Marilyn Tan was a seasoned family lawyer when she decided to quit her job to spend more time with her children as a stay-at-home mother. Brimming with energy, she started experimenting with jewellery designs and, today, Marilyn Tan stands among Singapore’s most acclaimed jewellers.
In this interview, Marilyn describes the shift she experienced when she took her craft out of the house to serve a global market, and shares practical tips for other jewellers striving for visibility.
Learn to communicate well in your trade
I was always interested in making jewellery, so I took a jewellery design course at Lasalle to learn the correct form of addressing the gems. As in any business, you need to be able to “talk the walk”.
Even if you can’t do it yourself, you will be interacting with craftsmen and you don’t want them to laugh at you! You need the language, the lingua franca of the industry.
Building a business requires infrastructure
This is my second career. I made the decision to grow my artisanal jewellery business through wholesale when I was in my 50s. Now I’m 62 and loving it, and enjoying it, and learning all the time! I find it very exciting. I had to decide: do I want to remain a small artisanal business which I enjoy (and I’m still doing), or do I want to see how this adds up into something less informal?
I thought this might be a very interesting path to pursue— to learn how one builds a business. I started wholesaling in 2012 and it was a huge, sharp learning curve. All this time, I had been working out of my house as a cottage industry, but once I started wholesaling, I realized that I needed to take it out of the house and put this infrastructure into the business, such as hiring strategic people to run the office and to meet production deadlines in different parts of the world.
Managing time for your craft is hard while running the business
One challenge that comes with growing an artisanal jewellery business is protecting my time to create even when I am flat-out busy completing orders. However, I am one of those who enjoys working deep into the night when it is really quiet: I’ll wake up and start thinking about what I can do, as ideas strike me— a lot of it happens in the middle of the night, or when I’m on a walk.
I’d rather be making the jewellery than running the office, that’s for sure. I don’t have a design team because this is the part that I love about the business— it’s what I enjoy doing.
Even if you are rejected, keep showing up to show you are committed to your business
When you are starting out, do not be discouraged. Do you know how many times you have to show up at trade shows before people want to put their money down on you? They might love your stuff, but they have to make sure you are not a fly-by-night designer. They watch you because you might not fit what they are marketing that season, but they can see that your work is interesting and that you might produce a collection that will fit later.
Find out what actually “sells” so you can adapt to what the market wants to buy
I learned—you are always learning—don’t ever get upset by people telling you what they think. If it is somebody in the business who knows what they are talking about, and you admire their store or what they represent— listen to them, because they know what they can sell, and they truly know their individual markets. You must take this feedback in the same spirit as it was given: as part of a learning curve to grow in the business.
However, take it with a pinch of salt when people critique just because they can, or take your piece and critique it until the piece you have shown them has become an entirely different piece and has no part of “you” in it.
People are not only buying your work, but buying into your personality
Buyers are not going to put their money down on you just because your work is beautiful: there are hundreds and thousands of designers out there— in so many parts of the world!
At trade shows, you are selling your products, but you are also selling yourself as a designer, so you have to appeal on some level without compromising your own view and vision.
At the end of the day, you have to please people, but not in a way that your design is lost. However, most buyers will not ask you to make dramatic changes because if they stopped to look at your work, it means that something about it caught their eye, so obviously they want to invest in you.
Keep control over your prices by consigning locally (and wholesaling abroad)
I only consign to shops in Singapore and wholesale to markets outside. This makes it is easier to control the recommended retail price in your own market. I learned this lesson years ago after one of my customers said: I’m not buying these rings from you because this other store has a discount on their last few pieces.
I remember chatting about this with a famous American jeweller who suggested that we should always consign in our our market.
Another strategy—and this is a tough one: I never go on sale. If something isn’t selling, then I just take it apart… and do something else with it! People say my time is wasted, but to create and re-create, this is my passion!
Finally, age is not a barrier to building a business you love
People ask me: when are you going to retire? I say: why? I mean, retire from what?— retire from life? Most people I know who retire might take up photography or pursue a hobby— so, you don’t actually retire, you just move on to do other things.
We all grow older, but we can’t grow old, right? There are too many things for us to explore and do— there is so much out there! For active ageing, we need to stay engaged with the community. I guess we have to live life fully, right?
A sample of sketches by Marilyn Tan
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This interview is featured in a coffeetable book showcasing business owners from diverse trades in Singapore. The gorgeous publication was sponsored by the Singapore Business Federation and SG50 Celebration Fund with a cover design from Paperplane, a visual storytelling studio based in Singapore.
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners and their trades around the world, sharing their tips and insights. You can connect with the community on Instagram and Facebook @ShopkeeperStories