Elaine Ong Yi Ling has always loved earrings. Even when she was working in graphic design, advertising and then events, her outfits never felt complete without a pair of colourful earrings. She says she feels naked without them.
After leaving the events industry, Ong helped her husband with his F&B business. Last year when the pandemic broke out and the Movement Control Order (MCO) was implemented, most businesses took a hit. “My husband’s business was badly hit and our income was affected. So I sat down and wondered, ‘What can I do?’ I’ve always liked design, and arts and crafts, and I’ve always loved wearing earrings,” she says.
Ong came across polymer clay, a malleable material that has become increasingly popular over the years for its versatility and vibrant colours. She discovered local brands that were crafting jewellery from the clay and decided to pick up the skill, but never thought she could make a business out of it.
Last October, Ong decided to start Asli by E, but not for earrings just yet. Realising that the pandemic had badly affected the sales of Sarawakian crafters, especially those who weave bakul bags, she decided to help by selling these items at markets in Kuala Lumpur and on Instagram. “To me, it is a good cause. I can help them. Because of the MCO, they are unable to sell their bags outside [Sarawak] and they can’t sell them to tourists as there are no tourists going there,” she explains.
By year-end, sales of the bakul bags began to slow down as Malaysians became more careful with their spending. “I thought, I can still do this on the side, but what can I do next?” Ong recalls. Repurposing her Asli by E Instagram page, she decided to sell polymer clay earrings instead. To compete with others in the market, she realised she had to make them more affordable than what was available.
As her personal fashion style is more minimalist, Ong uses earrings to make a statement. “I don’t just go for simple earrings; I always go for contrasting, loud earrings,” she adds. Her Asli by E earrings are no different, but to ensure they remain at a more accessible price point, her designs are less about detail and more about pops of colour and fun shapes.
What makes her earrings unique is the mix of different mediums for each collection. While Ong works mainly with polymer clay, she also uses decorative beads and other materials. The Fan series has intricate cut-out pieces, the Tensha Teardrop range includes artfully painted beads, while the Tulip Dangle collection features fabric cut and sewn by Ong herself.
One of Ong’s main challenges has been to create designs that appeal to everyone. “The market is quite big when it comes to earrings and the challenge is getting your target audience to like your design. I am still exploring what people actually like, but at the same time, I don’t want to make something that I don’t like either,” she says.
Ong engages with her customers on Instagram to get feedback. Learning new techniques via the internet and being inspired by the range of accessories available, she pushes herself to make a new collection every month. “I like to play with contrasting colours. The colours of my earrings are quite vibrant, so even if I have something dainty, it will still look bold.”
April’s collection, Bumblebee, included a range of black, yellow, white and beige earrings. For May, Ong has released the Peacock series in vibrant blues, greens and pinks, using polymer clay and fabric. All these pieces are eye-catching and distinctive.
Customers also ask for customised earrings, which mix and match elements from the different pieces in each collection. Ong is able to fulfil these requests as her earrings are all made to order. This ensures there is no waste or unsold stock.
Ong admits she is surprised that her venture has flourished. “I never knew that I would be able to do this as a business. I actually turned my hobby into a business.”
As her customer base grows, she hopes to start her own website and intends to explore more colour palettes and designs, while still maintaining her minimalist designs but with contrasting hues.
This article first appeared on May 17, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.