Vintage jewellery and heritage designs from bygone days are one of the hottest trends now, but they have always been much cherished and prized around the world.
In a country with a brief history like Singapore, however, “vintage” rarely dates back to more than a hundred years. When it comes to local heritage designs, one of the most popular is Peranakan. A much-beloved fusion of Malay and Chinese cultures, the Peranakans, also known as the Straits-born Chinese or Baba-Nyonya, have their own rich customs, cuisine, fashions, architecture, design, and of course, jewellery.
The Peranakans were among the first Singaporeans to have extensive jewellery collections, especially among the wealthy families. Jewellery was very much a part of Peranakan culture and even babies were gifted with precious accessories. It was very common for girls to have their ears pierced at an early age, and they would be given earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets of gold and jade. For Peranakan women, jewellery served more than just a decorative purpose; in the days before women had their own bank accounts or jobs, their jewellery—often passed down from mothers to daughters, and given to brides—were their only possessions of value that could, if necessary, be sold in times of need.
Peranakan jewellery was always entirely handcrafted out of 22 or 24 carat yellow gold, with nature motifs such as the phoenix, dragonfly, butterfly, flowers, and leaves being the most popular. The vintage pieces were often set with Intan stones, a rough-cut, smoky-hued diamond from Kalimantan, Indonesia. However recreations of Peranakan pieces today typically use modern brilliant-cut diamonds, which give the jewellery much more sparkle and fire, in keeping with the passion for bling.
Today, Peranakan jewellery is more popular than ever, especially among non-Peranakans. The elegant, intricate designs and unique historical heritage of these pieces give them a cachet that other jewellery can’t offer. While real vintage Peranakan pieces are rare and usually kept within families or in museums, you can still find some for sale online through auction houses and eBay. One site that specialises in vintage Peranakan jewellery, for instance, is Gem Gardener.
If you aren’t able to find vintage pieces, you can still obtain beautiful Peranakan design jewellery made by modern jewellers. These are every bit as beautiful and authentic-looking as the vintage stuff, and may be more preferred by many for their relatively more affordable prices and modern diamond cuts.
Where to Find Peranakan Jewellery Today
One of the top makers of Peranakan Jewellery in Singapore today is Foundation Jewellers, which has been in business since 1976.
Led by husband-and-wife team, Thomis Kwan and Caroline Tay, Foundation Jewellers earned international renown after one of their brooches was given by Singapore’s President, Tony Tan, to HM Queen Elizabeth II.
One of Her Majesty’s favourites, the gold filigree brooch features a beautiful Bird Of Paradise design. The royal has worn this brooch more than 20 times, including at the christening of her great-granddaughter, Princess Charlotte. Well, if it’s good enough for the Queen, it’s good enough for us!
Foundation makes almost all its jewellery in-house on their premises at the Holiday Inn Orchard. In a small workshop behind the boutique, four artisans work on crafting the exquisite pieces. They were trained by Foundation’s master jeweller, 76-year-old Mr Lim Teck Ngiam who has over 60 years of experience and continues to supervise the other craftsmen and work from his home.
In addition to the kerosang (a set of three brooches linked by a gold chain that is worn in the front of the traditional sarong kebaya outfit, to fasten the blouse in place of buttons), the boutique also offers a selection of brooches, bangles, cuffs, earrings, rings, and hair pins. While most pieces feature traditional Peranakan designs, Foundation also has a small contemporary jewellery line which combines modern designs with that the same exquisite filigree detailing found in vintage pieces.
You can also find a range of Peranakan jewellery at Poh Heng, the venerable 70-year-old company. Back in the 50s and 60s, Poh Heng made Peranakan jewellery for its clients, and has preserved many of the original designs. When Singapore celebrated its 50thAnniversary in 2015, Poh Heng launched a new collection, called The Peranakan Ensemble, featuring 13 pieces that showcase the Phoenix, a central motif of Peranakan design. The collection also has pieces made of white gold, which give the jewellery a more contemporary and “lighter” look than the 22K yellow gold that’s used in traditional designs.
Another jeweller that has a long tradition of making Peranakan pieces is Kim Poh Hong Goldsmiths, which was founded in 1938 by Mr Tan Eng Geok, an immigrant from China. The store started by selling traditional Chinese gold jewellery but soon began attracting Peranakan clients who would bring their precious pieces to the store to sell, repair or have gems added. Kim Poh then began to specialise in Peranakan jewellery, including bracelets, brooches, necklaces and more. Over the years, the brand has built up a collection of vintage pieces that’s proudly displayed at their store today but not for sale.
How To Wear Peranakan Jewellery Today
Vintage Peranakan jewellery can work with any modern outfit. As with all ethnic jewellery, don’t overdo it or you’d cross the line from heritage chic to costume party. Their intricate yet delicate designs make Peranakan jewellery gorgeous statement pieces.
You don’t need a sarong kebaya to wear a kerosang today; team the brooches with a simple blouse or plain tunic for a stunning ethnic look. You can also wear one instead of three brooches as many modern kerosang sets are now detachable.
Peranakan brooches can also double as a hair ornament – have your hairdresser secure one to an updo for a beautiful and elegant look for a special occasion.
Brooches make striking pendants when attached to a chain. Many Peranakan brooches come with both a pin and a hook so they do double duty. Your jeweller can also easily add on a hook if there isn’t already one. Attach a brooch to a long chain and wear it with a simple tee-shirt and jeans for a glamorous, modern ensemble.
Or, show off an intricate Peranakan necklace by wearing it on top of a black mock turtleneck top. The elaborate designs of these necklaces also make them ideal as hair accessories, so don’t be afraid to bring it to your hairstylist who can easily work them into your ‘do.
All images courtesy of Foundation Jewellers.