Pamela Seow, whose grandfather started Poh Heng Jewellery in 1948, is helping the brand evolve as competition grows and tastes change.

At Poh Heng Jewellery, an item that is selling surprisingly well is the abacus ring. Fashioned after the abacus rings used by traders centuries ago who wore them to make quick calculations, Poh Heng’s modern rendition sees circles of movable miniature beads carved out of pure 916 yellow gold. “It’s a new trend among younger men,” says Pamela Seow, manager of marketing and communications at the jewellery retailer. The ring is not only eye-catching but also a symbol of abundance.

The 34-year-old Seow, whose grandfather started Poh Heng in 1948, is seeing more and more men coming into the chain’s 15 stores. “In the past, 80% of our customers were women,” she notes. Now, she estimates that 30% to 40% are men. Male customers come in looking to buy gifts, for the most part. However, an increasing number are buying statement pieces for themselves, such as a solitaire diamond ring.

“Women come in and like to browse. Men know what they want. They are very focused. They do more research. And, they ask lots of questions,” says Seow. “They even do stacking!” she adds, referring to the practice of wearing multiple rings on one finger.

Coming up with more masculine designs is one change the 68-year-old family business has embraced as it seeks to move with the times. For three generations, Poh Heng has been the go-to goldsmith for high-end jewellery, particularly wedding accessories. However, as local rivals turn up the heat and brand-conscious Singa poreans gravitate towards bijoux from big luxury players, Poh Heng has had to evolve to tap into the changing appetite for ornaments. On top of that, as the buying power of the social media generation grows, the home-grown brand is exploring new ways to reach out to a younger, more online-savvy audience.

One way it is doing this is through its latest collection, Carousel. Launched in time for Christmas, this rides on the popularity of charm bracelets, previously the sort of accessory found more on teenage girls. Poh Heng has reworked high-carat gold and precious stones into upmarket bracelets to meet the current buzz for whimsical, customisable accessories. To capture the attention of its target crowd, the advertising for this collection is a spin on the wildly popular “Follow Me” Instagram series, where a young woman is photographed leading her boyfriend on their travels.

Another line targeted at younger or more price-conscious consumers is Poh Heng’s Mixi.Gold range. This collection of dainty rings, personalised pendants and delicate chains is both versatile and affordable, making it an entry-level platform into the daunting realm of gold buying.

Meanwhile, for women who want something more contemporary, there is the ORO 22 collection. Launched a decade ago, ORO 22 offers designs that are bolder and more geometric, in 22-carat gold that is highly polished and comes in a lighter shade of yellow, derived from a proprietary mix of the precious metal and alloys.

Fragmented market
For Poh Heng, reinvention is essential, given the dogged expansion of its competitors. The jewellery market in Singapore is sizeable but fragmented, with numerous small domestic players, many of whom are newer than Poh Heng. High-profile retail chains include public-listed Aspial Corp and Soo Kee Group. The former owns four different brands — Aspial, Lee Hwa Jewellery, Goldheart and CITIGEMS — and has more than 70 boutiques in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Soo Kee, meanwhile, has three brands — Soo Kee, SK Jewellery and Love & Co — each catering to a different market segment.

However, the brand topping the league in dollar terms is US luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co, famed for its diamond engagement rings. According to Euromonitor International in an August 2016 report titled “Jewellery in Singapore”, Tiffany & Co racked up $105 million in sales last year. Brand-conscious consumers of fine jewellery are trading up to international brands, helping to explain the declines recorded in the market shares of local brands such as Lee Hwa and Soo Kee last year, the market research company notes in its report.

Unlike its competitors, privately held Poh Heng is not rushing to jack up its store numbers or looking to have more than one brand. “Yes, competitors have come on quite strongly,” Seow concedes, “but we are quite different. We do not claim to be the cheapest, nor do we want to be the cheapest.” Instead, she points to the company’s long track record in the business and its dedication to quality.

High-carat gold such as 22K and 24K is very malleable and it takes highly skilled craftsmanship to translate designs into works of art that are wearable. Although technological advances such as laser cutting have been made, a significant part of the process is still done by hand. All of Poh Heng’s products are certified by the Singapore Assay Office.

As one of Singapore’s pioneer jewellers, Poh Heng has built up a following, with 70% of its customers estimated to be locals. The company believes that retaining customers is easier than creating new ones. To keep buyers coming back, it has chosen to locate itself close to its core clientele, in HDB townships such as Ang Mo Kio and Bedok and at suburban malls such as Causeway Point and Hougang Mall. This makes it easier to offer after-sales services to its customers. It has only one store on Orchard Road, the city state’s main shopping strip, which counts as one of two flagship stores. The other, which is also its largest, is at People’s Park in Chinatown.

Although women — and men — are increasingly buying gold items and gems for themselves, gifting and weddings remain a central part of Poh Heng’s business. “We know what the local customer wants. We know the local taste very well,” says Seow. One nuptial tradition that has endured is the Chinese four-piece set (sidianjin) typically comprising earrings, bracelet, ring and necklace, which a mother-in-law gives to her daughter-in law. Realising that modern brides want something that melds both East and West and can be worn in the workplace, Poh Heng’s sidianjin collection ranges from heirloom-worthy pieces with classic icons to simpler, more chic designs that can be used every day.

Although there has been a proliferation of websites selling baubles, Seow is not too fazed by the explosion in e-commerce. “With fine jewellery, people still want peace of mind. They want to touch it. They want someone real selling to them.” She notes that there appears to be a price threshold of $200 or $300 per transaction for internet purchases of jewellery, suggesting that much of what is bought is of lower value.

Even though Seow does a lot of fashion shopping and browsing online, she reckons that a lot of young people get inspiration from social networks such as Instagram and lookbooks from designers, then do the actual buying offline. She is a fan of multi-label stores such as Asos, a British fashion and beauty e-business that stocks more than 850 brands, and style makers such as Italian fashion designer Valentino; Elie Saab, the Lebanese haute couturier known for his red-carpet gowns; Jason Wu, the Taiwanese-Canadian designer who shot to fame after dressing US First Lady Michelle Obama; and Thai-American designer Thakoon, who is known for his lively prints.

On the home front, she likes Velda Tan, who co-founded popular blogshop Love, Bonito and who now has her own label, Collate, as well as Elyn Wong, who started women’s clothing brand Stolen. And, while most of her personal treasure trove, needless to say, comes from Poh Heng, she does admire jewellery from French luxury brand Givenchy, which she finds is “no holds barred, very bold and innovative”.

Business in her blood
Aside from marketing, Seow’s role at Poh Heng includes purchasing and design. She makes six to seven trips a year to places such as Milan and Vicenza in Italy and Hong Kong for trade fairs and shows. Seow, who has been with the company for nine years, grew up with the business, which was started by her maternal grandfather Chng Tok Ngam. He set up shop on North Bridge Road 12 years after leaving China at 16 to apprentice in his uncle’s goldsmith shop in Singapore.

Seow often followed her mum to work. Currently, of the second generation, two uncles and an aunt are in charge of merchandising, sales and purchasing. Of the third generation, a cousin handles IT. As a result, there is often shop talk at home. Her mother Chng Hwee Siang has been acting CEO of the company since former CEO Chng Seng Mok, son of the founder, passed away in September 2015 from cancer.

Yet, it wasn’t a given that Seow would join the business. “The company’s philosophy is that family members need to work outside first. It’s a criteria,” she says. The idea is that young family members need to be able to find a job on their own and be able to take hard knocks. “It needs to be two-way: The company has to want you,” she adds.

Articulate and personable, Seow secured a job in marketing and communications at Standard Chartered Bank after graduating with a business degree from Singapore Management University. A year and eight months into her job, her uncle Seng Mok asked if she was keen to join the family business. “We were both ready for each other then,” she says. “The company was evolving a lot faster.”

Aside from keeping Poh Heng’s image and products relevant, Seow and her management team have to grapple with the challenges facing many retailers in the current downturn. Rentals remain high, which means having to keep an eye on costs. Labour is also an issue. Finding craftsmen and master sculptors is getting harder amid a declining master-apprentice environment. Experienced service staff are also scarce on the ground. Moreover, the job requires weeks and weeks of training as well as regular retraining and education on new products. Seow points out that “it is very hard to get staff to work 10 hours a day”.

The company is looking for a new chief executive. “We are not against an external CEO, but we want to ensure that he or she holds the same values as us,” she says. Ultimately, the new head will also have to be someone with a long-term vision for Poh Heng, one of Singapore’s oldest and most trusted names in the business of crafting fine jewellery. As Seow underscores, “We want someone who can continue the business for the next 70 or 100 years.”

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor with The Edge Singapore, is still searching for her pot of gold.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 760 (Dec 26) of The Edge Singapore.