Mention the word ‘pewter’ and Royal Selangor immediately pops to the mind. There’s no denying the connection that’s so deeply engraved into the psyche of every Malaysian, and it all began in 1885 when a young pewtersmith from Shantou, China, set foot on the muddied confluence of Kuala Lumpur. Yong Koon started out making ceremonial items for Chinese ancestral altars with his brothers before saving enough money to establish Malayan Pewter Works in 1930. Weathering the changing landscape, from the Japanese Occupation and colonial rule to the birth of a fledgling new nation, Malayan Pewter works evolved into Selangor Pewter and, eventually, Royal Selangor to befit its noble status as the Royal Pewterer as conferred by the Sultan of Selangor.
Today, Yong Koon’s company has blossomed into an institution, with highly prized handcrafted pewter pieces and on-going collaborations with renowned designers Erik Magnussen and Jamy Yang as well as the esteemed Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Its beautifully crafted trophies have also graced the podiums of Formula One races in Malaysia, Singapore and China as well as the Shanghai ATP 1000 Masters. And let’s not forget its fruitful partnership with The Walt Disney Company, Warner Bros and Marvel Comics that has resulted in the wildly popular Star Wars, Batman and Marvel superheroes collections. Looking at the decades of achievements under its belt, it’s remarkable how it all stems from one simple element – pewter.
So what is pewter? An alloy of tin, copper and antimony, pewter has been in use since the Bronze Age, in ancient civilisations of Egypt and Rome as various household and religious accoutrements. At Royal Selangor, the pewter is of utmost quality with a markedly higher composition of tin (up to 97 per cent) that fits the highest international standard of pewter.
“We always believe that pewter is about possibilities. The malleability of pewter allows for intricate and detailed design that is difficult to achieve with other metals. It is a very warm metal that fits very well into various settings, be it traditional or contemporary,” explains Yong Yoon Li, the fourth-generation scion and Executive Director at Royal Selangor. “However, the limitations of the metal have to be understood – mainly that it is quite soft. Therefore, we use the softness to our advantage and design around the material for both form and function, and not just for the sake of design.”
While a team of designers, developers and craftspeople are behind the pewter company’s innovations and brilliant designs, it’s the pewtersmiths that bring these pieces to life. Congregated at the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre at its headquarters in Setapak, you’ll see a sea of determined faces and nimble hands patiently handling the pewter in various states. Now, if you’re imagining a work floor dominated by males, that’s where you’re wrong. To my (pleasant) surprise, I discovered that a vast majority of the pewtersmiths are, in fact, women.
During the 1960s, Selangor Pewter under Yong Peng Kai (Yong Koon’s third son) became one of the first Malaysian companies to employ women in production. Speaking to these ladies, I am astounded to discover that they have no inkling of the greatness of their work, nor the finesse they possess of their craft. These women are artistes in their own right, yet they see the work they do as “just another day at work”.
Thankfully, Royal Selangor is acutely aware of their impressive skills and has a long-held belief that pewtersmithing is an art form, a craft that continues to develop with experience. “Royal Selangor is a proud Malaysian company with a heritage of craftsmanship and this is what makes our products special. Many of our pewtersmiths have been working with us for years and they continue to create high quality, beautiful products,” says Yong. “While we maintain a strict production timeline, the pewtersmiths do not work at a rushed pace and they take a lot of pride in their work. Some of our techniques have been handed down over several generations and techniques that were employed years ago are still being used today.”
Mulling over the craft, Yong admits that Royal Selangor does rely heavily on the skill and expertise of their experienced smiths. “There’s a lot of pride and care that goes into each step of the process,” he says. “I believe it is an inherent human value to create something beautiful.” His sentiment is certainly agreeable and it seems that it is an inherent human value to want for something beautiful as well. In these past few years, there’s a growing appreciation for handcrafted, artisanal and storied pieces, and they’re increasingly sought after in a world of massproduced items. Therefore, it is music to my ears when Yong reveals that Royal Selangor is seeing an increase in the number of young Malaysians who are joining them – individuals who are genuinely interested in learning the craft and keen to discover the potential of pewter. “There is actually a new generation called the Maker Culture, young people who enjoy making things with their own hands and selling it online,” he shares. “And this movement has resulted in a rise in demand for our workshops.”
Curious young people are welcomed to the Royal Selangor family with open arms. Working with the government on the National Dual Training System programme (SLDN), students from a vocational school will train with Royal Selangor for about a year before being offered an opportunity to join on a fulltime basis upon completion of their studies. As they gain experience and become increasingly proficient, they are given the opportunity to be multi-skilled or even learn to become silversmiths or jewellers for sister brands Comyns and Selberan.
In keeping with the times, machinery does make an appearance in the production of Royal Selangor’s pieces to provide greater uniformity, precision and repeatability for processes that cannot be achieved solely by handcrafting. However, the pewtersmiths still play a vital role in the creation of the pieces. As Yong says with much conviction: “Craftsmanship is in our DNA. Royal Selangor will continue to keep this skilll alive and build a brand that is true to our heritage.”
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW
PHOTOGRAPHY ROBIN YONG & ROYAL SELANGOR