Up-and-coming fine jewellery designer Yasmin Tjoeng is not afraid of a challenge. When it comes to the world of luxury, it can be hard to compete with the established brand names but Tjoeng is not looking to compete — she is paving her own path and creating wearable art which she hopes will transcend generations.
When we first meet Yasmin Tjoeng, founder of Singapore-born fine jewellery brand Maison Tjoeng, she is wearing a stunning gold and diamond bangle from her own collection — an understated yet elegant piece which seems plain at first glance, until you notice the pavé diamonds, set in 18K gold and in an Aztec-inspired pattern.
On her ears are a pair of gold earrings from her newest collection — the Maar collection, named after French artist Dora Maar. It is asymmetrical and oval, with pavé set diamonds sparkling from the interior curve of the earring, rather than the exterior. Again, at first look, the earrings appear subdued, until the diamonds catch the light and you notice its brilliance.
As with her jewellery, there is nothing flashy or loud about Tjoeng, who exudes a sort of quiet elegance about her. Yet Tjoeng’s face lights up as she smiles, a flash which transforms her initially subdued and reserved manner.
Indeed, to describe Maison Tjoeng is to describe Tjoeng (who is part Maltese-French, part Irish and part Chinese) as a designer who has poured her heart, soul and imagination into every piece of jewellery she has designed over the past four years.
Since she founded the brand in 2016, Tjoeng has gained international recognition for her inventive yet timelessly elegant designs and fine craftsmanship. Maison Tjoeng was listed as a recommended brand in 2016 at the Premiere Classe in Paris — the leading fashion trade show of Paris Fashion Week — and was made an Ambassador to the Metal & Smith independent jeweller trade show in New York in 2018.
Maison Tjoeng was also accepted into the Couture Design Atelier, the most prestigious show for independent fine jewellery designers, in 2019. Her jewellery can also be found in several renowned international jewellers, including at Lebanese-born American jeweller Samer Halimeh’s Knightsbridge boutique in London.
Finding her craft
Still, Tjoeng did not exactly come to jewellery design as a matter of course. Born in Australia but raised in Papua New Guinea, she initially studied Architectural Interior Design at Bond University in Australia.
“I knew I always wanted to do design. At the time, the sort of design you went into that was deemed ‘respectable’ was architecture and interior design, when everyone else were accountants, doctors and lawyers,” she says, light-heartedly ribbing her very traditional Asian-Chinese heritage. “At the end of it, I loved the degree, but I knew it wasn’t quite right.”
“When I was at design school, they [her teachers] told me I’m an artist, not a designer, because I’m quite free with the way I express myself. Design can often be quite a restricted art, because you have to really be disciplined that it’s going to work, you know, it still has to be ergonomic, and my approach is really quite free,” she remembers. “My teacher may not have meant it as a compliment,” she adds with a laugh. “But I took it as a compliment anyway.”
It was not until she took a trip to Paris and she met a jewellery designer that it finally clicked: This was what she wanted to do. So, she started her career working in the wholesale of semi-precious stones in Australia, before moving to Beijing in 2008 — to study Mandarin and get in touch with her Chinese heritage — and then to Hong Kong the following year.
In 2013, she moved to Singapore, where she studied Jewellery Design at the Raffles Design Institute. Here, she learnt the art of silversmithing, gemstone setting and traditional jewellery making techniques, whilst doing an internship with local brand Perlota. “When I was working for her [Perlota founder Sophie Bennani Pendleton], it was great — but it really solidified to me that I wanted to have my own brand,” adds Tjoeng. And so, Maison Tjoeng was born, and the decision to name it after her own surname was a deliberate choice that speaks to the vision that she has for the brand.
“I decided on Maison Tjoeng because I wanted [my brand] to have longevity and to be an enduring brand.”
In the world of luxury, Tjoeng knew that the odds were sometimes stacked against independent fine jewellers. Very often, finding one’s own unique aesthetic and design vision to stand out from the long-established, renowned brands is not easy.
Still, Tjoeng is not one to back down from a challenge, and she is looking not to compete, rather, she is looking to find her own niche and create beautiful, wearable pieces of art which can be passed down as heirlooms.
As such, her design aesthetic is what she calls “new classic.” Tjoeng explains: “[My aesthetic] is very design-driven, very high quality — something for those who are looking for something different, something that they haven’t seen before but still has longevity that they could have it for a long time, and pass it down to their children or grandchildren. It’s not of a particular time, style or trend; and I think that’s important as well because there’s a lot of pressure on independent jewellery designers to adhere to the trends.”
Having lived in several different cultures and countries, it is no surprise that Tjoeng is singularly unique in her style.
“I think it is quite hard to really pick out how I’ve been influenced, but I think I have a mixture of the Australian aesthetic — very pared back, sleek and modern — mixed with the ornate, traditional ornamental style of New Guinea and even China, and so I’ve sort of brought that together,” she adds.
Getting a head start was challenging, at first. Tjoeng struggled at the beginning to get her foot into the jewellery world, as it were; she didn’t know many other independent jewellery designers.
As she says: “I think it took a lot of courage [on my part] to reach out to people and ask, “Do you know a jewellery designer? Do you know this person, or could you put me in touch with this person?” From there on, however, I got a lot of advice on what [trade] shows I should be looking out for, or to invest in public relations, for example.”
That really was the toughest part, says Tjoeng. “I think [getting recognition] is the hardest, because even if you have a social media presence, you’re still sort of floating around in cyberspace with no grounding. And it took a couple of years to get into the right shows.” It was also a steep learning curve for her to balance between wanting to showcase the range of her designs, but also to know how much to spend on a product, and to make all the difficult decisions as a business owner.
“Ultimately, your pieces are what you’re presenting to the world. It’s hard to say “This is who I am, I want to show you a range so you understand the brand and my designs” but at the same time, being a one-man show, I cannot overstretch and I am on my own when making decisions that will grow my brand,” she says.
But over time, Tjoeng says her confidence grew as more and more clients came back to her to praise the pieces which were the most true and authentic to her vision of the brand. “It was then I knew that if I stayed true to myself, [my pieces] appealed to more people, and it was more authentic. That gave me the confidence to go back and to stick to my vision even though it might seem insane. I’m going to do it because if I’m not authentic, then I’m not really building anything,” she adds. “I want people to have a connection to my pieces — not only just because they’re beautiful and valuable, but because they can put it on, go out and be brave and strong and empowered in their lives. I am definitely not of one place or race and I hope it translates into some of my pieces as well.”
For her, jewellery is such a sentimental thing. “I try to make my pieces something that can be treasured for a long time, something that will have sentimental value and will be passed down from generation to generation,” she says. “And in our world of fast fashion, it’s important that jewellery lasts and has longevity. I do not want to make pieces that contribute to waste and pollution.”
is also keenly aware of the criticism that the world of jewellery has, in the past, come under fire for its lack of transparency, and the controversies of conflict diamonds, for example. As such, she responsibly sources all her material, from the diamonds to the precious metals. “I trust my master craftsman in Hong Kong to source our materials ethically, we source our diamonds from Antwerp and they all carry the Kimberley Process certification,” she says.
The Kimberley Process is an international, multi-stakeholder initiative created to increase transparency and oversight in the diamond industry, in order to eliminate trade in conflict diamonds.
Tjoeng is positive of the growth of the luxury jewellery market in Asia, and in Singapore especially — despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “In Singapore, I think it’s growing, and pivoting away from having jewellery as an investment, as something valuable to keep as security. It is now being embraced by the young, as an appreciation for new designs,” she adds.
Increasingly, too, she sees a slow but positive change in the mindset that fine jewellery made in Asia is somehow not as prestigious as the European brands. “Singapore, I think, in general is becoming innovative in a lot of fields, including design. Where before the idea was that if you wanted to be successful in Asia, as a designer, you had to make it somewhere else and come back — but that’s changed now.”
As for Maison Tjoeng, she hopes to continue to grow the brand, and ultimately expand across Asia. But most importantly, to continue to push herself creatively and be true to herself.