Local jewellery designer Carolyn Kan’s pieces are unconventional, drawing inspiration from the ordinary and the whimsical. They have attracted many fans, including Disney and Singapore Airlines.

“There is beauty in things that are not conventionally desirable,” says Carolyn Kan. As the 44-year-old local designer shows me around her tiny work studio at the National Design Centre, two pieces catch my eye: a splash of paint that has been turned into a bright-coloured necklace, and burglar ants resting on top of a ring. “Beauty should not be dictated by one party. In Singapore, people often appreciate things that are perfect, but I want to show the beauty of irregularity and disorder,” she points out.

Inspired to rewrite the narrative of beauty, Kan started the Carrie K label in 2009. Her signature pieces include candy-shaped charms, safety pinsturned- glitzy earrings and razor-shaped rings. Each piece tells a story.

The Bling Bar collection, which features candy-shaped charms, was influenced by the sweet shops of her childhood. “People gave each other sweets to create a bit of happiness,” she says. The Burglar Ant collection is an ode to her birthplace. “I wanted to create something playful — people think Singaporeans are always serious,” she explains.

“When you attach meaning and prominence to something, the piece becomes so much more valuable,” she says. “Value does not come just based on how much a piece of jewellery costs or what it is made of. Value comes in the meaning, or the memory, attached to it.”

Kan’s whimsical style has won her many fans. Last year, Disney commissioned her to design a series of jewellery. She recently introduced the 15-piece Beauty and the Beast collection. True to her style, she juxtaposed a pearl with the jagged outline of the Beast’s teeth in the design of a ring and a pendant.

Last month, Kan launched the North Star collection, exclusively designed for Singapore Airlines to commemorate the carrier’s 70th anniversary. This set is arguably her most elegant so far, with a silver pole star encircled by a four-leaf clover. “The North Star is a prominent [star that is used in celestial navigation]; we thought nothing is more meaningful than for someone to say ‘you are my guiding light’,” Kan explains. Carrie K is set to debut a second collection for SIA in September.

Florence awakening
Kan’s foray into jewellery design began in 2008 when she decided to take a year-long break from her job as managing director of M&C Saatchi Singapore. She tried her hand at several ventures, including running a supper club and importing boutique champagnes. Then, she packed her bags, flew to Florence, rented an apartment and studied the language.

There, she met a silversmith who took her under her wing. “I could not speak Italian and she could not speak English. We mostly communicated by pointing at objects,” she recalls.

She worked in her mentor’s tiny atelier, learning how to forge silver pieces. “She would show me a piece she made and point at certain tools to show me how to make it,” Kan says.

Her first piece was a dome-shaped ring with a lot of holes. Her mentor raised an eyebrow — it was certainly not a conventional design. But Kan could not care less. She had found her calling. “I’d never felt as much joy and satisfaction as I did the moment I finished making that ring. It was something I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she says.

For the remainder of her time in Italy, she wandered down alleyways, making friends with local artisans. “I would spend my days getting lost and just barging into a designer’s studio,” she says. When she returned to Singapore, Carrie K was officially born. She converted her kitchen into a workshop- cum-retail space. She also enrolled in a two-year jewellery design course at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa).

In 2010, her brand was voted Jewellery Design of the Year by Elle Singapore. Local retailers such as The Society of Black Sheep at Marina Bay Sands started stocking her jewellery and US and Japanese brands followed suit.

Last year, Carrie K bagged the Designer of the Year award presented at the Singapore Fashion Awards, giving it more opportunities to tap Asian markets. Today, Carrie K is sold in eight countries and the label has appeared in global fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Chinese actress Angelababy is a fan.

In Singapore, Kan wants to recreate her experience in Florence for customers. Her atelier in Bukit Timah houses all her pieces and customers get to have a close-up look at the jewellery-making process. “During our parents’ time, they could go into a goldsmith shop and watch the craftsmen at work; that’s how people appreciated the things that were made,” she says. “Now, you just see the finished product. You probably don’t have any idea what goes into the making of a piece of jewellery. It becomes just a commodity.”

Everyday objects
Kan is the best advocate for Carrie K. She wears the label’s jewellery religiously, switching from one collection to another. But there is a set of rings she never takes off. Her husband, Chiew Huan Chong, made them. “We often bounce ideas off each other. One day, I told him I wanted to create something using Morse code. He quietly went off and made [these]. [The rings] have my initials and his.” The Morse Bling collection was the couple’s effort at creating a secret code for lovers.

Chiew, who used to work in the aluminium industry, is head of production at Carrie K. He had also taken a two-year jewellery-making course at Nafa at the same time as his wife.

“I never thought I would enjoy being with someone 24 hours a day, always discussing stuff, but I guess we complement each other. Whenever I come up with a hare-brained idea, he comes up with the engineering for it,” Kan says.

Her Reborn collection, one of her quirkiest, was launched in 2011. It stars the unsung heroes of everyday life such as nuts, bolts, safety pins and nails. “They remind me of the unsung heroes in my life; without them, my life would fall apart,” she says.

Her mother, an optometrist, is one such person. She was one of Kan’s biggest supporters when Carrie K was started. “Being a jewellery designer is very good. Whatever you cannot sell, you can melt down and make into something else,” her mother had said.

Giving back to society
Now that Carrie K is established, Kan wants to help local designers. It was hard for her — even with 12 years of experience in events management, sales and advertising — to strike out on her own, let alone someone fresh out of school.

In 2011, Kan founded Keepers to showcase homegrown designs and products. Keepers is housed in the same premises as her atelier. Three years later, she organised a 16-month pop-up space, Keepers: Singapore Designer Collective, with the help of the Textile and Fashion Federation. The space took up 4,300 sq ft at Orchard and showcased a diverse range of home-grown creations from hundreds of designers.

“For some of them, they are at a stage similar to when I started. As a one-person show, the designers don’t have the time to market their labels,” Kan says.

The number of local artists creating their own brands is growing, according to design and advertising institute MAD School. About 25% of its students start their design firms when they graduate and about 40% of them provide freelance services.

Kan plans to put together another pop-up space to support local designers. “When you start a business, it is the toughest experience in the world. No one is going to support you just because you want to realise your dream. You need to create a product that people will miss if you disappear… [You should also] build a network of mentors,” she says.

Some of these mentors are customers. Some are in their 20s, while others are in their 60s. “They are jewellery fans and they wear my pieces in ways I cannot imagine. Some come back with constructive feedback on things that didn’t work,” Kan says.

Eight years on, her quest to find beauty in imperfection is on a firm footing. Some customers are asking for engagement rings made from raw, uncut diamonds. “Raw diamonds look unremarkable — like little pebbles. But many people also see the promise of potential,” she says.

This article appeared in Issue 774 (April 10) of The Edge Singapore