Malaysian highlights rich Peranakan heritage via handmade ‌clay jewellery‌ ‌inspired‌ ‌by‌ ‌Peranakan ‌tile‌s ‌


Teoh incorporates modern elements with Peranakan-inspired tile designs to give a contemporary look to a historical piece. Photos: Teoh Su Ling

Clay jewellery designer Teoh Su Ling, 33, is a true-blue Penangite who’s proud of her home state, from the local hawker fare to its colonial buildings and sandy beaches. But it is Penang’s Peranakan heritage that genuinely resonates with her.

In particular, Teoh creates clay jewellery pieces – specifically earrings and pendants – with Peranakan tile motifs.

“My Peranakan-inspired jewellery are like historical pieces with a modern twist. They are my interpretation of tradition meets modernity, ” said Teoh in an email interview.

Teoh says colours are part of the melody which speaks to her audience, if her designs were a song.Teoh says colours are part of the melody which speaks to her audience, if her designs were a song.The Peranakans are descendants of Chinese traders who married mostly non-Muslim local women.

This community is unique due to the combination of Chinese and Nusantara cultures, resulting in a rich history of art, architecture, jewellery and cuisine.

Although Teoh isn’t Peranakan, she is still passionate about pushing Peranakan culture into the limelight.

“Penang’s plus point is its rich heritage, and it is something that many people remember it by.

"By incorporating the elements of Penang heritage into my designs, I am able to create delight, nostalgia, or even bring back memories in my audience because these are the things they can relate to, ” explained Teoh, a social media specialist who started her part-time home-based jewellery business last year.

Peranakan tiles come in various hues and a multitude of designs. These ceramic creations feature auspicious designs like fruits, flowers and animals.

Patterns are sculptured in a square block and sliced equally to ensure symmetrical designs.Patterns are sculptured in a square block and sliced equally to ensure symmetrical designs.

Teoh incorporates modern elements like the sleek lines of golden square frames with the Peranakan-inspired tile designs to give a contemporary look to a heritage piece.

“I strive to push boundaries in my design while keeping a balance between design and practicality, ” said Teoh, who has been interested in craft and haberdashery since young.

Peranakan-inspired designs may seem a tad too traditional, but they continue to create waves in the fashion industry.

In 2013, Chinese haute couturier Guo Pei incorporated elements of Peranakan design in her Spring/Summer collection.

In 2008, Peranakan clothing and jewellery received a boost with the launch of the popular Singaporean drama, The Little Nyonya.

Tedious endeavour

Teoh’s designs are created using a technique called polymer clay cane, or a log of polymer clay that has a design spanning the entire length of the log.

The self-taught artist learned it through YouTube and other social media channels.

“Jewellery-grade polymer clay is a wonderful medium as it is lightweight, waterproof and shockproof, making it a practical material to create jewellery with creative designs.

“I like the intricate patterns carved or printed on Peranakan objects. This shows that the Peranakans have a taste for art and design.

"The strong appreciation of art and craftsmanship in the Peranakan culture is what I like best, ” said Teoh, who turns mainly to Pinterest for inspiration.

Ensuring the design ends up as a square with a mirror image in each quarter is part of the jewellery-making process.Ensuring the design ends up as a square with a mirror image in each quarter is part of the jewellery-making process.

Her designs are undoubtedly unique, but there’s a lot of minute detailing that goes into creating the intricate pieces.

“The jewellery pieces are not painted but rather sculpted by layering pieces of different-coloured clay in a specific orientation. It requires a lot more time due to the nature of clay.

“The patterns are sculpted in a square block. I slice it equally to ensure I get the same design. I usually break down a pattern on paper so that I can start to build the design from scratch.

“Calculations need to be made to ensure the design ends up as a square with a mirror image in each quarter.

"I always joke that it takes a mathematician to be a clay artist because one needs to carefully put the patterns together to create symmetry, ” explained Teoh, who holds an advanced diploma in fashion and textile design from the Central Institute of Technology in Perth, Australia.

The clay jewellery pieces are not painted but carefully sculpted by layering pieces of different coloured clay in a specific orientation.The clay jewellery pieces are not painted but carefully sculpted by layering pieces of different coloured clay in a specific orientation.

Polymer clay, she added, is challenging to work with and one needs to spend a fair bit of time to know its properties and how to handle it.

“One of the challenges is trying to get each portion of clay to the optimal hardness. If it is too hard, it can be very trying to work with the clay.

“If it is too soft, it picks up fingerprints quickly and does not maintain its shape well.

“To create the intricate patterns, I use a technique where the clay has to be relatively firm.

"It requires extra strength to work with this type of clay. And it’s also time-consuming, ” said Teoh, who spends between seven and 14 days to complete a small batch of earrings and some pendants.

Also, she builds patterns in large scale and then reduces it in size by slowly compressing the clay with her fingers.

“This method makes it possible to create the same pattern in different sizes, even a 1cm tile with full details in it. However, the process is extremely tedious and takes a lot of time.”

A fair bit of calculation goes into assembling the minute pieces of clay to ensure symmetry.A fair bit of calculation goes into assembling the minute pieces of clay to ensure symmetry.

While Peranakan colours can be vibrant, for example in contrasting hues of pink and green, Teoh prefers subtle shades, focusing mainly on blues, browns and oranges.

“As much as I love the vibrant colours typical of the Peranakan aesthetic, I believe colours can induce feelings.

"I want to convey a sense of calmness and stability through the colours that I carefully select, which are not often connected to the Peranakan aesthetic.

“I spend a significant amount of time, almost too much time, planning my colour palette for each of my collections before I start to make them.

"Colours are part of the melody which speaks to my audience, if my designs were a song, ” explained Teoh, who shares photos of her designs on Instagram.

Designing and creating clay jewellery is certainly a tedious job, but Teoh enjoys it nonetheless.

“To me, designs are like music; they should tell stories, stir up emotions, and touch hearts. I find a great sense of achievement when I am able to connect with others through my designs.”

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Peranakan , Tiles , Clay jewellery , Penang , Artisan

   

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