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Gem of a career change
Nora Tong
update on Friday, May 21, 2010
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Jewellery designer Karen Lee is an avid learner. From majoring in three subjects at university and learning – and mastering – ceramics and pottery to taking up the harp recently, the former sales and marketing executive has stretched her limits in life and at work.

What did you do before becoming a jewellery designer?

I worked for IT companies in business development, sales and marketing capacities. As a result of the training I received and because of my personality, I thrive under pressure. It is crucial for people who want to start a business to be able to work under stress.

What did you study at university?

I studied in Canada, majoring in economics, business administration and philosophy. I wanted to challenge myself. Initially, I focused on economics and business administration. Then I took an elective on philosophy and found it very interesting. I benefited a lot from studying philosophy. I’ve learnt to think things through very carefully and thoroughly by always asking myself the question of “what if” and challenging my own arguments.

Ever since I was young, I had a tendency to fill my schedule as fully as possible. I studied even during spring breaks and summer holidays. Over the years I’ve taken up several interests – I’ve made ceramics for more than 10 years – and now I’m learning the harp.

Why did you change paths?

I sometimes wondered whether I would still be able to meet revenue targets if I hadn’t worked for a reputed firm that was popular with clients. I wanted to find out what I could achieve on my own by starting a business.

I was learning ceramics and pottery but wasn’t sure how I could earn a living doing that. I also asked myself if I loved ceramics most, and the answer was no. I enjoyed jewellery design more – I had attended a few courses by then – and was ready to invest in a business built around it.

It took me three years to make the move. I knew I might not have the courage to do so later when I had a better-paid job. I didn’t have anything to lose apart from the capital. I didn’t have to finance a mortgage, nor did I owe the bank any money. If things didn’t work out, I could find a job and start again. At least I had tried.

What should jewellery designers equip themselves with?

You need to be well versed with in gemology and the theory of colours, know how to make a piece of jewellery and be able to communicate with craftsmen. You need to be able to draw sketches in actual size and appraise the quality of pieces.

Every now and then I enrol in courses to learn something new. I recently attended a class in Britain on the history of jewellery design. It was fascinating. I learnt that jewellery design can be a reflection of the society. For example, black jewellery was in vogue in the 1910s because many people died as a result of warfare.

What’s the best part of your job?

As time goes by, I’m finding meaning in what I do. There are many stories behind a piece of jewellery. By designing jewellery for others, I’m helping them capture moments of fond memories that will be passed on to the next generations.

What’s your advice for young people?

Starting a business isn’t a back-up plan. Some of my friends are so fed up with their jobs that they say they want to set up a business as a way out. But the latter entails uncertainties and requires hard work – you won’t have any free time or holidays.

Whether you should start a business depends on your personality and what you look for in life. Some people prefer working in a company where they enjoy a stable income and regular holidays and learn new things at leisure. People who dread stress should not run a business. So know yourself. 

 

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