fashion trade show Blueprint, also encouraged Tan to go into the wholesale business and showcase her collection at the trade show.

The 59-year-old editorial consultant says: "Marilyn has a distinct artistic streak in her DNA which she was initially unsure about, as to her brand's international appeal. It took just a little push and government support to get her to see that the world could be her oyster. With tweaks to her branding and collections from understanding global market trends, she was off."

In October 2011, thanks to the Textile and Fashion Federation Singapore's (TAFF) backing, Tan was selected to represent Singapore at the prestigious Parisian Fashion Week trade show Tranoi, which is attended by designers and buyers from all over the world.

The opportunity not only gave her a chance to see collections of some of the most established designers, but also to get useful input about her work from international buyers. It is also where she met her first English agent, who helped her get picked up by Paul Smith.

When asked what she thinks about 2011 being such a serendipitous year in her career, Tan is almost philosophical in her response. "It was the meeting of several strands that made things happen. My new line, Cat's encouragement and the support and grants I got from TAFF, IE Singapore and Spring Singapore all culminated in the push I needed to take my business to the next level."

And though the exposure and positive responses were a boost for Tan, it also made her realise how much she had yet to learn about going into the wholesale business.

"I had to learn the language of the international marketplace and figure out things such as minimum order quantities and time frames for manufacture," she says with a laugh. "But more importantly, listening to the different demands of buyers taught me not to be too precious about my designs. You need to be open to ideas and different needs of customers if you want your pieces to sell."

Since that first showing in 2011, Tan has presented at Tranoi seven times. In Singapore, her designs are sold at Tangs, Jewel Trend Mode and De Ja Vu Vintage, and she has also had her pieces carried by ateliers and boutiques in Europe, America and Canada as a result of Tranoi - most impressive of which was her partnership with Paul Smith in 2014, which began stocking her Galaxy collection of rings and her Lone Tree collection at the brand's boutiques in London and Nottingham.

For Ms Annabell Tse, 29, who has inherited some pieces designed by Tan that her mother bought back in the 1990s, the designer's eye for detail is apparent.

"The designs are timeless and have been so meticulously put together that the quality is perfect - even more than two decades later. Knowing that it was painstakingly made by hand back then makes them more special to me."

No matter the extensive list of stockists though, for the veteran designer - who to this day sketches each piece and has everything assembled back home in Singapore - the greatest reward is still seeing her pieces cherished by customers, both regulars and first-time buyers.

"Even after all these years, seeing a stranger wear my pieces and want to buy my stuff is the best feeling in the world," she says with a smile.

"Second to my children, it will always be my biggest accomplishment."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Thinking out of the jewel box'. Print Edition | Subscribe