Peranakan jeweller's partnership gem: Husband-and-wife team behind Foundation Jewellers

Without his wife Caroline Tay helping him in his business, jeweller Thomis Kwan would feel like he is missing a leg

About five years ago, jeweller Thomis Kwan was designing a brooch while contemplating the role of the phoenix in Peranakan culture.

The mythical bird, a symbol of feminine strength, is often paired with the peony, an auspicious emblem of love and beauty, in a signature Peranakan motif often seen on porcelain ware.

Mr Kwan, 63, wanted to try something different.

The director of Foundation Jewellers, which specialises in Peranakan jewellery, created a Peranakan-style piece that replaced the phoenix, also a Chinese emblem for an empress, with an exotic bird that can be found in Indonesia.

He designed an ornate gold-and- diamond brooch featuring a bird of paradise, a species famous for its mesmerising, colourful beauty, not knowing it would one day adorn a modern-day monarch.

The Straits Times reported in January last year that the Bird of Paradise Pendant and Brooch, made with 18K yellow gold and 61 diamonds, had been identified as a gift to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II from Singapore's President Tony Tan Keng Yam in 2012.

The Queen is said to have worn the brooch, which costs $6,800, on 10 occasions, including the christening of her great-granddaughter, Princess Charlotte, in July 2015, suggesting a liking for the piece, which has been worn more often than most official gifts, according to royal observers.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials have bought several pieces of Peranakan-style jewellery from Foundation Jewellers since 2010, says Mr Kwan, declining to specify the number.

Updating traditional symbols and images, such as for the brooch worn by the Queen, is part of Mr Kwan's modus operandi in designing his Peranakan-style jewellery. For example, in making the iconic kerosang, or brooch, he has long used coloured stones and other gems, rather than intan, the roughly cut diamonds used in vintage Peranakan jewellery.

He says he cannot run his business without his wife, Ms Caroline Tay, 51, in part because he wants to concentrate on creating new Peranakan-inspired designs.

"Without her in the business, it would be as if I lost a leg," says Mr Kwan of his wife, whom he married in 2001. He has two adult children from his first marriage, while she was a single parent with one son before they met.

All three children have helped in the business in the past and one of them, Joshua, 28, is a full-time employee at the firm, working in IT and social media.

Ms Tay does not have a job designation on her Foundation Jewellers name card, but generally, she handles the front-end aspects of the business, such as sales and customer service, while he focuses on design and production.

Mr Kwan says she has "a woman's sixth sense" that he trusts - a pair of earrings he designed might feel too heavy or the shape of a pendant might be too rounded for customers' taste.

The couple met in the late 1990s when Ms Tay ran a hair salon in Holiday Inn Singapore Orchard City Centre, where Foundation Jewellers is also located. He sometimes popped by to get a haircut, while she bought her first necklace, a chain of white gold, from her future father-in-law, Mr Kwan's dad. Their sons played together between their businesses after school.

When Cupid struck, Ms Tay gave up her own business to help her husband. "I had to come in full time. There were so many areas he needed help in, such as in the service side of things," she says.

Peranakan scholar Peter Lee, who has known the couple for about 15 years, says: "They make a wonderful team. Carol is the perfect person to front the business, dealing with clients. She is such a warm people person, it's hard to be with her and not feel like she's your sister.

"Thomis is artistic and meticulous. I've never seen anyone so driven by heritage, he has a strong sense of history, he will hunt down books on old Victorian jewels. He tries to outdo himself all the time."

Founded in the late 1980s, Foundation Jewellers, which has nine staff, excluding the couple, and six jewellery craftsmen, sells Peranakan-style as well as other types of contemporary jewellery. Prices range from about $600 for earrings to about $150,000 for a necklace.

Ms Tay says they previously designed two customised sets of gold and diamond jewellery for a wedding, which cost about $1.6 million.

Mr Kwan discovered his passion for designing Peranakan jewellery only in his late 30s, though the gem trade is the only one he has known since his late teens, when he started helping out in his father's goldsmith's shop in the 1970s. He is the eldest of eight children.

His father, Mr Kwan Chan Yew, who died in the late 1990s from cancer at about age 70, was a "workaholic" who influenced his own hardworking ethos, says Mr Kwan.

He did not complete secondary school, but fulfilled his father's wish for him and his younger brother, Johnson, the only sons, to take over the business, which they inherited in the 1990s.

"I was always at my father's side and I listened to him," says Mr Kwan.

Mr Johnson Kwan, 55, is a gemologist who still works at Foundation Jewellers, though he took a back seat in the business around 2000 after being diagnosed with nose cancer, which is in remission.

In the early 1990s, a customer asked Mr Thomis Kwan to repair a Peranakan-style necklace and he realised one of his craftsmen, Mr Lim Foon Yan, could do it.

Watching Mr Lim repair the intricate piece and drawing jewellery designs with a Chinese inkbrush opened his eyes.

Mr Kwan says: "I fell in love with making Peranakan jewellery. It was an art, not like the jewellery I was used to."

He spent about four years learning the craft of designing Peranakan jewellery from Mr Lim, whom he calls "sifu" (Chinese for master). Mr Lim also passed down to him Peranakan jewellery designs from the 1970s before he died a few years ago.

A Cantonese immersed in Peranakan culture

Mr Kwan's passion for Peranakan-style jewellery is also patriotic. He says that in the past, when he made regular trips to purchase gemstones and gold in Hong Kong, he felt that some in the trade "looked down" on jewellery produced in Singapore.

"I wanted to show others that in Singapore, we have our own jewellery, Peranakan jewellery, that is found only in this region," says Mr Kwan, who has designed collections inspired by Singapore's late founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his wife.

Mr Kwan immerses himself in historical research to make his designs, poring over books of Peranakan culture. "The most important thing is to enter the culture."

The fact that he is not Peranakan but Cantonese, however, has stirred the occasional murmur about the authenticity of his craft within the Peranakan community.

While they have enjoyed good relationships with the community, working closely with the Peranakan Association Singapore on exhibitions and events, for instance, Ms Tay says there have been occasional naysayers who snipe that their jewellery is not authentic since it does not use traditional intans, which have less lustre than fine-cut diamonds.

"The younger generation finds intan jewellery old-fashioned. It's a good choice that we have moved forward," she says.

Mr Lee, the independent Peranakan researcher who is also the honorary curator of NUS Baba House, a Peranakan or Straits-Chinese house, points out that the original makers of jewellery owned by Peranakans in past centuries were not Peranakan.

The designs were inspired by European designs, he says, and wrought by Sri Lankan and South Indian jewellers, while Chinese goldsmiths entered the trade later.

Still, says Mr Lee, the initial reaction from some in the Peranakan community to Foundation Jewellers' work was scepticism.

"The Peranakan community is wonderful and strange in this sense: My grandmother's kerosang is better. It's the same in the approach to food, everybody's grandmother's recipe is better," says Mr Lee. "Foundation Jewellers has won over people by its sheer quality."

Thomis Kwan on Caroline Tay : She helps him to slow down

For Mr Thomis Kwan, his wife and business partner Caroline Tay is a voice of moderation.

He might stay till 1am at their store, working on jewellery designs, calculating costs and polishing gemstones if she is on an overseas trip.

When Ms Tay, who also works long hours, is around, she tells him to pack up around 11pm.

"She will say, 'Don't work until you're so stressed. It will give the workers pressure too'," he says.

She ensures that he maintains his health, for example, when they eat oats together at breakfast, a practice he feels has kept his diabetes under control. "I have a lot of energy, I charge ahead. She helps me to slow down," he says.

Sometimes, though, he says he "needs her support to say 'go'."

He says he was encouraged by his wife to take their Peranakan jewellery to trade fairs and exhibitions farther afield to places such as the United Arab Emirates a few years ago, when he wanted to get "feedback" on whether their Peranakan jewellery would have a more global appeal.

He was delighted when a Middle Eastern dignitary commended them on their intricate handiwork.

He says his wife gives him perspective, in evaluating his designs, for instance. "I'm close up, I can't see. From far, she can see the whole picture."

Caroline Tay on Thomis Kwan: Pushing each other to do more

Ms Caroline Tay occasionally refers to her husband as Mr Kwan in the interview, an apparent attempt to maintain boundaries between their personal and professional lives, even while running a business together.

He is decisive, but sometimes she sees the pros and cons of how customers might take to a jewellery design, while he might not, she says.

Ultimately, she says, in line with their shared Christian belief that the husband is the head of the household, she leaves the final decision to him.

"When I am working, he is my boss. You have to draw a line. Sometimes we have arguments, but we don't bring work back home because it will affect our relationship," she says.

Ms Tay says she had to learn the jewellery trade from scratch after they married about 16 years ago.

At first, she was more interested in other kinds of modern jewellery at the shop.

"While I picked up a lot of knowledge, such as how to choose colour combinations, when I saw the direction he was going in Peranakan jewellery, I helped him more in that direction."

She says she has influenced him in making bigger, more eye-catching pieces of Peranakan-style jewellery.

"While he wants to explore making his jewellery, he listens and will take advice," she says.

"Both of us push each other to do more."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Gem of a partnership'. Print Edition | Subscribe