Creating something that matters

Emily Tan is the founder of Calla Lily, a jewellery brand, which focuses on co-creating their exquisite dazzling pieces with their clients through their stories.

In this interview, Emily shares her journey from how her first step into the world of fashion design started through where she is today – creating something that matters to her clients.

Tell us about Calla Lily and how did the name come about?

Calla Lily is my brand of fine bespoke jewellery, and the first independent brand I created after entering the bespoke jewellery scene in 2011. We pride ourselves on the stories we co-create with our clients through our pieces.

I come from long design history, having previously worked with designers that include Jimmy Choo Couture and Kara Ross New York, but Calla Lily represents a real evolution for me. The calla lily is a symbol of rebirth and change, and here, we celebrate a new beginning, an opportunity to explore new directions. The trumpet-shaped flower borrows its name from the Greek word for most beautiful and symbolises triumph and strength, which aligns with the brand’s values.

Creating something that matters

Why the strong interest in gems?

As a designer, I took my first steps into fashion in footwear. I joined Jimmy Choo in London after I graduated from the London College of Fashion. Following an internship with Marni in Italy, I moved to Vietnam to work on costume jewellery. But my desire, really, was to create pieces that last. That’s why I moved back to Singapore and began designing fine bespoke jewellery and working with gems. I went to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) to study, test and identify gemstones and was drawn to the beauty of gemstones. Coloured gems aren’t as easy to find in Singapore, and I liked their uniqueness – they don’t have the same uniformity you would find, say, in diamonds. I never looked back.

What were the challenges you faced when setting up your own brand and how did you overcome them?

There’s a steep learning curve when running a business as a creative and trying to stand out among the many brands out there. Hiring a good team was a big part of it – people with vision and real talent, and who can balance creativity and client needs.

What helps maintain this balance is centring our working style around co-creation and storytelling. We believe our customers can and should be a part of the design process, and fully experience how their stories get captured in their pieces. We make the time for that, and our customers really enjoy and appreciate it. That’s why so many of them return, time and time again.

Surfing your website, we see that you only see clients by appointment only. Why is it so?

It really is about putting the wearer in the centre of our design process. We want to ensure we make enough time to understand the story we’re capturing and to explore, with our client, the available options. Too much of fashion is impersonal and rushed and we’re trying to change that.

If you have to pick your best work, which would it be and why?

My best works are designs that I co-create with our clients. These are usually a combination of different ideas and sources of inspiration, and I love how they capture a story. I also enjoy breaking away from the ordinary. Right now, I am working on a bonsai-inspired piece with sliced gemstones, and different cuts of gemstones. It’s not just a piece of jewellery, but an ornament as well.

Creating something that matters

We understand that some of your clients come to you with heirlooms and older pieces that need new life. Do you see an upward trend, and why?

We’re certainly seeing more clients repurposing their jewellery – whether heirloom pieces or existing pieces. Some have heirlooms they are attached to but won’t wear simply because they don’t suit them, or tire of their old pieces. These pieces stay hidden away in a safe or a drawer.

Redesigning or repurposing a piece gives it new life – you preserve the memory associated with a piece, but it becomes a piece you enjoy wearing. There are many ways of maintaining the integrity and value of the gem while recreating how it’s set. A stone set in a ring could become a pendant, earrings could be reset into a ring, and a necklace presents infinite possibilities. The old becomes new again.

Can you walk us through what the process is like when a client wants to engage your service, and how long will it take for the jewellery to be ready?

We love to co-create. Clients tell us their stories, but also want the designer’s expert input in terms of style, setting and craft. We sometimes draw in more than one designer to introduce different possibilities. I have a keen eye for artisanal craftsmanship, my style is eclectic, and a lot of my designs are inspired by movement and nature, while Anita’s architecture background gives her a unique perspective on lines and shapes.

Our process always starts with a conversation – a client shares their story, their likes and dislikes, and we create sketches until something takes shape. Sometimes the design is also inspired by the uniqueness of a chosen stone. The process is collaborative from start to end, and we don’t rush it. That is why it is hard to say exactly how long a piece takes – it can depend on the complexity. The process can take anywhere between two months and a year.

Looking back at your entrepreneurship journey, if you can change one thing, what would you change?

I wouldn’t change a thing. The journey has taught me many lessons and I have gained experiences that have taught me how to handle different situations, and that has allowed me to grow as a person and a designer.

Lastly, what would you say to budding jewellery designers who wish to follow your footsteps?

Be open-minded and discerning, have humility and hunger, and never stop pursuing your dreams.

Leaving her job to help women shop meaningfully

Six years ago, Susannah Jaffer was a fresh graduate who moved to Singapore from the United Kingdom in search of work. At the earlier part of her career, Susannah spent more than half a year in a PR agency working as an intern before being recruited for a job at Expat Living magazine in 2013, where she took on various roles such as a fashion and beauty editor to a creative director. Although everything seemed to be going well for Susannah’s career in editorial media, in October 2017, she decided to call it quits and left her full-time job to start her first business,

Why? Here’s her story.

You were a fashion and beauty editor turned creative director at Expat Living. Future was bright for you. What made you decide that it’s time to quit full-time and start ZERRIN in the world’s most expensive city?

I got to the point that what I was doing every day was clashing with my values, so I needed to make a change. That was always on my mind and was negatively impacting my mental health. At the same time, while the spark of an idea for ZERRIN was in my head, I decided “if I don’t follow this now, then when?” It seemed crazy at that time, but so do many things before we put our mind to them, do the work and manage to achieve them.

What is ZERRIN and what are its unique selling points?

ZERRIN is Asia’s first multi-label e-commerce platform for sustainable fashion and beauty brands. Through a mix of responsible retail, content and events, our goal is to enable, educate and empower women to #ShopMeaningfully, and to reignite a sense of connection to our purchases in an accessible, down to earth way.

ZERRIN makes it more convenient for women to shop and discover independent conscious brands in one space. We’re the opposite of other fast-fashion marketplace concept retailers out there. Instead of a message of mass consumption, low prices and deals, we advocate slower, more thoughtful purchasing and appreciating quality over quantity. We’re also working hard to build and bring together a community through our blog, pop-ups and educational events. I see ZERRIN as more than just a retail store, but a movement, lifestyle and mindset.

Yes, Singapore is expensive. Luckily, the overheads of running an online store are a fraction of the cost of renting a physical space. I’m thankful that my career path, and mentors I’ve met along the way, have taught me resourcefulness, which meant I was able to set the business up and not break the bank.

What were the initial reactions of your loved ones when you broke the news to them that you are going to be an entrepreneur?

Call me lucky, but they never really questioned me. My dad was an entrepreneur from a young age, moving over from India (where he was born) to be an accountant. Eventually, he was earning enough to bring his family over, and he went on to start his own business. He likes to joke that I got it from him. He’s still working full time and managing two businesses at 78.

My partner has been a big support too, in a constructive way. He also works in retail, so there are aspects of my business that he could relate to and give feedback.

What were your challenges when putting your plans together?

Setting up the business while working full time in a demanding creative role. That got tough at times. I didn’t leave till after ZERRIN had launched. Thankfully, my boss at the time was very supportive when I told her about my plans. I’ll always be grateful for that.

Another factor was my budget. I had no external investor, and everything was on a shoestring. This got me down at times, but I learnt to pick myself up, revisit my long-term strategy and make informed decisions from there. I prioritised investing in areas of the business that my gut told me were the most important, like branding, essential website coding and some photography. Everything else I did myself – PR, marketing, additional e-commerce/blog photography, digital marketing, social media, accounting…the list goes on. Despite being on a budget, I didn’t want the vision of the company, and what I put out there, to come across as so.

What were the things you learned when setting up an e-commerce store?

There’s a lot to do. As a retailer carrying multiple brands, there’s so much to market, which is a blessing and a curse. Some days, it can feel like I’m not doing enough.

Also, you can’t just put a product out there and hope it sells. Consumers today are way more savvy than five years ago, and will see through your brand if it’s offering is lacklustre. The quality and authenticity of your message are also crucial, as is the strength of your brand story and vision. As a multi-label retailer, I think it’s vital to tell that story (in various ways) continually and not let it fade into the background, otherwise what’s your value proposition and how will you scale?

Where do you see ZERRIN in the next five years?

If all were to go to plan, we’d be an international name, and trusted as a destination for conscious brands, serving customers all over the globe. We’ll also have established a full lifestyle content channel (online and offline) which brings together our community of customers, brands and inspiring individuals paving the way for more responsible retail industry.

Will ZERRIN eventually open a brick and mortar store? If yes, why? If no, why not?

If it does happen, I don’t think it will be in Singapore. It doesn’t seem sustainable. Rent here is astronomical and I’ve seen enough stores open and close throughout my short career to know it’s not a wise move. Physical touch points are essential though, so pop-ups will always be key throughout the year. If we do eventually open a brick and mortar store, it will be more than just a retail space!

What’s your advice to people who want to start their e-commerce store?

It’s always going to take more work than you think. If you’re not digitally savvy or are not willing to learn, then forget it. Above all, starting any business is always a risk. You have to be willing to take it. There’s no guidebook, and you have to depend on yourself to get things done and make it all happen.

Whatever your concept, know your target customer and market, and do enough initial research to determine whether you’re product offering will stand out. Write a business plan! It doesn’t matter if it’s not the most detailed document on the planet (unless you’re pitching to investors from the start, of course.) It helped to gather my thoughts, guide my thinking and strategy. Being prepared is always a good idea!