Indian jewellers, or Indian goldsmiths, designed and hand-crafted gold jewellery that was sold either in shops or directly by them to their customers. They were Indian men who worked mainly around Little India especially in shophouses along Upper Dickson Road and Buffalo Road, off Serangoon Road.1
Indian jewellers came to Singapore from the late 1940s onwards, but the trade became popular only from the 1950s. Most of the Indian jewellers in Singapore were from Tamil Nadu in Southern India. They were born into families traditionally involved in the jewellery trade and later came to Singapore to seek better prospects. Known as patters or acharis, these jewellers donned the poonal, or religious threads, over their shoulder and upper torso around the age of ten when they were initiated into the craft. Being a family trade, the art of jewellery crafting was imparted to these jewellers by their fathers and other relatives from a young age. After a while, they joined another jeweller as an apprentice. When their apprenticeship ended, most jewellers went to work for their fathers or uncles, while others sought their fortune overseas. After arriving in Singapore, some of these jewellers adopted Singapore as their homeland and continued the tradition of donning the poonal and teaching their sons the secrets of the trade here. However, Indians of other castes later learned the art of goldsmithing and went into the trade too. The jewellery trade was affected during the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) when almost all jewellers were forced to work as labourers.2
Jewellers worked from their individual work cubicles that they had adorned with pictures of their favourite Hindu deities and family memorabilia. They worked every day except Sundays. Some of them even worked for up to 20 hours a day.3 The traditional jeweller sat cross-legged on a floor mat, bent over a small bench to work. The common tools of their trade were screws, files, hammers, acid, sandpaper, water and a lamp.4
Customers would usually select designs from a book the jeweller kept with him or would request for replicas of pieces that they had brought with them. The jewellers also fixed broken pieces of jewellery for a fee. After a customer had chosen the design, the jeweller would begin by first drawing out the design on a gold bar. Then he cut out the design and carve it using tools to get the desired shape. Sometimes the roughly cut shapes would be imported from India that the jeweller would later cut out and carve the design.5 A small burner fuelled by petrol was used to melt the gold. After melting, the gold was picked up with a pair of tweezers, put into a can of acid and then soaked in water. When the gold was still soft, it was shaped into the required design. A jeweller’s work, therefore, demanded patience, creativity, imagination and skilful fingers.6
Most of the jewellers’ orders came from jewellery shops that served customers of all races. There were also customers who ordered and bought jewellery directly from the jewellers. The jewellers earned more during festive seasons and auspicious Hindu months when occasions such as weddings and other ceremonies were more frequently held.7
Mechanisation was largely responsible for the decline of the Indian jewellery business. Jewellery that was machine designed was cheaper than a hand-crafted one. Many customers, therefore, went to shops to buy such jewellery. Machines could also produce greater number of pieces of jewellery over a shorter period of time with minimal wastage. Furthermore, the number of designs that the machines could make were also more than what the jeweller had in his book of designs.8 Some customers, however, still preferred exclusive hand-crafted jewellery that could not be found elsewhere or those with unique designs that could not be replicated by machines. A number of customers also preferred to buy jewellery from jewellers that they knew and could trust. Although a few of these craftsmen have remained, their numbers are declining. Many are now hired by jewellery shops and are paid a monthly salary.9
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
1. S. Ramachandra, “Goldsmith without a Shop,” Singapore Free Press, 31 May 1952, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Lo-Ang Siew Ghim and Chua Chee Huan, eds., Vanishing Trades of Singapore (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1992), 29–30. (Call no. RSING 338.642095957 VAN)
2. Margaret Sullivan, "Can survive, La": Cottage Industries in High-Rise Singapore (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1993), 152–55. (Call no. RSING 338.634095957 SUL); “Wither the Glittering Glamour,” Goodwood Journal, 3rd Qtr (1987); 36–37. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
3. “Wither the Glittering Glamour,” 36–37.
4. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 29–30; “Wither the Glittering Glamour,” 36–37.
5. Sullivan, "Can survive, La", 155.
6. “Wither the Glittering Glamour,” 36–37.
7. Sharon Siddique and Nirmala Shotam-Gore, Singapore’s Little India: Past Present and Future. (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982), 98–100 (Call no. RSING 305.89141105 SID); Ramachandra, “Goldsmith without a Shop.”
8. Jayati Battacharya, “Beyond the Glitterati: The Indian and Chinese Jewellers of Little India, Singapore,” in Indian and Chinese Immigrant Communities, ed. Jayati Bhattacharya and Coonoor Kripalani (New York: Anthem Press, 2015), 105. (Call no. RSING 305.891411 IND)
9. Sullivan, "Can survive, La", 155.
The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.