Expats in Malaysia

Expats in Malaysia: From Factory Engineer to Jeweller

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In this ongoing ExpatGo series, we meet and get to know some of the expats who are living and working here in Malaysia. In this instalment, we talk to Mr Drew Philips from Northern Ireland.

Drew Philips

Drew Philips hails from a small town in Northern Ireland, but left home in search of adventure in 1986, and by 1993, had negotiated his way to a Northern Telecom assembly plant in Penang.

“I knew nothing about Malaysia but I was pleasantly surprised by the warm society, good standard of living and low cost of living,” he recounted. “Nortel was perfect, interesting work, great colleagues, and a sports culture, and I’ve always been active in sports. We could play football, 10-pin bowling, badminton or squash every night of the week, and we respected our work even more because of this.”

In 1994, Drew found work with a Taiwanese tool-making company. “I made RM1,000 per month, the boss didn’t speak English, and I had to pay for the bridge daily, RM5.60 if you bought a book of tickets from the filling station,” he reminisced. “In those days, I had a 1977 Honda Civic with a really rusty floor. My close friend from Nortel, Isa Bakar (ex-Malaysian centre forward) reckoned he’d read in the newspaper that a man had been run over by his own car, if my seat had fallen through the floor! I got to play football with a lot of the old greats through him.”

That same year, Drew met his future wife, the now-renowned jeweller, Amee Philips, through a match made by a colleague at Nortel. They have four children and quite a business journey behind them.

Amee’s mother in Penang asked her to send some inexpensive, decorative stones back from Germany to try and sell. They sold well, and Amee then researched how to buy the stones wholesale and found gem quality stones, and this ignited her passion. Amee returned to Penang and, armed with gemstones and determination, walked from shop to shop in Penang’s jewellery quarter searching for buyers. She didn’t have a lot of success, but she gleaned market information from the shop owners, travelling gem traders, and factory owners she met. Her first breakthrough was when one gem trader asked her to leave some gems on a ‘sell or return’ basis. From there she learned what was moving in the market. In time, Amee opened a wholesale office on Pitt Street, buying from travelling suppliers, keeping stock and selling to small Penang jewellery factories, slowly building a reputation.

The business model worked well until the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, but fortunately, Amee had already begun to design and subcontract crafting of her own self-styled jewellery. “We hired a goldsmith, and Amee’s brother learned gem setting,” Drew explained. “I met an experienced English goldsmith playing football and he built us a full, state-of-the-art workshop. In 1999. we opened our first retail shop, located in the brand-new Prangin Mall in the heart of George Town. This experience led us to decide to focus on good-quality coloured gemstones, and after several moves, we opened in our own premises at 109, Kelawei Road, opposite Gurney Paragon Mall.

“By 2004, Amee’s jewellery business was growing and needed more management control, so I took a sabbatical from working as an engineer to see if we could work as a team, I took whatever work I could away from Amee to allow her to do her core jewellery work; buying gemstones, designing jewellery, monitoring the crafting of the jewellery in our workshop, and sales. I had already studied a bit about gemstones and had a pretty good appreciation of them.”

Drew continued weaving his tale of the journey: “In 2005, Amee received a ‘good design award’ from the Science Ministry for her versatile pendant clip design, which was followed by international patents. Just when you thought there could be nothing new in jewellery, Amee comes up with this design that even 100-year-established jewellers from England have admired! In 2010 we ventured to open in KL in Lot 10, Bukit Bintang, then a move to the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and we are currently very settled in Bangsar Shopping Centre.”

Success has bred success, and collections from Amee Philips Jewellery have been featured at several editions of New York Fashion Week, and following that recognition, Amee was named as one of ‘Five Asian Jewellery Designers You Should Know’ by Blouin Lifestyle magazine. These days, Amee is widely regarded as Malaysia’s foremost coloured gemstone expert.

Every year, Amee Philips donates a piece of jewellery to the Irish Fund for local charities in Singapore. They also donate auction items to support charity collections related to events organised by Penang Irish Association, the Pink Ladies cancer awareness, the Make-A-Wish Foundation in KL, and The Big Golf Weekend in Langkawi which collects for Mount Miriam Cancer Hospital in Penang. As for Drew, he says, “After 30 years in Malaysia, I continue to enjoy living here. It’s peaceful and safe, the people are kind and generous, the medical facilities are world-class, the climate allows for year-round outdoor activities, and it’s such a relaxed atmosphere.”

Drew Philips

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