Growing up, Teoh Su Ling dreamt of being a fashion designer and even went on to study fashion design in Australia. But life had other plans, and she currently does digital marketing for a manufacturing company. Still, Teoh enjoys working with her hands, and in her spare time takes on various crafting projects. “I’ve always liked making jewellery, accessories, anything with my hands. Especially fashion accessories. And then, one day, I discovered polymer clay and thought, ‘Why not try to make it a real business?’” she says.
With encouragement from her family and friends who noticed the designs she created over the years, Teoh launched her jewellery brand Either / Or Design in August 2019. When asked about the name of her business, she says, “I didn’t want to put a box around people’s imagination. My inspiration may be one thing, but when you look at my design, you can interpret it differently.”
Her first few collections were inspired by nature and included mainly botanical elements. One challenge she faced had to do with her raw materials. “I use professional-grade polymer clay, which is not readily available in Malaysia. I have to order it from overseas and it costs quite a bit,” she explains. As her business is self-funded, capital sometimes becomes an issue.
Then, last August, Teoh launched her Heritage Collection. Inspired by Pernakan culture, this range includes intricate and traditional tile designs paired with modern elements such as a metal frame and turned into earrings and necklaces. And just like that, Either / Or Design’s sales — which had slumped owing to last year’s lockdown — picked up. “I’m from Penang, and I wanted to do something that is about my hometown. For the tiles, I use the cane technique, which is one of the most advanced techniques in polymer clay. Instead of making patterns on the surface, this technique requires you to make the pattern in a block — similar to how they make candy. So, you build the pattern into a block and when you slice it, you get the same pattern with every slice,” she explains.
Depending on the intricacy of the pattern, this labour-intensive process can take a week or more. “It’s a slow process, and you can’t rush it. You first build the pattern on a big scale. And then you slowly squeeze the block, compress it, until it becomes small enough to be an earring. If you rush this part, the pattern will get distorted. You also have to let it rest for a while because [the clay] warms up. The more you touch it, the softer it gets. And if it gets too soft, it gets distorted,” says Teoh. With each block — after it has passed her strict quality check — she can make five or six pairs of earrings.
Pieces in the Heritage Collection range from RM119 to RM289. These prices reflect the long hours and work behind each of Teoh’s pieces, but she notes that not everyone can afford them. To create jewellery that is more accessible, she began working with Czech glass. And just like with polymer clay, she researches and explores the techniques involved herself. “I just love how beautiful [Czech glass] is. A lot of the beads that we see in the market are mainly plastic and I didn’t want to make something that’s low in quality. The collection is called Secret Garden. Again, it is inspired by nature. But this time, it’s more like you’re transported to this mystical garden. There are flowers and fruits, and the collection is more romantic,” she explains. These earrings and necklaces range from RM53 to RM149.
Like other small businesses, Teoh’s focus at the moment is on sustaining her enterprise. In the future, she hopes to experiment with more materials to create pieces that resonate with her customers. “I’m going to expand on some of the tile designs, but maybe in a different way. I think people are attracted to the cultural aspect and it is something they feel connected to. I want to build on that. So, my creations will feel like a piece of Penang that they can take home with them.”
Whether you are looking for jewellery that has a link to heritage or unique pieces handmade with unusual materials such as Czech glass, Either / Or Design’s wearable art is beautiful and special.
This article first appeared on Feb 8, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.