This former piano teacher decided to pursue her other passion and now designs fine jewellery
Joanne Sim, 43, the founder of Eli J Jewelry, found not only a second chance at love but also a way to pursue a very precious passion.
It takes a lot of courage to switch careers when you’ve been working in a sector for decades. It’s different when you’re in your mid-20s and still finding your feet. But when you are pushing your 40s and have a child and mortgage, that’s really daunting.
But that’s exactly what former piano teacher Joanne Sim did three years ago. With the full support and encouragement of her husband Isaac, Joanne stepped away from music to focus on another passion: That of jewellery design.
Joanne was no stranger to jewellery making. She’d been selling her pieces part-time for the last two decades. But it’s one thing to sell the occasional pair of earrings and quite another to enter the trade as one’s full-time source of income.
Nonetheless, Joanne established Eli J Jewelry and has successfully built a discerning clientele, one that appreciates her versions of modernised classic and timeless beauty.
DID YOU WORK AS A PROFESSIONAL MUSICIAN AND A MUSIC TEACHER OR JUST THE LATTER?
Except for a short stint singing alto in an acapella group after university, I taught classical piano for most of my career as I majored in pedagogy. As an introvert, I don’t enjoy being in the limelight; I used to get stage fright whenever I had to perform.
HOW DID YOU PIVOT TO JEWELLERY MAKING?
When I was 24, one of my sisters brought home beads and tools for jewellery making and the rest was history! I’d always felt that her bringing home those items that day was part of a bigger plan for my life.
We started exploring and we loved it so much. We continued buying more and more pretty parts to play with. We were just having fun with the process.
DID JEWELLERY MAKING COME NATURALLY TO YOU?
It did. I am entirely self-taught. Because I enjoyed it so much, it was easy to keep making and that contributed to my practice to hone my skills. Perhaps being trained in piano made it easier to pick up such fine finger work.
Artistically, my growing-up years shaped me a lot. My family moved around because of my dad’s job. When we lived in the United States, I was bullied the whole three years I was there. Even after moving on to middle school, I would avoid the bully (he lived in the same area as I did) by visiting my art teacher in elementary school and hanging out in the art room.
Her kindness and patience made a big impact on me. She would allow me to dig around in her vintage button stash, and I spent time chatting with her and looking at her books and the other students’ works. I remember one school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing great American artists’ works in person. It was such an incredible feeling!
I also borrowed lots of books from the local library and reading was my escape into the many wonderful worlds: Biographies, history, fiction … whatever caught my eye.
Dad drove along the east coast of the US, too, and we made trips to other places as well. In England, we visited historical sites, attended West End shows and travelled to a couple of countries in Europe. Seeing the world at that young age shaped my artistic side, I believe.
My mother was a huge vintage lover, too, and we would follow her on her visits to thrift shops and consignment stores. She found some beautiful jewellery, home decoration and treasures.
HOW DID YOU PROGRESS FROM MAKING JEWELLERY FOR YOURSELF TO SELLING ON CONSIGNMENT TO SHOPS?
My sister and I probably amassed too many pieces. We only have one pair of earlobes each and seven days a week! I told her we could try consigning to stores, so I went around and asked. We consigned at quite a few shops at Orchard Road then.
DID YOU HAVE A MORE ACCESSIBLE BRAND BEFORE STARTING THE FINE JEWELLERY BRAND?
That’s right! In 2004, one of my sisters and I started a brand called EighteenFifty. Our style was quite different then and we consigned to several stores and sold through our blog. She was a university student, so she had more time to join me on that adventure. She eventually started work and got extremely busy.
At the same time, from 2009 to 2010, I had just finalised my divorce and was feeling pretty beat up emotionally. I thought it was time to do something for myself and so, I set up Eli J Jewelry. It was mostly consigned to just one shop at Holland Village as that was all the time I could give then.
Around 2017, I decided to give Instagram a go. I’d heard about how social media was a great place for businesses, so I thought, “why not? Just try lah”. Somehow, people found me and by 2018, business was growing steadily.
That was also the same year my second husband Isaac and I got married. By the end of 2018, he had seen how teaching piano was making me very unhappy, and so he gave me his full support to go full time into jewellery making. Coincidentally, Isaac’s family is in the jewellery business as well. So, with his contacts and my customer base, we decided to give it a shot.
In 2019, Eli J Fine Jewelry was set up rather organically as we had some requests for bespoke fine jewellery. In 2021, we moved to Emerald Hill to set up a home studio. Looking back, I am very grateful for everything.
WHERE DID THE NAME "ELI J" COME FROM? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Eli (pronounced “E-lai”) is short for my son’s name Elisha and J is me. It was just the two of us after my divorce and our bond was, and still is, very special. He was my little companion. We did everything together and at that time, being a present parent was my No. 1 priority, so I guess that was all I was thinking about then.
DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD HAVE PURSUED THIS IF YOU HAD NOT MET AND MARRIED ISAAC?
Without a doubt, I would not. Before I met him, I had been a single mother for about three and a half years, with an upcoming mortgage to pay and a young child to raise. I did not dare to give up the stability of teaching, even though I was growing more and more unhappy with each passing year.
WHAT IS YOUR DESIGN STYLE? WHO IS YOUR TYPICAL OR IDEAL CUSTOMER?
My aim is to make jewellery that is easy to wear with an unexpected, unusual detail or pop of colour. And quality is very important to me. It’s got to be jewellery that my customers can wear for decades to come and pass on to the next generation.
Nothing trendy or cutesy. Especially for my fine jewellery line, I believe we do classics with a twist or a vintage vibe well.
I design for women of all ages but I realise my customers are mostly in their late 20s to early 50s. My typical customer is confident about who she is and what she wants. Her personality shines more through her jewellery than her clothes and she mostly prefers the classic, romantic and vintage aesthetic, but also knows how to have fun sometimes.
WAS IT DIFFICULT TO ESTABLISH YOURSELF AS A DESIGNER, NOT HAVING COME FROM A JEWELLERY OR DESIGN BACKGROUND?
Early on, there were definitely days I doubted my ability, so I won’t lie; when there were sales, it was encouraging. Mostly, I read a lot to learn about the materials and gemstones I use as well as asked suppliers lots of questions.
Before COVID-19 happened, we used to travel often so learning from the experts in the fields was my classroom. Even though my husband is experienced with the manufacturing side of things, I was not, so I have been learning as well. I did a GIA course and also jewellery illustration and design courses. Learning never stops, and it has been so much fun.
I know deep in my heart that I have a keen eye for colours, shapes, proportions and beauty, so when I design anything, I always ask myself, “would I wear this? Do I love it?”.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE HARDEST PART OF RUNNING THE BUSINESS?
Where do I even start! Running a business has been one hell of a ride. I’ll be honest, I have thought many times about quitting. Ironically, it was even when my brand was growing rapidly. I was hustling so hard, I was getting burnt out and I was also getting unwanted attention. Being an emotionally sensitive person, that was definitely tough. My husband and sisters have been through it all with me, bless them!
But these have been great lessons and I have learnt to take care of my mental health. I have become mentally tougher, too, through the years. I wouldn’t change the process for anything; the past few years have really made me grow as a person.
I realise that I need to slow down sometimes and remember how Eli J has grown with the love from so many people, especially when things got tough. I cannot help but feel immensely grateful and what had seemed daunting became less so afterwards.
AND WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST REWARDING?
Without a doubt, the most rewarding has definitely got to be meeting some of the kindest, sweetest ladies (and some men) who have become my friends.
Above all, I believe that life is about relationships, the people we walk this short journey with are the most important to me.
Getting happy DMs and texts after receiving their new jewellery is also extremely humbling and rewarding.
ARE YOU INVOLVED IN ALL ASPECTS OF THE BUSINESS? WHAT DO YOU SPECIALISE IN AND WHAT DOES ISAAC DO?
For my handmade jewellery line, I am involved in everything, it’s literally a one-woman show. Okay, maybe not everything, thankfully. Isaac helps with the accounting – I cannot do this to save my life – and the heavy lifting when we do pop-ups.
For our fine jewellery line, I do the designing, customer relations and social media. Isaac handles the manufacturing details and liaising with our jeweller as he has the experience. He also edits and takes most of our photos and handles the left-brain stuff that bores me to death.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PIECE THAT YOU HAVE DESIGNED?
Under my handmade line, it’s a statement necklace I made for myself for my sister’s wedding. It’s made of various vintage parts and gemstones. I made it in 2012 and still love it so much.
For fine jewellery, it is a pair of earrings inspired by clean lines, shadows and minimalism. We nicknamed it “the architectural pair”. It was designed in 2020 for a regular customer, who left the entire design process to me, to accentuate a pair of gorgeous, unheated tanzanite. I had wanted to set tanzanite in a completely unorthodox way.
DO YOU SEE ANY NOTICEABLE JEWELLERY TRENDS HERE IN SINGAPORE?
I see a big love for coloured gemstones in Singapore. But honestly, I don’t follow trends, so I might not be the best person to ask about this.
WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY IN YOUR LIFE LIKE?
Most mornings, I catch up on emails, DMs on Instagram and sometimes, slot in exercise before lunch. Lunch is usually a quick one with my husband when I enjoy one of my must-haves: Coffee!
After lunch, I brainstorm or work on pieces for my handmade collections, and Isaac and I work on our fine jewellery designs and orders. It’s a long process between meeting the customers and the final result, but it is incredibly rewarding when they love their new jewellery!
By about dinner time, I stop work to prepare dinner if things aren’t too busy as having a meal together as a family means a lot to us. We sometimes work until late after that; being a small business owner means work never really stops.
WHAT IS THE DREAM FOR ELI J?
When I started making jewellery in 2004, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine Eli J to become a full-time job. I always thought it would just be a hobby, my creative escape. So, seeing how it’s grown truly blows my mind.
My husband and I are pretty similar in our values and goals. We are very content with the simple things in life, so nothing fancy in our dreams for Eli J. We are in this for the long haul. We hope to see our cosy studio flourish, to continue to be a part of many exciting bespoke journeys for not just someone’s jewellery, but also to help them create a treasure they’ll be able to pass down to the next generation.
I hope to grow as a designer for our fine jewellery line and to really find my voice. And we hope to continue to be able to connect with those who share similar values and purpose in life through our work.