Cover Photo: Imran Sulaiman

Coming from backgrounds in chemistry and corporate law respectively, Nisa Ashman and Alia Farouk design jewellery inspired by their personal style and cherished memories

Meet Alia Farouk and Nisa Ashman: cousins, close friends and co-founders of the demi-fine jewellery brand Olena Jewellery.  Launched in 2020, the indie brand is all about celebrating one's creativity and personal style with lovingly crafted pieces that are meant to last a lifetime.

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Back in the UK where both cousins lived and studied for several years, Farouk and Ashman would often meet in London to look for good quality yet inexpensive jewellery to layer on as ear-piercings. Drawn towards minimalist demi-fine jewellery that left room for creative and stackable styling, the girls took a chance back home in Malaysia when they founded Olena. All the pieces in Olena's collection are Gold Vermeil plated: a technique that coats a base of 925 Sterling Silver with 18K yellow gold.   

A year later, the brand's clientele includes fashion mavens and influencers like Kim Raymond, Alia Bastamam, Brynn Lovett and many more. Read on to learn what inspires Olena's upbeat and youthful designs and how it reflects the unique values and voices of its founders. 

Tell us about yourselves and what led you to start a business together.

Ashman: I studied in the UK for seven years, graduating with a Master’s degree in chemistry. Up until a few months ago I was working for an ecommerce platform that helped local entrepreneurs and retailers grow and develop online. I did that while working on Olena, but today Olena is my full-time focus.

Farouk: I graduated with a Master’s degree in corporate law and lived in the UK for about 10 years before coming back home to work at a market research start-up for about a year. I too did that while working on Olena and running my other company Dia Guild.

As kids, Nisa and I loved baking. You know those easy-bake Betty Crocker brownie mixes? We’d bake those and sell them at extortionate prices to our family members, which I guess was the start of our entrepreneurial partnership (laughs). 

What made you decide to start Olena Jewellery?

Ashman: Back in the UK, Alia and I would often go down to London on weekends to get new ear-piercings. We were into affordable pieces that we could use to style multiple piercings. In London, the choices were endless. When we first moved back to Malaysia, we felt our options were limited for accessible, everyday jewellery that we could stack and style, which also didn’t compromise on quality.  It was that sweet spot between high-end fine jewellery and fashion jewellery that we were missing here, so we decided to start our own.  

Farouk: Here, we saw many jewellery brands that retailed statement piece jewellery, pieces crafted to be worn on their own. There weren’t that many local brands that truly spoke to our personal style, which is more understated and minimal.

As Nisa mentioned, we have a lot of ear-piercings and we tend to look for jewellery that can be styled well collectively, jewellery that shines well when worn together. 

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In what ways does Olena reflect your values?

Farouk: In the last few years, Nisa and I have really tried to shop consciously, so lifetime worth is very important to us. We’re interested in products that are of higher quality even if it means the price point is slightly higher.

With Olena, the materials and the processes that are typically used in demi-fine jewellery production are to provide good quality, durable products with a fair price to match it. This is our way of making luxury accessible to everyone.

Ashman: We've put in effort to make our small business sustainable. The pieces we design are meant to last and to be loved for as long as possible. We launch our products in small quantities to test demand and avoid overproduction. Right now, we're in the midst of producing new pieces made entirely from recycled metals and stones. So that’s something to look out for in the new year. 

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Tell us about Olena's recent new releases.

Farouk: The three pieces we recently launched are the Inverted Link Hoop, the Inverted Link Ring and the Lapis Link Ring. The Inverted Link designs are completely encrusted in cubic zirconia while the Lapis Link Ring is of course coated in lapis, a semi-precious coloured stone.

The inspiration behind it is actually New Year's Day celebrations. New Year’s Day for our family is a very big deal; after Raya, it’s one of the biggest holidays for us. Our late grandfather was very adamant that we all spend every New Year’s together.

Before the pandemic, these gatherings used to be abroad. So on New Year’s Eve, we’d all get dolled up and celebrate at the hotel’s New Year’s Eve party, complete with metallic streamers, confetti and party poppers. 

The new additions to Olena's collections are sort of an ode to those happy times and beautiful moments with our family.

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What's your favourite way to style jewellery?

Ashman: I like to stick to one type of metal, usually gold. I’d start with a slightly bigger piece for my first ear-piercing and then stack on smaller pieces: hoops and studs. I tend to gravitate more towards a floral theme when it comes to my ear-piercings. But it usually depends on how I feel day to day.

Farouk: I love mixing studs and huggies. It's all about having a variety of jewellery types on the ear. I’ve got rings at the top, huggies at the bottom and studs along the way. I love layering and stacking necklaces. When they're all worn together, it creates such a statement piece. Minimal effort for maximum effect.

Looking back a year after founding Olena, what were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?

Farouk: Olena is a business born in lockdown. We were sourcing for the right manufacturer in the middle of a pandemic, when factories around the world were closed. We couldn’t travel and therefore couldn’t visit manufacturers to get a first-hand look at their production process, the working conditions and whether or not their workers were compensated fairly.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a surge of new brands surfacing, many of which offer demi-fine jewellery. The main thing we had to learn was finding our place and our voice among all these brands that each have something different and unique to offer the market. It's an ongoing challenge. 

What's the best part about running a business with your cousin? 

Ashman: We have a trust and understanding between us which helps us work on challenges together. Whatever issues we encounter, we have each other to turn to at the end of the day, along with a strong support system of family and friends who have helped us overcome every doubt and hesitation.   

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