What difference a day makes. Carolyn Kan was in Italy during a year-long sabbatical when one day she met a silversmith who changed her life. ‘I think jewellery was something I was always interested in,’ says Kan ‘and I’d always enjoyed working with my hands. But I had never really given it much thought. I’d been in such a relentless industry that I hadn’t had much time for anything else.’
Kan arranged to spend a week in Florence with the silversmith. He spoke no English, Kan no Italian. By the time Kan left Italy, she’d decided to give up her job. It was not just any job: her role had been managing director of the advertising agency M&C Saatchi in Singapore.
‘I remember making my first ring. I was doing a final polish and the sun was coming through the window – this sounds like a Hollywood cliché, but I had the sudden realisation that I wanted to be a silversmith,’ Kan explains. After some further training back in Singapore, she launched her first collection in 2009, under the name Carrie K.
Suffice to say the launch went well. The line is now sold in seven countries; is represented in Japan by Yuji Yamamoto, son of the designer Yohji Yamamto; and has been invited to Paris Fashion Week. Kan has also launch a web shop for her distinctive, witty pieces.
Kan’s designs often have a subversive spirit. Take the Needle Choker, for example, which is effectively a giant-sized needle bent around the neck. Or enjoy her punk-inspired safety pin and paper clip earrings or her leather-based A Beautiful Mess collection. The latter is intended as a humorous comment on perceptions of Singapore as being all about order and cleanliness. ‘I wanted to embrace a mess and show that it can be beautiful,’ explains Kan. ‘You have to poke fun at yourself.’
One of Kan’s favourite pieces is the Razor Cuff bracelet from her recent Reborn collection, designed to resemble an oversized razor blade. ‘You need to take a second look before you realise what it is,’ says Kan. ‘The design is all about the playful wink.’ It’s an approach that’s been popular with both men and women, and Kan is becoming increasingly interested in targeting the men’s market.
Each Carrie K piece is typically crafted in silver or a form of gold – rose, yellow, white or even black – and is made by one of a team of specialist artisans. Kan’s husband has also now trained as a silversmith and heads production, although this is not a typically cosy family business. Kan has global ambitions. ‘If you’re going to have a dream it may as well be big and audacious,’ she comments.
Pieces are also designed to leave material imperfections in place. ‘People are so used to seeing everything so cookie-cutter perfect that there’s now a demand for a more handmade feel,’ explains Kan. ‘But it’s with quality that’s good enough to last, so pieces could be handed down some day.’
Stand out from the crowd
Kan has now started to produce fine jewellery too, using diamonds and platinum. ‘You would have thought that people investing money in jewellery would want something classic and timeless, but with growing affluence there’s a demand for something more distinctive and individual,’ says Kan. There is, she says, a sense that classic fine jewellery is all a bit too serious.
The same can certainly not be said of the upbeat Kan. The designer describes her studio as an adult take on a children’s candy store, and says her two dogs act as a welcoming committee. It’s a long way from the corporate boardrooms and big budgets of her past – the kind of ‘proper job’ that her mother insisted she work towards when she expressed her teenage aspiration to interior design.
Does Kan miss the advertising industry? ‘No,’ she answers without hesitation. ‘It was a crazy, non-stop business, but it was also the long road to what I’m doing now. The ability to build a business and pull together a team, and the importance of creating a clear culture – all of that comes from my experience in advertising. The company wouldn’t be where it is now without that. If you can sell air, then selling something as tangible as jewellery is actually quite easy.’