Here at Travelshopa, different, interesting and assertive women are our heroes and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share our recent studio visit with the fabulous Marilyn Tan of Marilyn Tan Jewellery. Her natural sense of curiosity and fervent appetite for adventure belie her 60 over years of age.
A well-established figure in the Singapore design scene, Marilyn Tan has accumulated more than 20 years of experience in jewellery design. While she professes her love for raw, semi-precious jewellery, at the same time, she is admired for taking spectacular stylistic leaps with her craft; allowing her experiences and travels to shape her unique design aesthetic.
Now a veteran in the field, Marilyn shares her acquired wisdom with those who wish to follow in her footsteps. Read on as she dives deeper into her life as a homegrown jewellery designer and the reasons why she’s made it this far.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in the UK but I grew up mainly in Singapore. Before I became a jewellery designer, I was a practicing lawyer. I’m a barrister by training so I was trained in the UK. Then I returned to Singapore and practiced for a number of years.
What prompted you to start your own jewellery label?
I had my children quite late so when I was expecting my second son, I decided I wanted to be the primary caregiver. I was also at the crossroads in my career with prospects of full partnership and all of that. That’s when I decided to retire and be a full-time mum. This was a long time ago.
I’ve always loved jewellery so I went and did a course at LaSalle on jewellery design. It was just for my own knowledge at first, and then I started making for friends and so forth. Then a very good friend of mine approached me with an order for 24 pairs of earrings she needed for a fashion show. The only issue was that I had to be a fully fledged business and I had to do all the paperwork, register myself and all, so I did! I went into Tangs in the early 1990s — I had a counter there, and that’s how I started really.
Was it difficult for you to transition from lawyer to jewellery designer?
Oh yes, but it was a family decision. My husband and I discussed it and I always knew that if this was the case…then yeah, you change your lifestyle! My children will say that they remember learning their numbers and colours because I asked them to help me sort beads into different baskets.
What is your philosophy as a designer?
I have no philosophy. I just make jewellery. It’s a passion and it’s fun. The value of making jewellery for me is satisfaction that the piece works as I wanted it to, that it turns out as I envisioned. Or if it did not, that the changes that had to be made to it to make it a piece that is comfortable and enjoyable to wear worked out.
What were the challenges?
It’s getting much better now, but at the beginning, Singaporeans didn’t see the value in the creativity behind the design. Because they’re used to jewellery shops, they’re only interested in the value of the gold or the diamonds or the stones but not the actual design.
Again, it goes back to education and travel and people realising that there is much more to the making of any form of design. A piece of art, a piece of sculpture, a chair even – there’s much more involved in that process than the actual piece you see. You can have a great design idea but you also have to take wearability into account — is it too heavy, is it irritating etc.
To me it’s extremely gratifying when someone decides to want to buy my creations. Because they’ve obviously decided that all the thought and work I’ve put into it is worth the money. There’s comfort in the thought that they want to wear it and that they enjoy it. They may not fully comprehend the thought I’ve put into it, but they appreciate the actual finished piece.
And I think that people now believe that Singapore designers have this ability. I sometimes feel that until you make it somewhat overseas, they’re not going to look at you. But I think that’s true for any single kind of homegrown designer, whether it’s in Europe or Australia.
What’s been the biggest lesson so far?
What I’ve learnt is that what you love may not necessarily sell. From a designer’s point of view, you’re always enthusiastic about what appeals to you — that’s why you want to work at it. Yet when you present it to the buyer, his or her response might be lukewarm. But they’re the ones who know their customer right? And that’s one thing I’ve learnt: If you want to grow as a person and you want to grow in your business, there’s no space for ego. There are boundaries of course, because you cannot compromise your design. They might as well ask anybody to make it then, so I won’t do that.
Do you have a favourite travel story to share?
The one I return to again and again is my trip to Antarctica which was entirely different, very special and totally alien to everything I know. The thing is, in Antarctica, there are no people, no traffic, no industry, nothing. So I’m sad because when the Antarctica treaty expires, who knows what’s going to happen? It’s just different. There, animals rule. The air is so pristine. It doesn’t have any of the elements we’re used to. Some of the scientists on our ship were from the National Geographic and one of them was a marine biologist. He dived while we were on land and every evening, he showed us the marine life and those really strange creatures under the polar ice that he found and filmed.
I’m bipolar — I’ve been to the Arctic as well. I went to the Arctic on a World Wildlife Fund trip. That was really interesting. The Arctic is very different to Antarctica — it’s populated. On this particular trip, I helped to clear 30 tonnes of debris. We’re talking about debris that has come through the currents all the way from Bermuda, from the Caribbean. I’m all the way in the North Pole, in Svalbard, Norway, and there are these plastic bags washed up on the sea. You’ve got beer can plastic, you’ve got lines cut by fishermen, you’ve got styrofoam boxes that bear some Scottish name. So we collected all this waste for the Norwegian authorities to incinerate and dispose of properly.
It’s stunning how callous we are. I just found it extremely moving. When I came back, I talked to my kids about it — but how do you tell people unless they see it for themselves? You can, but they look at you and go, “There she goes, doing her hippy thing again.” But I wanted to see it for myself also because I’ve been to Antarctica. And my feeling is that if we’re not careful, once that treaty of Antarctica expires, things are going to change. What is going to happen? Can we learn? They say the ice is melting in some parts and growing in some parts, so it might equalise. We’ll see.
You’ve been touted as one of Singapore’s most successful designers, how do you feel about the local design scene?
I think we’re getting there. We’re very blessed because we have a lot of government support to grow. Not many countries support their nascent industries. I know this because when I go overseas, a lot of the exhibitors say, “Oh you’re so lucky! You’re so lucky you have access to this funding to help you to get here.” They don’t. For them it’s a business decision that they have to work hard for and just take it on. Whereas for us, we work hard for it but then it is a business decision that is assisted. Otherwise I wouldn’t have thought to go overseas at all and to go so far.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
I start my day at the workshop, always. Then [I head to] the office. Sometimes I have pieces to finish and I don’t make it to the office. I’m lucky I have people in the office who are pretty solid and just get on with what they need to do. I should be in the workshop most mornings by 9 or 10 am. I love working at night when it’s totally quiet. So if I have this piece in my head that I need to do or I want to do or an idea that just won’t let go then I’ve been known to work till 3 or 4 in the morning.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I’m fascinated by stones, I’m absolutely fascinated by stones, especially raw stones. So if I see unusual or beautiful stones I usually try to pick them up. I don’t always work with them immediately but they’re always there. And there are days when I sit at my table and suddenly I remember a stone I bought or think of something I’ve seen — like on my trip to Antarctica. All the colours really bowled me over and it still inspires me so I decided I would like to make a collection that is a homage to what I saw. So there are several lines of thought. I don’t think it’s easy for a designer to articulate how they are moved by things to then create something.
I’ll use the example of this bowl I got – this beautiful dusky rose bowl. Pink is not my colour but then it was such a beautiful bowl that I was driven to research the colour. Then I found these cream coloured resin tea roses that one of my suppliers was offering and I asked them to be done in a certain size for me and the collection just grew from there. So sometimes it’s not something you actively look for; it just happens.
That said, I tend to be inspired very much by nature. I’ve been working recently with a lot of freshwater pearls and it’s called the Leaves, Flowers and Pearls collection. Only because to me it seemed very interesting to have land and sea together. It seemed like a very interesting juxtaposition.
What are you working on now and what are you looking forward to in the near future?
I just finished the Chinese New Year collection, which is a colourful line of resin-based pieces.
What do you like to do in your downtime?
I like to read, cook (I find cooking very therapeutic) and do yoga. I enjoy architecture, going to museums, and going for walks. I walk a lot. When I’m stressed, I go for a walk. Sometimes [I do it] to seek inspiration, sometimes it’s just to clear the head. But if I’ve had a really, really bad day, the only cure is a piece of dark chocolate and a very good single malt. It has to be dark — 90% cocoa — and it has to be single malt. I’m very precise. And when that comes up, the whole family knows… I’ve been known to hide in the bathtub too so that nobody disturbs me cause I’m so stressed that I have to find a way to just chill.
What advice do you have for fellow designers?
Look to see if you want to expand overseas. Take advice from people. Get a mentor. Spend wisely. Listen. Listen to people whom you respect and who are willing to mentor you. I think a mentor in any industry is extremely important because you learn from their experience. Hold your vision but don’t be too prideful, don’t be too precious about it. But don’t change your vision, ever. Because that is what you are. People are buying you, your vision, whatever you represent, that they like. It comes through in your work. So that you must hold and you must keep. That is your core. Don’t ever change that for the dollar either. That’s a line you have to draw. Because if you change your vision to suit the buyer, then you are no longer what they want anyway.
What I would say to a young designer is: “What are you afraid of?” You just have to decide the kind of lifestyle you think you’ll be happy with and make that change if necessary. I won’t call it a sacrifice then, you see, because it’s a choice. But don’t be afraid to make that choice.
I do not want to look back and say: “Man, I wish I’d done that.” It’s only the one life you’ve got. Just go for it. Try.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
You’ve got to stay true to what you want for yourself, whether in life, in design or in business. It is not in the selfish sense of want but knowing how to stay true to a vision you have — be it how you want to live your life, how you want people to perceive you or what you want for your personal growth.
What is one question you wished people asked you more often?
I can tell you what I wish people would not ask. I struggle when people ask me about my creative process because it’s very hard to explain. And whatever you say is not a true translation of what you actually feel when you are creating. I find that the most difficult question to answer.
And how will you be spending Christmas?
Christmas will be spent in Singapore and I’ll be going to Tokyo immediately after that. Last year, we spent Christmas in Tokyo as a family. But it’s hard getting everybody together when you have grown-up children, so this year we’re spending it here. Christmas is also very special for me because it’s my husband’s birthday, so we always have a family celebration.