Director of century-old jewellery brand H. Sena, Medhanie Sena says there’s no better time to rebrand than during a pandemic

The jewellery industry may not have been the hardest hit by the pandemic — many brands with an online presence are reporting 300%–400% growth in recent months — but smaller bespoke jewellery brands like H. Sena have certainly felt its wrath.

The very nature of a bespoke business is about building relationships with clients through interpersonal connections and word-of-mouth marketing. To make matters worse, Covid-19 travel restrictions have also soured business for H. Sena, whose clientele comprises both locals and foreigners who fly in to have their jewellery custom-designed.

According to its young director, Medhanie Sena, her biggest challenge now is staying relevant to a younger tech-savvy customer base who favour big brand franchises over smaller ateliers. “Whilst we do have a loyal clientele, the majority of them are in the boomer generation who have been with us for years mostly via word-of-mouth recommendations,” she shares.

Medhanie plans to modernise the business is by pivoting online with a strong social media presence. “Nowadays we cannot solely rely on word-of-mouth; we have to try reaching out to new and local audiences by digitising our business. Even though we have always had a website and are on social media, we have never fully tapped on their potential to showcase our brand in proper light.”

mute
To take the company into its next chapter, Medhanie is spearheading a major rebranding exercise — the first time in its 101-year history — primed to reintroduce its craftsmanship to the modern consumer.

“We have undergone a brand facelift across all digital aspects with tastefully-shot images, a more user-friendly website and a stronger emphasis of our value proposition and artistry to hopefully communicate better with the savvy and visual-centric audience,” she says.

Medhanie is giving H. Sena a brand facelift with new photos, such as this one featuring Allegra Diamond Earrings with 384 Diamonds in 18k White Gold Madison

Focusing on gems and artistry
The other real challenge is how to make bespoke hip again in an era of fast fashion and instant gratification. For a start, Medhanie wants to bring the focus back to H. Sena’s quality and diversity of gems and expertise in craftsmanship and artistry.

Reputed as Singapore’s leading stockist for precious stones, H. Sena is known for carrying the highest-grade diamonds (FL to VS) and coloured gemstones, all certified, appraised and ethically sourced. Some of their sapphires are from Sri Lanka or Burma, while the emeralds come from Columbia and pink diamonds from Australia, to name a few.

With an extensive and trusted network, H. Sena is able to source for stones of specific rarity, sizing and colour on request. Using only authentic 18-karat gold, white gold and platinum, every piece is hand-sculpted, with gems individually set with utmost care and precision.

In its dedication to bring forth the familial touch that is key to the H. Sena identity, every step of the customer’s journey is escorted by an experienced in-house team. From initial ideations, preliminary sketches, gem selections to final modifications, customers are personally advised with an expert eye on how to bring their vision to life.

In terms of design, clients usually go to H. Sena for investment or heirloom pieces that can be treasured for a long time. Its price range is as diverse as its product offerings, which can start from as low as $1,000 for a wedding band to millions for more intricate, heavily bejewelled pieces.

“We do offer in-house designs at our showroom, but bespoke is our core business where we design one-of-a-kind pieces. Depending on the design and intricacy involved, it can take as little as two weeks to create a wedding band to two months for a tennis necklace which requires similarly sized diamonds with the same grading for a uniformed look,” Medhanie explains.

Upholding a family legacy
Founded in 1919 and named after Sinhalese craftsman Henry Senanayake (nicknamed Sena), H. Sena is a three-generation luxury jewellery brand with family-run ateliers all across Southeast Asia. At its peak in the late 1950s, the brand had a string of prolific commissions including then-ruling royalties of Kedah and Kelantan, dealings with the King and Queen of Thailand, and a silver casket that was presented to the late Prince Phillip.

According to Medhanie, Henry started the business because of his love for jewellery and watches. Back in the 1910s, he saw an opportunity to introduce Sinhalese jewellery craftsmanship to Asia and established his first business in Thailand.

“H. Sena was solely my grandpa’s brainchild and he started everything from the ground-up. My former colleagues shared that he was friendly but strict; a straightforward person who was very caring and definitely a people person. Despite the nature of the luxury business and the high-value dealings, he was also very down to earth,” Medhanie recalls.

Henry retired in 1962, leaving his family a legacy of fine jewellery craftsmanship and inherited knowledge of precious metals, diamonds and coloured gemstones. His stores in Singapore were entrusted to his youngest son, Dharma Sena, who brought H. Sena’s diamond collection of rings, earrings and necklaces as well as the finest gemstones into the world of Asia’s elite. With full creative and commercial control and a trusted eye for picking out the best gemstones, he turned H. Sena into one of Singapore’s leading stockists for diamonds and coloured stones.

Today, the heritage jeweller operates a flagship boutique-cum-workshop at Ngee Ann City, which is now under the leadership of 38-year-old Medhanie who took over from her father in 2011. “All our customisations are all done locally in Singapore at this atelier. We prefer it this way as we are able to have more control with the development process and the safety of the products,” she says.

Medhanie left her career in finance and life in Australia to return to Singapore to inherit the business when she was only 27. At the time, she did not have the bandwidth to make drastic changes to the company as her directorial debut meant learning every aspect of the business, from design development to appraising gemstones, consulting with clients and managing staff.

Now married with two young children and armed with a decade of management expertise, she’s ready to take the company into the future while still upholding its century-old heritage.

In this interview with Options, Medhanie shares what it’s like to be at the forefront of one of Singapore’s oldest jewellery brands.

What prompted you to leave your career behind and join the family business?
I always knew that at some point in time, I would get involved in the family business... Since my early years, I have been fond of jewellery and an interest in keeping up with the changing trends in the industry. Family is also a huge part of H. Sena’s brand identity and it’s a legacy that I have proudly inherited. It’s my hope that one day, my children will inherit it too.

Were you able to take your previous job experience and apply it to this current position?
Definitely. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to gain international experience, which has helped broaden my horizons, and acquire skills that have benefited our business. Working in the financial sector has also helped me to better understand the commercial aspect of the business.

What kind of on-ground training did you get at H. Sena?
Long before I took over as director, I would spend my vacation time travelling with my father to different jewellery conventions and auctions; I joined him in meetings with suppliers and clients, and observed the process of how meticulously he selected the perfect stone. I really have him to thank for imparting so much invaluable knowledge and wisdom about this specialised industry.

When I first took over, it was a challenging time for me. As the owner of a small-scale jewellery business, the role is very hands-on, from overseeing new design developments to managing employees, to even the ideation process of branding campaigns and events. I really have to credit my mother Tusitha for not only being a pillar of support and trusted sounding board, but also a mentor in appraising diamonds and coloured stones.

What are some of the challenges at work?
Running a business is no easy task, especially when it’s a hands-on role and there’s a family legacy to uphold. With the unpredictability and volatility that Covid brings, I’d say that businesses need to constantly adapt themselves in finding new ways to stay relevant.

The biggest challenge for me now is competition from larger jewellery ateliers, as well as trying to rebrand and restructure the company due to these uncertain times. A majority of our clientele are the baby boomers but their children (the millennials and Gen Zs) gravitate towards big brand franchises. This is likely due to the misconception that we are more expensive because we are bespoke. So it’s my job to debunk this myth whilst rebranding for a younger audience.

How has bespoke jewellery evolved over the years?
Back in the ’30s and ’50s, the most popular stones were sapphires, rubies and emeralds, and designs were chunkier, heavier and more ornate with a lot of Italian influence. Jewellery was often bought in a matching set. Diamonds started to get popular in the ’60s probably due to the improved quality in the stones and heavy marketing by mainstream brands. These days, customers prefer more minimalist designs that are simple, understated and timeless.

How important is sustainability and ethically-sourced jewellery to you?
It’s very important for us to know where our gems are from, so we make it a point to use only suppliers with whom our relationships are built on years of trust. We can almost certainly guarantee their stones are derived from sustainable sources and are conflict-free. Though details like these are tough to ascertain since there’s no certification, we’re more than happy to share details whenever clients ask us about our sources.

What do you love most about your job?
I get the greatest satisfaction and joy when I manage to obtain the product that my client has been searching for, and when I see the happiness in their faces when they receive the end-product of their customised piece of jewellery which will be with them for generations.

PHOTO: ALBERT CHUA/THE EDGE SINGAPORE | MAKEUP: BENO LIM

Titania Necklace

Alexis Halo Ring

Aubrey Black Opal Ring

Ruby Respect Ring and Juliet Pink Diamond Ring

Heart Shape Diamond

Ophelia Aquamarine Necklace

Pink Sapphire Brooch

Genevieve Bracelet