Keeping Alive Penang’s Reputation as a Jewellery Design Centre

loading Three generations on duty.

RETURNING CUSTOMERS ARE always welcome, even if they arrive to the little shop at the corner of the KOMTAR Gold and Jewellery Centre with a list of detailed specifications. This particular customer wants a custom-made ring – would the shop be able to deliver?

The young proprietor and gemmologist, Teh De Jack of KOMTAR Gem and Jewellery Design, takes note of the customer’s demands; he wants a dual-tone ring composed of both 18 karat1 gold and white gold. He also wants a matte finish on both sides, with a polish everywhere else. The centre stone is to be a rare cut of cubic zirconia, the crystalline form of zirconium dioxide; and the band needs to be studded with smaller cuts of the stone. Other considerations include the width, contours and exact shape of the ring…

Although he mostly focuses on diamond engagement rings, Teh takes up this challenge. The tight-knit network of traders, craftsmen and runners in Penang’s small jewellery trade is activated.

Buyers and Sellers

Teh is a third-generation jeweller, the latest member of his family to take up the trade. Although he technically runs his own business, he is still closely connected to the original shop started by his grandparents shortly after the complex opened.

Even in the dim building, laid out under glass in tidy rows, the necklaces, earrings and pendants at KOMTAR Goldsmith and Jewellery sparkle. Teh often helps his father serve customers, unless engaged with a custom order.

Whenever I visit, both shops seem quiet. This is a stark contrast to Chinese New Year, Hari Raya or Deepavali, when customers can be seen wandering around in search of deals, examining jewellery and placing orders. During slow seasons, Teh’s father polishes and repairs stock to hone his mechanical skills, while Teh himself studies for a gemmology course.

“A lot of people need to trust an expert, especially in a field as murky as gemmology,” Teh explains. Although he already has some certifications, it does not hurt to acquire new knowledge. As a gemmologist, Teh possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of gemstones and their qualities, while learning how to identify natural gems in a field of synthetics, imitations and treated gems. “Selling man-made gems is not wrong, but the seller must disclose this fact,” he says.

His gems are mostly purchased from “runners” – international intermediaries who liaise with the miners to have their products sold to buyers abroad. We live in a region famed for its geological richness; Thailand is a major exporter of precious stones and Myanmar had been particularly famous for fei cui2 since the days of the Dowager Empress Cixi.

Even though the economy is in a slump, exacerbated by the US-China trade war, there is still a steady stream of buyers. While Penangites stay away, migrant workers from rural communities look for small items to wear when they make return trips to their hometowns. Foreign workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam are also keen buyers, since gold is often a lofty status symbol back home. One of Teh’s customers explains her predicament; if she goes back without any gold, her sojourn abroad would be considered a letdown. The inevitable question would be laced with disappointment: “Why did you go to Malaysia in the first place?”

All things considered, the family business is an unexpected success story. Teh’s grandparents entered the business with barely any capital, and from the humblest of beginnings...

Although many see imported cars and iPhones as more trendy status symbols, gold investments remain sustainably solid. Despite being seemingly old-fashioned, gold is a reliable safety net in an age of economic uncertainty. Its supply is finite, thus keeping prices stable – unlike paper money, which runs the risk of inflation.

Teh notices other trends, particularly in terms of jewellery design. Heavy, bulky pieces in the past are now giving way to sleek minimalist designs. Rings, for example, have become more tapered. This has the happy advantage of making the centre stone look larger. But what if the ready-made pieces are unsatisfactory? What if the stones are the wrong size or set in the wrong place? This is where the process of customisation begins.

Masters of the Craft

When asked to sum up why custom-made jewellery is so attractive, Teh’s explanation is elegant: “What I offer is a sense that this is yours – this is what I deliver.”

There are many reasons why a customer might visit his shop. Perhaps they have some old jewellery lying around to either give away as gifts or hold on to as keepsakes. Maybe they have cameos3 which will look better set into a ring. Or perhaps they are about to get engaged and want something special. But his shop is not quite the equivalent of Tomei or Poh Kong. So how is he to gain a customer’s trust and attention in the first place?

It lies in Teh’s ability to customise jewellery inexpensively. He uses a computer-aided design software to design the pieces. With the help of an in-house 3D printer, he prints out a resin model, which customers can examine carefully. “You can draw out a piece of jewellery, but what would the proportions look like? You can write out the dimensions, but it still doesn’t tell you how the piece will turn out.”

Teh examining a ruby with a loupe.

The unassuming shop at the corner of KOMTAR.

Designing the dual-tone ring requires trial and error...

...detailed visualisation...

...and finally the completed product.

In the case of the dual-tone ring, this technique is invaluable. “My customer would worry about the extent of the matte finish, the alignment of stones and the width of the ring. Without a 3D printer, there would be a lot of misunderstandings,” he says. The design process takes several iterations, but eventually Teh is able to find a satisfactory design.

But this technology is no substitute for the expertise of the old masters: the goldsmiths and master setters tucked away in Penang.

Teh has two options. He could either have his resin model cast in gold, or he could simply show his design to the goldsmith, who would then fashion the piece from scratch. Armed with simple flaming and polishing tools, the craftsman would spend several painstaking days working on the ring and checking for blemishes. Meanwhile, the responsibility of setting the stone in place falls to the master setter. Every single piece of jewellery passes through at least two pairs of hands.

Contrary to popular belief, the work of an expert craftsman is not lucrative. Craftsmen evaluate their fees based on the number of days taken to complete a job. A master could charge RM100 a day, and some customers balk at this fee. But when you factor in the weekends and the years of expertise that go into their work, these men still earn less than RM3,000 a month – and this is assuming they are even able to find enough work in a slow economy.

They are also an aging breed. All the masters that Teh knows are over 50, and they will not be able to work forever. As a retailer, he can try to keep orders coming in so that they can continue to make a living.

“I try my best to pay the craftsmen, but it really depends on the market. There are still a lot of times where the customers feel that the payment is a bit high,” Teh explains. “But craftsmanship costs time and expertise. It is a more important consideration than the material value of the gold and gems.”

Family Ties and Heritage

All things considered, the family business is an unexpected success story. Teh’s grandparents entered the business with barely any capital, and from the humblest of beginnings: they sold jade jewellery from a mat on the pavement near the old Zhongshan Theatre. That was over 50 years ago, when jewellery was still relatively affordable for ordinary Penangites. Most jade sold on the market was the green-on-snow variety, but some merchants sold treated jade, which they bleached with acid and impregnated with resin. Knowing this, they opted to enter the gold trade instead.

A 3D printed resin model sits beside a handmade blue wax model.

In-house repair work in progress.

A selection of sapphires .

His grandparents later moved into the newly opened KOMTAR complex, then the second-tallest tower in Asia, joining the other small traders moving into its jewellery precinct. Meanwhile, established businesses like Nam Loong stayed behind on Lebuh Campbell, confident that they were competitive enough to survive. Despite the fierce competition, there was a sense of community. One shopkeeper recommended Teh’s grandmother to a wholesaler, who in turn gave her some pieces to sell on consignment. She began by selling one of each item – a necklace, a ring, a lone pair of earrings – and somehow, the business grew large enough to support three generations.

As with all family businesses, there’s always the sense that work and home life are continuous. “There is not much separation between home and business. You just go through the same routine each day. Basically we open shop at 11, close by six, and have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. The shop feels like home, but neither one ever ends!” Teh chuckles. “But there is a bigger sense of ownership, for myself and my family.”

When he first returned with a degree from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Teh mulled over what could have happened had he stayed in Hong Kong to work. Perhaps he could have commanded a higher salary, and maybe enjoyed more freedom in the bustling metropolis compared to Penang and its sleepy commercial sector. Still, the jewellery business did provide surprising opportunities. There is room to be creative and intelligent, even in an aging industry.

A good jeweller is an artist. He must also be cosmopolitan, professionally handling customers and runners from various countries, while also keeping tabs on domestic and international affairs. And he has to master the fine art of negotiation: should prices be demand-based, where higher prices are set beforehand; or cost-based, where margins of profit are added to the base cost? Once Teh had mastered the basics it was difficult to step out, especially now that he is in his second year of business.

His elderly grandparents still come by the shop to watch customers and keep busy. Familiar faces and regulars also drop in for a chat, cementing Penang’s reputation as a very small place. Once, his father’s teacher’s husband walked in – in a sense, he owned the shop that Teh’s grandparents once sat outside of, selling jade. Things came full circle unexpectedly.

A Process of Evolution

Teh’s business is evolving. A good example is the case of “conflict diamonds”, sourced from war-torn regions by exploited workers. The diamond trade is regulated by the Kimberley Process, but the regulation of other gemstones is more difficult. Concerns include child labour, fair wages and environmental degradation, but when some mines are family-run in far-flung locations, even international regulations are ineffective. All Teh can do is to ensure that his gemstones are indeed genuine.

Then there is the shrinking domestic market. Given the sluggish economy and changing consumption patterns, Teh is considering transferring the bulk of his operations online, while still maintaining a physical shop. The shop thus functions as a collection point and a way to assure customers that his business is legitimate. To this end, he is currently working on an online marketing strategy. A focus on semi-customisation, such as engravings and embedding small gems, coupled with designing affordable engagement rings, is a potential direction.

But he cannot work without the craftsmen. They are an aging breed, and young people seem unwilling to take up the profession. By combining their expertise with the technology used in his shop, the jewellery trade could remain a dynamic, evolving heritage for a few years yet. For his part, Teh is learning various techniques, including jewellery repair, which is in danger of vanishing. This combination of innovation and heritage skills eventually allows him to finally deliver the two-tone ring to his satisfied customer.

Despite the challenges ahead, Teh is stoic about the future. “My family business has always been quite natural to me, so taking it up is really a part of life. The best way to keep heritage is to exercise it yourself and at the same time, think of new ways to grow the business.”

Further information can be found at

William Tham has been published by Buku Fixi, Looseleaf, Calibre and more. His new novel, The Last Days, by Clarity Publishing is now available.

1 A karat is a technical term referring to the purity of gold. A carat, on the other hand, is a unit of weight used to measure gemstones such as diamonds.
2 Although jade is traditionally understood to include the minerals jadeite and nephrite, some scholars have argued that jadeite is in fact a subgroup of fei cui jade. This form of jade displaced nephrite as a status symbol for imperial China’s nouveau riche.
3 A cameo is an agate with an image carved into it.

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