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.
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.
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.