Harris Zaidi is a self-professed ‘gem geek’. Now the business development director for bespoke jewellery maker Arte Oro, he is on a mission to develop an appreciation for the offbeat, the unusual and the precious 

Harris Zaidi, the business development director for bespoke jewellers Arte Oro, chatters at lightning speed whenever the conversation turns to his love of precious gems.

Animated, bright and lively, Harris speaks with his hands as much as with his words. It is clear Harris is passionate about Arte Oro — which means ‘the art of gold’ in Italian — which specialises in precious, deeply personal stories of heritage and culture in beautiful, extraordinary works of wearable art.

Arte Oro’s founder and master jeweller Danilo Giannoni started the brand in Singapore in 2017 after years of working and manufacturing for some of the worlds’ most renowned houses of jewellery such as Stefan Hefner, Crivelli, Chatila, Piranesi, Bulgari and many more. An introduction from a mutual friend led to Harris joining the company last year as its business development director. The rest, as they say, is history.

Yet, Harris was initially reluctant to get involved with Arte Oro.

While he is a self-professed gem geek and (we suspect) a veritable magpie drawn to all things shiny, this veteran of the public relations and creative industries did not want to make his lifelong love affair with gemstones a “work thing”. But after running an events agency for over a decade, Harris was at a crossroads and longed for something new.

“It was a very cliched but very true moment for me that when I reached a crossroads in life, I asked “What do I do now?” After feeling like I’ve done the whole [PR and events] thing, I took the proverbial leap of faith, and told the universe that “I’m letting this go”,” he says. “It was terrifying — I had absolutely no clue what would come up next, but I knew I wanted adventure.”

To continue at the events agency was the safe choice but Harris says he had to take a risk.

“There was a lot of soul-searching. It would be really difficult to start again, I told myself. But like I said, it was a leap of faith [and] that was my second lease of life,” he adds. “It was risky but I felt much more ready to be myself this time around.”

Subsequently, he took a few years break where he focused on finding his new adventure and “giving back”, helping out at one of Singapore’s leading professional theatre companies and a not-for-profit Singapore registered charity Wild Rice. He wanted to reset, he says. “Unplug myself from the matrix, so to speak,” he laughs, referring to the hugely popular 1990s science-fiction movie The Matrix.

“To remove myself from the vocabulary of profit-and-loss, branding and all that.” He continues: “I wanted to know who I was if I didn’t need to make a living. What would I do if I didn’t need to earn a living?”

Leap of faith

That answer came when a mutual friend introduced Harris to Danilo, who was then based in Hong Kong but wanted to relocate to Singapore. “My friend got to know him in the [diamond business] circles, and introduced me.”

Danilo had wanted to grow Arte Oro in Singapore through exclusive, intimate events with prospective clients and Harris’s friend thought he’d be the perfect fit to help Danilo do just that. As they were talking, Harris’s love and expertise in gems became clear as he spotted some precious, rare stones — tanzanite and tsavorite — in Danilo’s collection.

“We ended up talking about gemstones and I took stock of his [publicity] assets. That was when I told him “Eh darling, cannot lah like that”,” he says, laughing. “I told him, you need to do more PR [public relations] and make sure your positioning and branding is perfect [before meeting clients]. And because I sit on the organising committee of Pink Dot [the annual event in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in Singapore] as well, all the most talented gays are there right?” he jokes.

“I said, after we’re done with Pink Dot, I’ll get them to do your branding and design and everything.”

Following that first meeting, Harris became much more involved in the branding, look and feel of Arte Oro — taking care of everything from copywriting to the logo design. One thing led to another and Danilo offered Harris a job.

But the latter refused it, at first. “[It came to a point where] Danilo said, isn’t this just common sense if you’re part of the business? But I didn’t want to make it ‘work’ because I was still in the mindset of “this should not be work, it should be all fun”. I did not want to taint the one thing I found joy in!” he jokes.

Laughing heartily, he says that he eventually changed his mind about Arte Oro for selfish reasons. Like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Harris cheekily says it was simply because he wanted access to beautiful things for a “cheaper” price.

“When the subject was brought up again, I finally thought “actually hor, it’ll be cheaper for us [his partner and him] right?” he jokes. “Ownself make jewellery, can get at cost [price] mah.”

And so Harris now does what he does best: The “singing and dancing” for Arte Oro, which felt natural to him, and for which he is truly grateful for.

“I am glad and thankful the universe gave me something to play [with], and to bring all my past experience and expertise into something which is truly joyful for me.” His love for gemstones is not just a passion, he says. “I don’t like to use the word ‘passion’, it’s so overused. For me, [gemstones] are beautiful things, and I like them precisely because I don’t need it — who needs sapphires or tourmalines, right? But if you do want them, then make it nice nice.” “I like that [gems] are something rare from the earth, and that it takes a great deal of skill to facet it, to bring the colour and fire out of it. I am not a polisher, I’m not a jewellery designer. I love the stories of not only the gemstones, but of jewellery — where did they come from? It’s a work of art, it’s very personal because you wear it next to your skin,” he enthuses. “I love the whole romance of jewellery.”

Storyteller extraordinaire

It is this fascination with jewellery and the romance of it that spurs him on, and to endeavour to share the story of something that carries great personal and sentimental value.

“To me, jewellery and gemstones become a vehicle of history and family heritage, and I am all for that. I love jewellery the same reason I love batik — it is [passed down] within the family, only certain families know how to dye a particular shade of blue, for example, and there are different patterns to be worn on different occasions — I love it!” he says.

“Batik is a repository of heritage, it tells stories of a culture and heritage. And to me, jewellery is the same way.” This appreciation for cultural heritage is what drives Harris to be involved in something he absolutely did not want to make “work” at first.

“It felt like I am starting a narrative which I can pass to future generations, and they can pass to theirs. We are nothing if not stories,” he says. “And that’s what I want to do — bring out the story of Arte Oro and that’s what I bring to Arte Oro.”

As it turns out, it was a perfect overlap of desire and intent. Danilo had also wanted to return the romanticism to jewellery and to tell the history of the great Italian royal houses of old, and of pieces of jewellery that have lasted through the centuries as cultural artefacts. “It is incredibly exciting for me,” he adds.

Eventually, the conversation turned to how this overlap could work to Arte Oro’s advantage, and it now comes in the form of the brands’ first ever pop-up collection. “It is basically to showcase our vision, and our identity, so that people will take notice; something to differentiate us,” Harris adds.

The pop-up collection was initially planned for August, but the Covid-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works and the launch will take a while yet. However, the creative work continued during the “circuit breaker” period, and Harris found the work uplifting.

“Times were very difficult but the artistic endeavour was really very exciting. There was just a spark in the workshop that we’ve never seen before. Because we could not travel, our undivided attention was on this collection. It was like the perfect incubation period.”

Harris says this pop-up collection will be Peranakan-inspired — something he feels will answer the question of what Arte Oro’s design vocabulary will be. “I was researching heritage pieces and asked, how can we update this? A lot of Peranakan heritage has been marketed as a product, but I wanted to update it, to make it not ‘stuck in time’. This is something we can show the world.”

Coming from mixed heritage himself (his grandmother was Chinese and his grandfather Indian), he felt that this heritage would be wonderfully reflected in jewellery. “Peranakan is a particularly Singaporean heritage and that actually gave us the impetus to launch this; it is a very important continuation of our narrative. And I feel elated that I can be a part of this important cultural contribution.”

While he could not share much more details of this collection, he is hoping to launch it this year, but he wants to be cautious, take it slow and not rush the process. In the end, what keeps the fire lit in his heart is, to Harris, not the gems themselves. “I used to think at the top of my mind, oh, the spark is the gems itself. But now when you ask me that question, I think no, it’s not that although the gems are a part of it,” he says.

“And now after having spent some time [at Arte Oro] it’s as if my focus zoomed out of it. I now see all the small decisions, the dreams and visions of this entire tapestry that made this all possible. And that’s what really excites me now, that I am able to tell the story of it.”