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Thursday January 27, 2011

Suen set to dazzle

Lee Sze Suen talks about the journey that led her to a turning point in her life.

THEY say that diamonds are a girl’s best friend and Lee Sze Suen will certainly vouch for that.

They have provided the building blocks for her new business venture – a diamond jewellery boutique located in one of Kuala Lumpur’s most prestigious neighbourhoods.

As Lee flits through the newly refurbished showroom, she certainly has plenty of reason to smile: As managing director of Suen Jewellers, she is the commander-in-charge of the swanky new set-up where gems shine in polished glass cabinets, the air lightly perfumed, the floors glossy, and assistants offer polite and non-intrusive service.

New venture: Lee Sze Suen showing off some of the items available at the Suen Jewellers showroom.

It is here that Lee has ensconced herself for the last six months, quietly building her business with the hope of closing the door on a chapter of her life as she starts a new one.

Malaysian society knows her as part of the husband-and-wife team who ran The Carat Club, one of the first upmarket jewellery stores in the city when it opened its doors in 1997. The establishment was largely managed by her now ex-husband, Chan Boon Yong, but both their marriage and the business unravelled three years ago and the couple divorced in November 2010.

As Lee settles down for a chat, she shows no signs of having just pulled through the roller-coaster ride that has been her life for the last couple of years. She is about 10kg lighter than when we last met, and wears her new frame with a sassiness that most would say comes from a brand new sense of worth.

“The last two-and-a-half years have been a long journey of fear and uncertainty, but I have come out of it a stronger person. I found that I was made of much sterner stuff than I thought I was, and when push came to shove, I realised that I could move on – I had to,’’ the 48-year-old says simply.

Tear-drop diamond earrings from Suen.

Moving on meant first healing the wounds, which she says took a while, but it’s something she has managed to do courtesy of her three teenaged children (whom she is fiercely protective of), her family and friends, and by believing that there was a higher power watching over her.

Laying the foundations for her new venture also played a big part in getting her back on her feet. The boutique occupies the building that was previously Carat Club’s main showroom. Lee closed shop for a month in the middle of last year to give it a makeover and add her own touches to the interior.

“It was important that I didn’t just carry on from where we left off,’’ she says matter-of-factly. “I had to make this my own.’’

The reality of being master of her own destiny – and a bona fide jeweller in her own right – hit home when the signage went up in August.

“A friend told me that I had no choice but to call the new venture ‘Suen’ (that’s how she is widely known) as it showed commitment on my part. When the sign went up in front of the store, I had a shock to see my name up there in such big letters – I told them to make it smaller,’’ she quips.

Going at it solo is a rather brave step for Lee, who essentially learnt the jewellery trade on the job. After marriage, the lawyer by training joined her husband in his family’s diamond wholesale business. At The Carat Club, much of her work was in sales, training and operations, so when she decided to open Suen, she was suddenly forced to educate herself on the basics of running a business, marketing, and be involved in picking everything from logos and packaging, to fabrics and finishing.

“It was a tremendous learning curve,’’ Lee says. “And I’m still learning as I go along.’’

Solitaire with smaller rocks decorating the band.

The most difficult part for her has been developing the ability to put herself out there in order to advertise her business.

“I have always been shy and reserved, which is why some people mistakenly think I am stuck up. I’ve never been the sort to go around saying ‘Hi, I’m Suen’ to people at a party, and I’m still hoping I don’t have to do too much of that,’’ she laughs.

In many ways, Lee says it is liberating to be “over the worst’’ and to finally be able to take charge of her life; even talking about it was not something she could have easily done until more recently.

How did things fall apart?

“Well, you begin to suspect something is up when everything you do is wrong ... even my mum’s friend told me that things were not right. But, there were also insinuations that became difficult to ignore and slowly the pieces came together,’’ is all Lee is willing to say.

The realisation that her family was breaking up was the beginning of what she calls “the most difficult time of her life’’, and rock bottom came when attempts at reconciliation failed, and Chan packed up and moved to Shanghai in November 2008.

“Suddenly I was left on this road alone, with my children and the company to look after. It was especially difficult because it was already a very hard time business-wise. So really, it all came as quite a shock,’’ she tells.

Lee acknowledges that there were murmurs within the industry that their personal problems were exacebated by The Carat Club’s financial woes at that point, but she is quick to set the record straight: “Yes, we were both distracted by our own problems and it was also a difficult period for The Carat Club. The financial crisis had started to show its effects and we were caught in a credit crunch. We had bought goods on terms and then everything slowed down, but the business pulled through.’’

In the months following Chan’s departure, she motored through work and mothering while mourning the end of her 20-year marriage, and fighting an anguish that caused insomnia and loss of appetite.

“We were all so worried about her,’’ says Jessie Lim, Suen’s director of sales. “I told her that she needed to put it behind her and stay healthy for the sake of her children.’’

Lee is quick to say that the staff was her pillar of strength through the worst of times: “On many occasions they held the fort when I couldn’t find the strength to come in to work.’’

Lee helmed The Carat Club for over a year on her own, but when divorce loomed, she decided not to take on the old company because “it made things too complicated’’.

“Suen is very determined and focused, although in the beginning, she was unsure if she knew enough about business to go into this on her own. She got a lot of encouragement and decided to go for it – so nothing is going to stop her,” Lim profers.

Lee is definitely psyched up to see what the future holds, and she says that she is “at a good place’’ and is ready to face whatever the future holds.

“I have learnt to let go and worked through the forgiveness stage. I keep myself busy with work, exercise and friends, so it’s all good ... there are moments, but I’m okay.’’

Might the future also include getting back into the dating game?

She smiles and then quips: “It’s a brand new decade – c’est la vie.’’

In the meantime, Lee is happy to live by American author Helen Keller’s words: “life is either a daring adventure or nothing’’ – and taking it one day at a time.

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