Sun May Foon’s love for jewellery fuels her creativity for unique designs, writes Kerry-Ann Augustin
IT’S one of those Malaysian afternoons, where the sun hides behind the comfort of the clouds but reminds you of its presence with a blanket of heat and very little breeze. This it seems, is no deterrent for the throng of people who stand out in the green, open space and whip out their cameras before posing next to a giant pewter tankard with the words “Royal Selangor” on it.
The tourists are here at the company’s visitor’s centre in Setapak, home to the world’s largest pewter maker. While most of them have come to feast their eyes on the 130-year-old craftsmanship of pewter, there are quite a few who intend to look for a different kind of mineral — diamonds.
The gems in the Selberan store may occupy a modest space in the mammoth sized visitor’s centre but its sparkles are the brightest. The fine jewellery brand is part of the Royal Selangor dynasty and at the helm of its magic is Sun May Foon, Selberan’s creative director.
This year, the brand celebrates the 10th anniversary of its very own Selberan Ideal Cut Diamond. The welcoming wide smile and youthful spring in May Foon’s steps as she approaches me for a handshake is an indication of just how elated she is about celebrating this milestone.
SHIMMER AND SHINE
“We have a solitaire collection every year,” May Foon exclaims excitedly. “Later, let me walk you through what we’ve done over the decade,” she adds.
Precious stones in whimsical, chunky forms and creative, bold designs may greet you as you enter Selberan but May Foon is the polar opposite; she is casual yet sophisticated, decked in black from head to toe with dark full-rimmed tortoiseshell framed glasses. She sports only a few chic, elegant rings.
She casts tender glances at the jewellery in the glass windows of the Selberan store as she speaks of her fondness for gems.
“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always loved jewellery,” confides May Foon. “As a child, I remember drawing rings. Even my human figure drawings had jewellery on them! I loved looking at rings, at Egyptian rings, etc. I think it’s that symbolism in jewellery that is so appealing you know - that rings can have magic powers and stuff like that,” she says with a giggle. “But even till today, when I design something I always start with the rings. And it’s from there that I expand to bracelets, pendants, necklaces and earrings. “
Over the course of 16 years, May Foon has designed a highly diverse range of jewellery for Selberan, a company her family started in 1973. But like the rest of her cousins from Royal Selangor’s empire, there was no automatic entry into her family business. “One of the philosophies my family has held, is that you can’t enter the family business until you earn your mark outside,” she says, explaining that the offspring of the Yong family are encouraged to get an education, follow their passions and get working experience outside Royal Selangor before joining the family business. “I guess because of that I never felt the pressure to work for Selberan,” she confesses.
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
Her 10-month exploration of Europe after graduating from the University of Melbourne, Australia, deepened May Foon’s love for the decorative arts. “Paintings, sculptures, ceramics and of course jewellery, I just soaked it all up!” she says in reference to the European museums and galleries she visited.
She went back to Melbourne knowing jewellery was her calling and took up gemmology. “As an art student, the toughest part of studying gemmology was the physics, crystallography and chemistry. Oh my Lord!” she says with a laugh. “I had to know all these chemistry compounds but really, the fun part was the lab work . And you had to remember all these things but it was very rewarding.”
She is now a qualified gemmologist and a Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Australia, but May Foon’s most important education came from her work at Schlager, an antique jewellery shop in Melbourne. She had come across a job vacancy for a message person at the shop and applied for it.
The owner, Raymond Schlager was perplexed as to why a fresh university graduate would apply for the vacancy of a message person. “I told him of my interest in antiques and jewellery, and my travels in Europe had put me in good stead because he knew all the museums I went to,” she explains.
Schlager took her under his wings. “I remember a fellow gemmology student being very impressed when I said that I got a job offer from Schlager. I had no idea — at that time I was young and green, and I had no comparison. Schlager was famed for his ‘eye’ and high standard of quality,” she shares.
For the next 10 years, May Foon learnt the ropes at Schlager, starting from the selling floor to working with the workshops on repairs and learning how to appreciate, value and pick out gem stones and jewelry. “ Mr Schlager used to tell me that I cannot be a wallflower on the selling floor! So I learnt from those around me, how to engage with clients and how to hold my own on the shop floor, and to be confident in my passion, knowledge and experience,” admits May Foon. “That really brought me out of my shell. I still am an introvert but on the subject of jewellery, I am not!” she says with a grin.
THE RIGHT CUT
“She was somewhat untamed but showed great vitality and energy,” says Raymond Schlager of when he first met May Foon “But she was also wise for her age.” Schlager also remembers May Foon’s innate ability to recognize value in something when she saw it. “She has a highly developed understanding of artistic form. She knew that “proportion” in all things was one of the most important principles in life. And she applies that principle and discipline to everything she undertakes.”
Her ten year experience at Schlager would eventually fuel May Foon’s career for a lifetime. “The foundation of my understanding of what is quality, in jewellery and gemstones, stems from my time at Schlager and is now relevant for Selberan,” she shares.
As May Foon walks through the
concepts and design of each piece of jewellery in the solitaire collection, she doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the craftsmanship behind the stunning pieces. In fact, she beams when speaking about her team. “These craftswomen are incredible!” she says, pointing to one of the small diamonds.
Traditionally a male-dominated area of skill, May Foon is immensely proud of the local women who were trained by Selberan’s European partners in the 1970s. “They were trained from scratch. And one skill can take years to master,” she notes.
“I am very fortunate to have a good team with whom I have a very enjoyable rapport with,” May Foon confides. “We discuss products with both the manufacturing and retail and sales side, which evolve through development stages. I love the process!”
“May Foon’s most striking quality both at a personal and professional level, is her earnestness,” says Christopher Yong, May Foon’s cousin.
Describing her as spirited and guileless, Yong adds that they were both the creative-minded ones in the family. The two found that they had a common love for all things creative and spent their late teens absorbing creative inspirations. “Clubbing was a big part of our lives in Melbourne and included by extension the immersion in music, design and fashion,” Yong explains. “Considering that this was the early 1980s, it was quite full-on. We both bear scars still,” he adds jokingly.
“Creating beautiful things makes me happy,” May Foon admits as she casually slips rings from the collection on and off her finger. “And creative ideas are built on top of other creative ideas. So when I craft something or design it, I am inspired by the sculptures around me, architecture, and even fashion,” she observes, noting that the foundation of all the designs at Selberan derive from their archive of the 1970s, which in her opinion, informs all on the designs of their jewellery.
“You know, everything you see here is 100 per cent Malaysian,” she says of the creative process. “The diamonds are from Belgium but everything else, from conceiving the ideas to crafting a design and craftsmanship, all take place here,” May Foon reveals, adding that over the last decade, buyers have become more matured, sophisticated, informed and more adventurous when it comes to designs. “Lately I look wider and farther afield in collecting ideas - there is so much more now available out there in terms of visual stimulation. I also think that we have such a rich source of culture in our country and that’s another aspect of how our designs are born. “Selberan has definitely become more experimental over the last decade.”
At the last glass window of the shop, May Foon’s glee is uncontainable. “You’re the first to see this collection! It’s our latest, crafted to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Selberan’s Ideal Cut Diamond. Here, try it!” she says, delicately placing the ring on my finger. “Every year, I think ‘What kind of design will I do next year?’” she confides. “But often, it is not what you see but how you see something. I think you have to always be curious. Be receptive to new ideas.”
May Foon has been doing this for 25 years. But on the love to keep making art, she says: “There is still so much to discover!”
Some people never stop learning. That’s a milestone of its own.