Traditional Sarawak beadwork with a modern twist is a hit for jeweller Wini Copper

  • People
  • Monday, 16 Sep 2019

Beaded jewellery is a part of Bidayuh heritage in Sarawak that Wini Copper is proud of, and she is keen to preserve and promote it.

Three years ago, she quit her teaching job and started building her beaded jewellery brand, MMCollection.

She learnt to make ceramic beads at a course organised by the state government, and then set about designing her own line and selling it.

Sarawak’s beadwork used to be only known mostly to people in the state. Beaded crafts and accessories were made by women for their own tribes' ceremonial use, or sold mostly at local handicraft markets or fairs. As many of of the craftswomen live in rural areas, they have to rely on middlemen and suppliers to market their goods. While these women have the skills, they lack the means and knowledge to market their products.

But Copper belongs to a different era, a time when social media has broken down barriers of distance and access.

Jewellery designer shares traditional Sarawak beadwork with the world
Copper turns to social media channels like Instagram and Facebook to promote her handcrafted clay beads. Photo: WINI COPPER

She posts photographs of her beaded jewellery on Instagram and shares images through WhatsApp, and has quickly leveraged on social media’s long reach to gain a wider audience.

“These days, people want convenience at their fingertips. They are more comfortable making online purchases with a few clicks of the mouse, or a few taps on their smartphones.

“I decided to follow the current business trend, and market my clay jewellery on my Instagram page,” says Copper, 40, adding that she finds social media handy for amplifying her brand and engaging with customers.

“It’s so much easier as people can look at my crafts and decide on the pricing. Promoting my products on social media platforms is much cheaper compared to running a retail outlet. Most of my clients are from Sarawak, Sabah and West (Peninsular) Malaysia,” says Copper.

Jewellery designer shares traditional Sarawak beadwork with the world
Working the clay into beads of diffferent sizes.

To ensure her designs appeal to the younger generation, the mother of two turns to the Internet for inspiration.

“I spend hours doing online research. To cater to a larger audience, I look into the finer details like the current fashion and colour trends. Most of my designs feature pastel shades as they are easier to match. They seem to appeal more to my customers,” says Copper, who also receives bulk orders from jewellery distributors in Kuala Lumpur.

Copper’s business is also thriving because she is passionate about Sarawakian beads, which are prized possessions among Sarawakian tribes like Bidayuh, Kayan, Orang Ulu and Kelabit. The beads are often used in ceremonial rites and rituals, weddings, thanksgiving events and Hari Gawai (harvest festival).

Sarawak beadwork in traditional patterns are considered family heirlooms. As jewellery, they signify wealth, power and social standing. Beadwork is often passed down through the generations, from mother to daughter.

Jewellery designer shares traditional Sarawak beadwork with the world
Copper (standing) conducts clay beading classes for teenagers and single mothers living in her community. Photo: The Star/SHEELA CHANDRAN

Copper specialises in traditional Sarawak beadwork with a contemporary twist. Her modern pieces feature Sarawak’s ethnic clay beads and accessories. They include earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and chokers. Her signature pieces include clay bead necklaces that are paired with the traditional kabo, a bobble made from hundreds of seed beads.

To preserve Sarawak’s rich beading heritage, Copper has been conducting free clay beading classes for members of her community at Kampung Kuap, Kuching.

Classes commenced in June and so far, she has 30 students, comprising single mothers, senior citizens and teenagers. Classes are sponsored by the Sarawak Craft Council.

“I hope more communities can develop an interest in clay beads. Through these classes, my students can learn a new skill and start their own home business. I might give them some pointers on how to turn to social media platforms to market their products.

“This way, we can get to promote more Sarawak handicraft to the world,” says Copper, proud to be able to do her part to preserve her Bidayuh heritage.

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