Edmond Chin is not your typical jewellery specialist. As the managing director of Etcetera, the atelier he founded in 2001, Chin is known for creating stunning bespoke pieces that combine technical ingenuity and exquisite gems. With the well-heeled being enamoured with his craft, his creations have fetched over seven figures in Singapore currency in Hong Kong auction houses.
But it is his enduring contribution to furthering the arts and culture scene in Singapore, through generous donations to museums such as the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), that has set him apart.
Chin’s lifelong passion for jewellery has been the main arc of his life, through his avid interest in collecting – and donating – antique South-east Asian jewellery in a personal capacity, earning him recognition from the National Heritage Board. A three-time recipient of the Patron of Heritage Awards, Chin was Distinguished Patron in 2015 and Partner in 2016 and 2019.
Professionally, the Oxford graduate with a bachelor’s in geography was a curator at the National Museum and went on to head the jewellery and jadeite department for Asia at Christie’s Hong Kong.
The Peak speaks to the Hong Kong-based Singaporean, who turns 56 this year, to find out how the arts came to be intertwined with his life, and the significance of his partnership with ACM, which debuted a permanent jewellery gallery last month.
What sparked your interest in the arts?
I grew up in Singapore in the ’70s, at a time of prosperity and stability, when many people became interested in the finer things in life. My parents were determined that I should have a well-rounded education and brought me to art exhibitions. I was lucky to grow up in an art-friendly environment.
How did you get your start in collecting jewellery?
My father always bought jewellery for my mother on important occasions, so when I was invited to a friend’s birthday party at 16, I decided to gift an accessory. It was an antique silver Chinese hairpin that I chanced upon for $17. That was the first piece of antique jewellery I purchased. I began my collection very modestly. In my university days, I worked as a cook and then as a scout for a few Singapore jewellery shops, which had me identifying vintage jewellery in different cities for them. When I started working, I began to invest in property. The earnings allowed me to make larger purchases. I also upgraded my collection by selling or exchanging earlier buys.
What did your collection grow to encompass?
My collection encompassed jewellery of insular and peninsular SEA, dating from the 5th century AD to the mid-20th century. I built the collection over a period of almost 25 years.
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At what point did you decide to donate it to the ACM?
Every collection has a lifespan, a point at which it is impossible to be significantly enhanced. Having curated the exhibition Gilding The Phoenix on Peranakan jewellery at the National Museum in 1991, and seen the impact of a successful exhibition, I decided to share my collection with the public. My donation to the ACM in 2002 comprised 335 pieces of gold jewellery valued at close to $2 million. In 2015, I donated a rare peacock belt that was valued at close to $1 million. I consider museums to be as important as libraries when it comes to being repositories of knowledge.
What is the relevance of artefacts such as jewellery in helping us understand our culture?
History is important; if you don’t know your origins, you exist without a foundation. One of the ways to connect with history is via the viewing of artefacts because they contain information about the people who used and made them, as well as the socio-economic situation of the time. Jewellery, in particular, is one of the most ancient artefacts created by humankind – the earliest being over 100,000 years old. This is before the advent of written language. Jewellery is therefore one of the most essential expressions of civilisation, communicating ideas of beauty, identity and status.
Can you tell us more about the new permanent gallery dedicated to jewellery?
The jewellery gallery, named after my parents Mary and Philbert Chin, features predominantly Island South-east Asian jewellery from the Neolithic period to the mid-20th century. About one third of the artefacts on display are my donations. South-east Asian culture is difficult to grasp because it contains a wide number of overlapping influences within a complex geography of islands, so I hope visitors will get an idea of the tremendous richness and diversity of the cultures that exist on our doorstep.
How has your passion shaped your career?
My passion for jewellery has been a seminal influence on my career as a jewellery specialist, and now as a designer and manufacturer. My current role as a bespoke jeweller allows me to carry on the great tradition of making jewellery that tells the stories of their owners and their times, so they can be appreciated by future generations.
Going forward, what do you consider your role to be?
Collecting, jewellery and museums are my lifelong passions. I have also donated contemporary art to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. I know of people who have been inspired to donate to museums because of my gifts, which is very encouraging. I would like to be remembered as someone who contributed to the sum of human knowledge.