Habib Jewels is a household name in this country when it comes to fine jewellery. This family-owned business started off as a small retail outlet offering competitive and reasonably-priced gems at Penang’s Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling exactly 60 years ago. Over time, its customer base quickly expanded beyond Penang as the company’s good reputation began to spread all over the country.
The recent demise of Habib Jewels’ founder, Datuk Haji Habib Mohamed Abdul Latif is a blow to the local jewellery fraternity. He’s widely acknowledged as one of the early pioneers who played an important role in shaping the industry back in the late 1950s.
During those formative years, Habib ventured into uncharted waters when he made the decision to deal in precious stones and metal. With no business models to follow, he depended heavily on personal motivation and initiative. Armed with just these two laudable attributes, Habib began bringing in skilled craftsmen who created a wide range jewellery products that had exceptional beauty and quality.
“In the past, craftsmen made jewellery by hand. They invested long hours into a single piece to ensure its superior outcome,” shares Leo Chong Sing when I happened to drop by at his goldsmith shop while on the way up to Perlis recently. His establishment, Kedai Emas Cheong Sin, is strategically located right in the heart of rural Kedah’s Kodiang town.
My arrival cannot be better timed as he had just completed a transaction with a Malay couple. Judging from their body language and conversation, the duo are regulars and know Leo well.
“They brought some older pieces to exchange for newer designs. Their daughter’s akad nikah (wedding) is coming up soon and the younger generation are not keen on wearing old fashioned jewellery,” he explains as soon as the automatic safety door closes behind the couple.
Beckoning me inside, Leo then proceeds to show me the array of kerongsang and earrings that the couple left behind. “These older pieces, especially the kerongsang, are known today in general as Peranakan or Nyonya jewellery,” he adds.
A lesson in precious stones
Although the term Peranakan refers to people of mixed parentage, this jewellery style was also very popular among Malay women in the past. For example, the kerongsang was commonly used to fasten the baju kebaya instead of buttons,” explains Leo.
Noticing my growing interest, Leo hands over a magnifying glass and asks me to spot the difference between the precious stones on the kerongsang and those on a star-shaped brooch that he’d just retrieved from the display counter.
“The stones on the older piece appear to be less lustrous. Is it because of age and dirt deposition on them?” I question after studying the items for quite a while. With a smile, Leo tells me that the disparity is actually caused by the different quality of precious stones used.
Diamonds, elaborates Leo, were the most popular precious stones used to make Peranakan jewellery in the past. The Malays called the best and most brilliant diamonds berlian. I learn that older berlian were less shiny compared to modern ones because the inferior cutting technique used back then resulted in fewer facets to refract light.
“The stones on the brooch are very shiny as they’re high quality berlian while those on the kerongsang are made up of parts of the diamond salvaged during the cutting process. The latter, which is usually flat, irregular in shape and have very few or no facets at all, is called intan or rose diamonds,” explains Leo.
While jewellery with berlian and intan stones are favoured by those with deeper pockets for their brilliance, Leo tells me that the poorer segment of society normally opted for the cheaper batu ceylon or batu yaacob. “Today, some people call them dead stones as they do not reflect light at all,” says Leo before demonstrating the technique to differentiate between these three types of stones.
“Berlian catches the light easily even when there’s only a slight movement while with intan, you’ll need to move the jewellery piece quite a bit to see it shine. Batu yaacob remains dull no matter which direction it’s rotated.”
Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by the doorbell. I turn around and see another Malay couple waiting at the door. Leo waves them in and produces the necklace that he had just repaired. “I’ve replaced the clasp and strengthened several weak links in the chain,” he explains as the couple inspects his workmanship. Satisfied, they pay him and leave.
“You repair damaged jewellery as well?” I ask when Leo returns to the counter directly opposite me. The 71-year-old man nods his head and explains that selling jewellery off the counter does not amount to much in a small town like Kodiang. As such, he supplements his income by earning commissions for doing repair and adjustment work.
“People come to me when they inherit jewellery from their parents and discover that the items do not fit. Most of these cases involve rings, bangles and anklets. I rarely modify necklaces and earrings as those are worn loosely and can fit practically any size provided it’s not too extreme,” explains Leo before beckoning me over to his workstation.
Located right next to the sales section is a long wooden table where Leo does his work. While showing me the different tools of his trade, Leo admits that he’s not skilled enough to make entire pieces of jewellery from scratch.
“I perform mostly remedial work. I picked up this knowledge while spending my after school hours at my father’s goldsmith shop. Back in the 1950’s, there were no skilled craftsmen stationed here in Kodiang. My father accumulated the orders from his customers and passed them to the accomplished artisans who came here on a weekly basis from Penang,” shares Leo.
Apart from plying their trade at goldsmith shops in remote parts of the country, these expert smiths of the past would also visit homes of wealthy Peranakans to earn their commission. Back then, Singhalese craftsmen hailing from Sri Lanka were reputed to be the best in this business. These men could fashion the elaborate sets of jewellery required for weddings and other occasions.
“The Peranakan women believed in the conspicuous display of opulence. They took pleasure in adorning themselves with jewellery. For them, more is always better. As a result, it was very common in the past to see Nyonyas walking around town with their hair, ears, neck, chest, waist, arms, fingers and ankles bedecked with gold and precious stones. Today, however, no one dares to do the same even if they had the means,” says Leo, with a chuckle.
Despite their fascination with gold jewellery, Peranakan ladies would be forced to set them aside during mourning. During that time, they would put on sombre-coloured clothes and abstain from wearing shiny jewellery. In Peranakan culture, the first few days of the mourning period are the strictest and the only jewellery permissible are pearls set in silver. Pearls are considered appropriate as the Peranakans believe that they represent the tears of the bereaved.
As the grieving period progresses, the Nyonya then would put on clothes in shades of blue and wear blue glass costume jewellery. Finally, towards the tapering end of the mourning period, the womenfolk would start decorating themselves with green coloured precious stones, like jade and emerald, set in silver.
At this point in time, Leo takes out a piece of damaged jewellery and starts working on it. The little green stones on the gold pendant catch my eye. Noticing my curiosity, Leo shares: “This is an intriguing piece. These emeralds are set in gold instead of silver. I can only think of two reasons for this. Either it was meant for use during the short transition period at the end of mourning or maybe the craftsman simply made it for no particular reason. I’m not sure.”
I observe in silence as Leo concentrates on his work. His deft movements and confident actions tell me that Leo is a master in his line of work. He shapes the heated gold section quickly while it’s still in a semi-molten state, making sure that the soldering is secure. While most of the tools on the table are common, I notice several which have been purposely modified to suit his needs.
Once completed, Leo sets aside the piece to cool before giving the pendant a thorough wash. This final process removes the oxides formed on the surface during the heating process and returns lustre to the piece.
While waiting for the pendant to dry completely, Leo takes out a gold ring that requires adjustment and places it close to the pendant. I immediately notice a distinct difference in colouration. Noting my gaze, Leo clarifies: “The colour depends a lot on purity. The metal tends to be yellower when it contains a higher percentage of gold. Nine carat gold, which has a slight brownish tinge, is known as suasa among the local Malay population here. This discolouration is caused by the presence of a high content of impurities like copper or nickel,” adds Leo as he adjusts the position of the light bulb so I can get a better look.
Compared to pure or 24 carat gold, suasa is harder but is malleable enough for the talented craftsmen to produce intricately-carved designs. The Malay women clientele favour floral motifs and designs inspired by nature. In the past, it was quite common to see women with earrings that resemble the five-petaled shape of the Bunga Tanjung, a common local flower favoured for its scented bouquet.
On the other hand, designs featuring animals were found almost exclusively in Chinese Peranakan jewellery. Mythical creatures like the dragon and phoenix ranked high in terms of popularity. The other equally highly regarded creature was the fabled Chinese unicorn or qilin which was said to represent a plethora of desirable attributes like wisdom, justice, success and overall good fortune.
Preserving a legacy
It’s almost closing time when I decide to take my leave. But before I depart, I pose him one final question; one that had been plaguing my mind after noticing that the shop is run single-handedly by him. It’s a question concerning succession.
His brows furrow as Leo contemplates my question. Inhaling deeply, he shifts his gaze to the busy traffic outside. Seconds later, he answers, his voice low: “My children are not interested in this work. They prefer to work in air conditioned offices that offers stable employment. Small timers like me find it difficult to compete with larger jewellery stores like Habib Jewels and Poh Kong. Backed by their large chain of outlets found all over the country, these heavyweights have the financial clout and marketing resources to maintain their lead in this industry.”
Suffice to say, I do empathise with my elderly friend. He has dedicated almost his entire life to the business and to see it just fade into oblivion without a successor is indeed heart wrenching. Turning to take one last good look at the shop, I wave farewell to Leo while hoping that in time to come perhaps fate will deal him a good hand and give him a successor so that his legacy can live on.