Cover The peacock belt, with linked gold panels and 75 carats of brilliant-cut diamonds, donated by Edmond Chin to the Asian Civilisations Museum; Image: Asian Civilisations Museum

From tableware to jewellery and even tea, three collectors share how their respective assemblage of cultural objects offer a slice of history of the region and beyond. In the second of a three part series, jewellery designer Edmond Chin expounds on why he chose to donate his collection of Island Southeast Asia jewellery that span the Neolithic period to the 20th century

The jewellery gallery at the Asian Civilisations Museum is the first permanent gallery in the world to spotlight island Southeast Asian jewellery and artefacts from the Neolithic period to the 20th century—and many of these come from the collection of Singapore-born, Hong Kong-based jewellery designer Edmond Chin, the founder and managing director of jewellery brand Etcetera. In fact, the gallery is also named after his parents Mary and Philbert Chin.

The collection consists of pieces that are more than 2,000 years old, worn by traditional societies living in insular and peninsular Southeast Asia, as well as indigenous groups and later migrants to the area such as the Peranakan Chinese. Chin explains the motivations behind his collecting and shares tips for those interested in starting a jewellery collection.

Related: The Tatler Guide to Building Your Own Museum

What are some of the styles and techniques that define the island jewellery you have come to collect?

Edmond Chin (EC) The jewellery of the indigenous groups in Southeast Asia is incredibly varied because of the cultural diversity of the region. For example, we see feathers and shells worn as jewellery along with trade beads and other beads made from seeds on the island of Mentawai.

Just across the straits, we have the fascinating culture of Nias, where the aristocracy was defined by the types of gold ornaments (among other things). In fact, it was believed that gold was so potent its “hot” energy had to be “cooled” by the blood of a sacrificed slave.

Northeast of the islands lies Sumatra with its highly varied societies: one of which being the Acehnese who believe in Islam, while the Batak ethnic group continued their magic practices. Not surprisingly, the jewellery of these societies reflect their beliefs, with the former using Middle Eastern techniques such as filigree and enamel, while the latter used ornaments of brass, often inlaid with symbolic materials like copper, gold and silver.

How can jewellery inform us about the past?

EC The jewellery worn in the past was very much an indicator of which social group you belonged to and your status within that group. It is also a reflection of the beliefs of the group. For example, the wedding jewellery of the Chinese is almost always decorated with auspicious motifs denoting happiness or wishes for many children, while earrings carved with cicadas (which represent rebirth) would only be used for funerary purposes.

Related: 5 Jewellery Auction Predictions for 2021, According to Bonhams' Head of Jewellery

The jewellery of the indigenous groups in Southeast Asia is incredibly varied because of the cultural diversity of the region.
Edmond Chin

What do jewellery collectors need to understand before they start collecting?

EC I think it’s important for a collector to understand why they collect. In my case, I have always collected in order to learn about the societies that created and used the objects. It is equally valid to decorate the home, and there are those who collect because they wish to diversify their investments. In each case, the criteria for collecting and the end result would render different collections.

Secondly, I think it is very important that the would-be collector studies his subject by reading books, visiting museums and discussing things with specialists and curators. Lastly, it is necessary to understand that because many collectibles are valuable, that there are many fakes in the market as well. Therefore, they should be able to identify which pieces are meant to deceive.

What is your most prized piece from your collection?

EC The most prized piece in my collection is a diamond encrusted belt buckle and belt. It was initially loaned to the Peranakan Museum but after it emerged as a star exhibit at overseas exhibitions of Peranakan culture in Manila, Seoul and Paris, I decided to donate it to the Asian Civilisations Museum.

How did you come to donate items from your collection to the Asian Civilisations Museum?

EC As a jewellery designer, I have always used museums as an irreplaceable resource for inspiration and ideas; almost like a library, but filled with objects instead of books. After spending over 40 years in pursuit of unique objects, I felt that it was best housed in a public institution where future thinkers, creatives and the general public would have access to and benefit from this resource.

As the pieces are intended for display in a public institution, I try to collect things mainly from old collections with a secure provenance. Such pieces can appear at auctions, with specialist dealers, or very occasionally through direct contact with a collector.

Also featured in the Singapore Collectors Series: Everything You Need To Know About David Yip's Canton Porcelain Pieces | Meet The Ceramic Artist Who Collects Tea and Teaware from The Ming and Qing Dynasties