By Zalina Maizan Ngah and Noor Aznida Alias
KUALA TERENGGANU (Bernama) -- Traditional Malay goldsmiths are a dying breed in Terengganu.
Famed for their exquisite and mostly handmade filigree jewellery, many of the artisans – whose families have been involved in the trade for generations – have quit the business due to its unattractive returns.
According to Tuan Azmi Tuan Moning, 55, who is among the remaining traditional goldsmiths in the district of Kuala Nerus, during the 1980s more than 50 goldsmiths used to ply their trade in Kuala Terengganu and Kuala Nerus but now the number has dwindled to 15.
"Most of those who survived have been in the trade for a long time," he told Bernama.
Tuan Azmi, who learnt the craft of making gold jewellery from his late father Tuan Moning Tuan Endut, reckoned that one of the reasons for the lack of interest in this trade was its low-income prospects.
"The younger generation has no interest in taking over the trade from their fathers because making the gold ornaments itself requires much patience and, furthermore, one can't earn much from it," he said.
The perception that goldsmiths were wealthy and led a life of luxury only applied to jewellery retailers who own a chain of outlets as they not only reap high profit margins but also impose steep workmanship charges on their products, he said.
"Their workmanship charges are more than 200 percent (of the original cost of workmanship), whereas our charges are very low in comparison – we just make enough to support our family," he added.
Sad that none of his sons have shown any interest in taking over the trade from him, he said they have opted for salaried jobs.
"I don't want to think about the fate of my shop once I am no more. I will keep it going as long as I am capable."
Tuan Azmi carries out his trade at his shop, located in Bukit Tunggal (in Kuala Nerus district) which is about seven kilometres from the state capital, that he had opened during the 1980s after he took over the reins of his father's business. His father used to operate from home.
Tuan Azmi's trademark is not only the beautiful ornaments that he creates but also his honesty, a trait that was reflected by his father as well.
In fact, among his current loyal clientele are the family members of his father's customers.
Whenever customers give him their old gold ornaments to be melted and re-crafted into new designs, Tuan Azmi will always make it a point to return any gold remnant that is unused, even if it is in the form of dust.
"This was my father's practise as well. It is this honesty that brings customers to us even though we have limited designs but this is because we use the traditional method to make our ornaments," said Tuan Azmi.
In their business, it is important for goldsmiths to earn the trust of their customers, he pointed out, adding that he has a Chinese customer who travels from Kuala Lumpur to order gold ornaments from him.
"Her mother used to be my customer too," he quipped.
Tuan Azmi learnt the art of making gold ornaments on the encouragement of his father. Initially, when he was in his 20s, he wanted to work in the civil service but when it did not materialise, he switched his attention to keeping the family legacy alive.
In the early stages, he only received orders from around Kuala Nerus and Kuala Terengganu but through word-of-mouth, his customer base extended to other states.
"I honed my skills through observation and experience. As a novice craftsman, I first learnt to make bangles out of silver. I only started making gold articles after I became more skilful," he said.
It used to take him three or four days to make a gold bangle or chain but as his expertise grew he could complete an ornament within a day.
"If I were to notice any flaw in an ornament I had just made, I won't hesitate to melt the gold and reshape it," said Tuan Azmi, for whom customer satisfaction was of paramount importance.
Traditional craftsmanship is the unique selling point of his gold jewellery and it keeps his customers returning to his shop for more.
"The traditional way of making gold items is the best way to shape gold into high-quality and long-lasting filigree ornaments," he said, adding that the requisites for a traditional goldsmith are precision, focus and skill.
HOW THE ORNAMENTS ARE MADE
Explaining how he makes his gold ornaments, Tuan Azmi said first the gold is melted and then poured into a small square mould. Since fine jewellery is made out of gold wires, the latter is produced using a traditional gadget similar to a draw plate that has holes with different diameters.
The melted gold is drawn through the holes to produce wires with the desired specification.
"During the 1960s when there were no draw plates, the traditional goldsmiths, including my father, used to 'pull' or draw the melted gold through the small holes on the (wooden) floors of the stilted houses. But this requires a lot of energy and strength," he said, adding that he had helped his father with this activity in the past.
Once the gold wires are ready, they would be cut into small pieces and, with the help of a solder, shaped into the desired pattern.
Translated by Rema Nambiar