From the outside, the nondescript building with homogenous red bricks stacked one over the other and teak wood panels around the windows forming a cube wasn’t exceptional to Stephanie Choo. The magic happened when she stepped inside the space. “When you walk in, you’ll see this marble staircase. Further in, at the main atrium, there is this amazing skylight that illuminates the entire interior and seems to give the place strength and serenity. If buildings could sing, this one would. I remember thinking that it was such a magical place and that I felt completely at rest,” recalls Choo. The building in question: the Phillips Exeter Academy Library designed by the late Louis Khan at New Hampshire in the US.
Choo was the quintessential Singaporean student with the kind of success story that would delight traditional Asian parents. She decided to study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But all her life, she felt an emptiness in her soul that her stellar grades could not fill. “I wanted to make poetry, but had not yet found the appropriate language to express it in.”
So, at the start of her second year in MIT, she took up the Introduction to Architecture module on a whim. That trip to the library was part of the class. But it changed her entire life, filling the emptiness with the language of architecture. Five years ago, Choo started jewellery brand Eden + Elie (pronounced Eden and Elie), named after her two children Eden and Eliot. She had left architecture by then and wanted to build something that would marry the things she cared about and make a difference through design. “After building big, well, buildings, I found it nice to work on an intimate scale,” Choo says.
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Eden + Elie is very much an ode to a slower time. Unlike traditional jewellery making, which usually employs heavy equipment to smelt, cast or solder pieces, Choo and her artisans stitch, knit and bead everything by hand. At the core of each piece are many tiny Miyuki seed beads. For example, one of Eden + Elie’s bestsellers, a beautiful wide gold bangle from the Everyday Modern Collection, has 3,240 beads, each measuring a millimetre stitched on an area just slightly bigger than your smartphone. “Much like architecture, time is also a language to me. It’s a component of the creative process. When you are learning or experimenting, it takes time. When you rush something, you could break it. It is the unseen hours you put into your craft that eventually come to fruition down the road,” explains Choo.
“Much like architecture, time is also a language to me. It’s a component of the creative process.”
The amount of time that went into her craft made it tricky for her to expand the business, and that’s how co-founder Leon Leon Toh entered the picture. They met at a business networking event in 2017 when Choo was looking for someone to support her journey and Toh was searching for companies that were trying to do good. What struck Toh about Eden + Elie was how the embodiment of time was central to its business identity. “Sure, we can hire 20 more people or construct pieces quicker in China, but it defeats the purpose of what we are trying to do. The time taken to create each beautiful product gives it that heart and soul, and it’s just a matter of capturing that spirit in the business.” The strategy is working. From Choo being the sole designer, the team has expanded to 11 artisans, 10 of whom are autistic, to keep up with demand.
Choo identified the Autism Resource Centre as a suitable partner to work with and employed 10 of its members. Adults with autism usually have intense focus and concentration, and are very exact – all valuable assets to Eden + Elie. The brand has also worked with organisations such as The Ascott and Singapore Airlines, the latter to produce a limited-edition jewellery collection inspired by the Peranakan culture and the iconic blue kebaya.
Being recognised as changemakers has not gone to their heads though. They still take their time to forge the future, much like how patience is a core ingredient in their jewellery. Toh sums it up best: “When you want to build good businesses, you can go fast. But if you want to build a great business, you need time.”
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