Larry Jewelry's diamond doyen

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 19, 2013

He represents one of Singapore's favourite brands for engagement and wedding bands but Mr Charles Chan of Larry Jewelry refuses to wear rings on his fingers.

It comes from the "heartbreak" of damaging his wedding band in an accident, says the 66-year-old, whose family business in Hong Kong and Singapore was acquired by another jewellery company for HK$400 million (S$65.6 million) and taken public in Hong Kong two years ago.

Larry Jewelry is one of Singapore's oldest diamond boutiques, going back to 1975, when Mr Chan and his wife Emmy left their Hong Kong home to set up their first store at Orchard Towers.

It has become the go-to jeweller for Singapore's rich and famous. In 2011, MediaCorp DJ Glenn Ong reportedly proposed to fellow DJ Jean Danker with a 1.75-carat solitaire ring from Larry, which cost about $40,000.

The brand was begun by and named for Mr Chan's older brother in 1967, in a tiny space on Peking Road in Hong Kong.

After the sale of the family business, MrChan, now a Singapore citizen, stayed on until July 31 this year as general manager, overseeing the Singapore business.

Younger brother Stanley, 62, looks after Hong Kong which has four stores, while Charles' only child, son Patrick, 37, is an architect working on urban planning in Canada and unlikely to follow in the family trade.

Larry, who is in his 70s, retired many years ago.

When asked why he never lobbied to have his name added to the business as well, Mr Charles Chan says with a laugh: "It's good enough - Larry. It sounds better than Charles. We three brothers trust and respect one another. We deal with fairness."

Now that he is retired too, acting mainly as an adviser to the business he and his wife built up over 37 years, he admits over coffee near the Paragon outlet of Larry Jewelry that he is unused to the idea of free time. "I have to think what to do," the soft-spoken man says with a smile, in a voice still tinged with traces of his Hong Kong origins.

His absence will be keenly felt by his staff, half of whom have been with the Singapore outfit for more than a decade.

The current retail director of the Singapore business, Mr Eric Tay, 52, joined in 1982 as a sales assistant, rising through the ranks over the years.

"We work very much like a family," says Mr Tay, listing the numerous ways the Chans look out for their employees, from retaining staff through financial crises to giving a lump sum to the family of a late employee who was the sole breadwinner. "They will never tell you this - they are very humble," says Mr Tay.

Even Mr Chan's most prominent competitor speaks of him with fondness.

Mr William Lam, 66, started his career with Larry Jewelry in Hong Kong and helped the Chans set up the first shop in Singapore. He and his wife remained with the outfit until they opened The Canary Diamond Company in 2000.

Mr Lam remembers the 1981 opening of Larry Jewelry's third outlet in Singapore, at Peninsula Plaza, joining the two at Orchard Towers and Lucky Plaza.

The staff were working overtime to get things ready for the grand opening and ordered chicken rice for a quick bite one night. One of the packets had no meat and Mr Chan ate it without comment.

"When the staff who bought the rice found out Charles took the packet without the chicken, he felt bad and apologised profusely. He asked why he didn't say something and exchange it for another one? Charles just smiled and replied: 'Don't worry about it. Better I take the packet of rice than one of you guys.'

"We laughed about it but deep down, I knew that he's just very nice like that. He was understanding, patient and always close to his team."

Although he is the acknowledged doyen of diamonds in Singapore today, Mr Chan never planned to be a jeweller, even though he and his two brothers and four sisters grew up helping their goldsmith parents in shophouses in Hong Kong and, for a time, Indonesia.

During the 1950s civil unrest in Indonesia, the family packed up and returned to Hong Kong, where Mr Chan's father Chan Chung Yan tried his hand at a variety of businesses.

Undaunted by failure, he would always be on the lookout for a new enterprise, recalls Mr Chan, who was roped in to help with ventures ranging from garment manufacture to artificial flowers.

"Every day after school, we came home and put plastic flowers and fruit together for export," he recalls. "I can't say we were ever hungry. My father maintained our lifestyle."

In the 1960s, Mr Larry Chan started a small jewellery shop with parental help and eventually upgraded to a prime location at the corner of Nathan Road and Peking Road.

Mr Charles Chan was focused on pursuing a childhood love of technology, studying electrical engineering in Imperial College, London. But before he completed his course, he was summoned back. His brother had back problems that did not allow him to put in long hours at the shop.

"That time, being a Chinese boy, you needed to listen to your parents' advice, no matter what," Mr Chan says, shrugging. He returned and took on whatever roles were needed, from stock-taking to sales to buying precious stones.

"I was trained by Larry. He put me into all posts. The cleaner's job was the only job I didn't have a chance to do."

Mr Chan's older brother taught him to select stones and later sent him for a gemologist's course in Hong Kong to hone his eye. Business picked up within two years as the Vietnam War sent more Americans and tourists to the region.

By the early 1970s, Mr Larry Chan was in better health and could manage in Hong Kong, so the task of expanding to Singapore fell to MrCharles Chan and his bride Emmy.

They met through mutual friends. She worked then in a bank but after their wedding in 1975, began helping to manage Larry Jewelry, especially in human resource.

Mr Chan calls her a true better half. "With her, I just use half my effort to manage things," says the fond husband, who loves nothing better than to design gifts of jewellery for his spouse.

He never misses an occasion to shower her with presents, Mrs Chan says, wearing the irregular silvery baroque pearl her husband had shaped into a pendant.

He will also accompany her to musicals and opera performances even though he prefers karaoke sessions. "Musicals and opera are not his cup of tea so he falls asleep," she says with a laugh. "Still, he accompanies me."

This sort of give and take was essential to maintaining marital harmony in the stressful early years of setting up a new home and business, while caring for newborn Patrick.

Singapore came as a shock at the time.

There were open drains near their Orchard Towers boutique and within the first week of opening, they pulled a tourist out of one. Taxis signalled changes in direction with arrows instead of lights.

Worst of all, the Chans were viewed with suspicion because of their Hong Kong origins.

Mrs Chan recalls the father of one of their earliest employees coming suspiciously to the store on the girl's first day of work. "He handed the girl over to us and said: 'I hear Hong Kong people always cheat people. You don't cheat her, okay?'"

But they soon won the staff's trust with their gentle managerial style.

Mr Tay, the current retail director, recalls the first big blunder he made as a shop assistant in the early 1980s. A customer had ordered a pendant and Mr Tay had quoted a lower price than the piece was actually worth. The shop would make a loss on the piece.

"I asked Mr Chan what to do - should we give a lower quantity of material so we don't make a loss? He quoted a Cantonese proverb which means: 'You don't break your promise.'

"Today, this is the same thing I share with my staff. If you say something, you have to live up to it."

Wooing customers in Singapore required more flashy techniques.

In the 1980s, Larry Jewelry brought in the Star Of Hong Kong, a 37.5-carat diamond the size of a 50-cent coin, and introduced the quirky chameleon diamond, which changed colour from greenish-yellow to gold on exposure to light and heat.

"These were the days before the Internet. I would go to the library and research techniques for ideas on how to sell stones," Mr Chan says.

The big break came in 1989, when Larry Jewelry became the exclusive distributor of Lazare diamonds, which are cut in a special way to bring out the brilliance of the stones.

They caught the eye of courting couples, won local industry awards and remain a cornerstone of the business today, with Larry Jewelry distributing the diamonds around South-east Asia.

The local business has always been boutique and caters to bespoke orders. There are two Larry Jewelry outlets in Singapore - in Paragon and Ion Orchard.

The radiant regalia in the windows mostly comes from two workshops in the west area of the island, where Hong Kong-trained Singapore craftsmen work on raw stones, polishing, mounting, plating, setting and waxing until ordinary- seeming rocks glow with inner fire.

The staying power of the brand was illustrated at the launch last month of Larry Jewelry's newest collection, when Mr Chan saw three generations of women from the same family sporting diamond rings from his store. "I was very touched," he says, eyes moist.

The entrance of overseas players such as Cartier and Harry Winston did not make much difference to Larry Jewelry's core business of custom-made orders, though the bigger brands do appeal to younger clientele.

If the business was to grow, it made sense to pass it on to a larger outfit, which was why the brothers agreed to sell it to Hong Kong jeweller Eternite International in 2010.

Mr Chan now has time on his hands to continue his hobbies of hiking, travelling overseas and working on charity projects.

Still, in these early days of retirement, he often finds his way back to the two stores bearing his brother's name. "If you'd asked me did I regret it, back in those days when I first returned to Hong Kong, I would have said something else.

"But now after so many years, I'm attracted to this life. Meeting different people, seeing new techniques. Now I can't say I ever regretted it."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 19, 2013

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