The sparkle behind Malaysia’s Poh Kong Jewellers
More than four decades ago, a young apprentice goldsmith, Eddie Choon, arrived in Kuala Lumpur, fresh-faced and eager to seek his fortune in the big city. He had spent the last three years from age 15 working with a jeweller in his small hometown of Taiping in the northern Malaysian state of Perak, and would go on to work another four years with a goldsmith in Kuala Lumpur. By age 22, he was ready to strike out on his own.
The Camy Emporium was then a fashionable purveyor of clothing and shoes in Petaling Jaya, a township about 15 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur. It was a good spot for his first foray as a jeweller in his own right. He rented a tight 5.1-square-metre space in a corner of Camy Emporium, where he set up a glass counter with three or four chairs facing it. Above it was a signboard emblazoned with the name Poh Kong Jewellers. ‘Poh’ means precious and ‘Kong’ means sparkling in Chinese, an excellent name for a shop specialising in all things glittering and bright.
That was in 1976. Today, 41 years later, Poh Kong has grown to become the largest jewellery chain in Malaysia, with almost 100 stores in Peninsular Malaysia. It has been listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange since 2004. Its flagship store remains where it all began, on the site of the former Camy Emporium.
Dato’ Choon, now 63, reminisced about how he personally served every customer who came to his counter, writing their orders by hand and sketching designs on a piece of paper. Right from the outset, he decided to invest in a workshop to make customised designs, sometimes even making the items himself.
“Customers liked me to serve them personally, and I learnt then that sincere service is very important,” he said, leaning back into the plush gold-coloured sofa in Poh Kong’s private gallery surrounded by dazzling sapphires, rubies, diamonds, pearls and, of course, gold.
His business grew rapidly. Poh Kong’s small corner tripled in size within a short time, and then doubled again before eventually taking over Camy Emporium’s entire 93 square metres within four years. In 1982, Poh Kong opened its first branch in a nearby neighbourhood.
With almost 100 branches now, Poh Kong is virtually synonymous with jewellery in Malaysia, and has claimed a nostalgic space in the memories of many Malaysians, who would likely have owned a piece of Poh Kong jewellery, perhaps gifted to them as a child. “Many of my first customers are now grandparents, and it’s their grandchildren who now shop with us,” he said.
Gold still has a special place in the hearts of Malaysians. Today, like in the past, they still flock to the stores to choose gold jewellery for milestone occasions such as the birth of a child, a loved one’s coming of age, weddings and birthdays. “Gold is really still the best gift because the recipient will always remember the giver. It’s for memories,” Choon said.
Choon has also noticed a revival of the custom of buying gold as a form of savings or investment. In the past, many Malaysians would use their first pay cheque to purchase a gold item as the first step to saving for the future. This practice later fell out of favour, but increasingly, Choon noticed that people are turning to gold again as a means of savings as well as jewellery to adorn oneself.
Of course, jewellery has to be fun and stylish as well, and for this reason, Poh Kong has invested in an in-house design team to come up with designs made in its own heavily guarded manufacturing facility of nearly 6,000 square metres.
More than half the collection is manufactured in this facility, using gold and gems mined from as far as Colombia and Sri Lanka. Its in-house brands include the oriental-themed Happy Love, Asian-inspired floral Anggun and Tranz for the young.
One of its more popular offerings is the Hemera diamond, which has a unique cut of 101 facets for a brilliant sparkle, created over a two-year collaboration with Belgian artisans. Naturally, it’s very popular as an engagement ring. Poh Kong has also tied up with jewellers Luca Carati and Moraglione 1922 from Italy and Schoeffel Pearls from Germany to bring in European-style jewellery designed and made in Europe for its Malaysian customers.
Choon said machines can now do a lot of the work in turning the designs on paper into actual jewellery but they still aren’t capable of the most intricate work. For that, trained goldsmiths must patiently chisel and tap the tiny pieces into their final form.
Customised jewellery, in particular, needs detailed attention, and sometimes pose unique challenges. Poh Kong is regularly asked to make gold items to order, for occasions such as weddings or corporate events. Once, it even made tiny packets of noodles in gold for a company celebration.
One particular order stands out in Choon’s memory even though it was over 25 years ago. He received a request to make a thick gold chain and other items to be placed on a deity in a temple in Kuala Lumpur. He personally handled the order, and recalled being asked to go vegetarian for a day before he went to take the measurements. Poh Kong created an elaborate piece for the temple, along with blank coins to be engraved by the priests. This was not something that he’d forget easily.
Today, he still comes up with concepts and ideas for new collections. He no longer makes detailed sketches but tells the designers what he would like to see. Being hands-on remains important to him because he understands how important the personal touch is. “I have to do this, it is my business,” he said.
With more than 40 years under its belt and having served countless customers, Poh Kong still insists on personal service, down to helping elderly customers into their cars if necessary. Sincere and honest service matters to Poh Kong, a lesson Choon learnt as a young apprentice to the goldsmith in Taiping, and one which he has not forgotten.