For high school sweethearts Eileen Phoan Pei Fang and Fabian Tan Sze Chen, it all began as a hobby/business during their university days, mostly to help supplement living expenses. Phoan made delicate beaded jewellery while Tan helped her sell it. “She was actually the creative mind behind the business. She was the one crafting and designing the pieces and then I came in and helped her out with sales,” he says.
In 2015, the duo won the Malaysian championship of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, and went on to represent the country in Washington DC. It was then that they began to see a future in their business.
“We started with really basic techniques because everything was self-taught, and from there we took part in different bazaars and events and slowly ventured into fine jewellery,” says Phoan.
After getting their degrees in mechanical engineering, the couple decided to throw caution to the wind and pursue their business full-time.
Charmingly called Left & Right, their jewellery business offers bespoke and made-to-measure pieces on top of elaborate ready-to-wear collections. Left & Right’s jewellery is all connected to a story. For instance, the Counting Stars collection is inspired by the One Republic tune and their unconventional and challenging choice of starting a business right after graduating.
Phoan and Tan have done well but success did not come easy for them. Attending gem fairs and learning from scratch was hard. “It was not easy because very often, we were the youngest at gem fairs and when we did see someone our age, they usually had someone senior to show them how to select the vendors and so on,” says Phoan.
But they were not discouraged as they truly believed in their products. “We are very stubborn that way. We don’t really want to let go because we feel that there is potential in what we do … Because of our mechanical engineering background, we’re trying to put sensibility in creativity. So, a lot of our pieces are well thought through and we manage to put a story in them as well,” says Tan.
Phoan and Tan were fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of a kind craftsman who had 60 years of experience in the jewellery business. What caught his eye was a piece that Tan had made himself, using a rarely seen method. “It’s a very ancient technique; how it’s done is not recorded in books,” says Phoan. Tan had reverse-engineered the piece from one he had seen in a museum, making full use of the knowledge he had gained from his mechanical engineering background.
Impressed by his work, the craftsman gave all his tools to the couple and agreed to teach them. “You need referrals even to visit craftsmen or jewellery houses. So, having someone to really teach us and also slowly take us to meet master craftsmen of casting houses and jewellery houses … that was truly a breakthrough,” adds Phoan.
The idea of storytelling is something the couple hold dear to their hearts. “My grandfather is an antique collector, so he would show me all the ornaments and objects that he had collected and he would point out the symbolism behind each vase or necklace or bead. On top of that, he is an amazing storyteller, so he would tell me what happened back when he was young or during the war. So, to me since young, storytelling has been something truly fascinating … We try to tell stories through the jewellery we create,” explains Phoan.
The couple have found that the stories they tell using jewellery resonate with their customers as they have received countless emails and messages from people praising their work or expressing how much the stories mean to them.
Based in Kuching, Sarawak, Left & Right operate out of an atelier that is surrounded by greenery. The couple joke that it is a “jungle house” as large ferns and beautiful creepers hang from the rooftop to the ground.
Phoan and Tan bring the stories behind their jewellery to life with precious metals and gems and hope to work on more bespoke pieces to encourage every story to be heard. “We believe in reaching out to more people with our idea of storytelling and capturing their story in a piece of wearable art,” says Tan.
This article first appeared on Feb 18, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.