Family firm Risis guards its golden secrets well

Family firm Risis guards its golden secrets well

Like the recipe for Coca Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken's secret sauce, the technique by which home-grown jeweller Risis plates orchids in pure gold is a tightly guarded trade secret.

Only three people know the Risis formula, and Mr Navin Amarasuriya is one of them. The fifth-generation managing director of luxury goods group B.P. de Silva took charge of Risis in September last year.

Known for its orchid-inspired brooches and pendants, Risis was founded in 1976.

Biochemist Lee Kum Tat created the Risis blooms after his wife commented to him during a walk through the Botanic Gardens that she wished orchids could last forever.

"The plating technique has been developed over 40 years," said Mr Navin.

"I'm one of the people that's a guardian of this knowledge and I'll pass it on eventually."

Patents have an expiry date whereupon the formula enters the public domain, which is why Risis has chosen to operate on a trade secret basis, he added.

Mr Navin, 32, joined Risis, which was acquired by B.P. de Silva in 2001, six years ago as a management trainee at his father's behest.

Manufacturing is the heart of the company, said Mr Navin, and his favourite part of the business.

He keeps paper and mould prototypes of various Risis designs in his house as reminders of the production process and the decisions that were made.

"Very few companies go end-to-end and that's what I love about Risis," said Mr Navin, who studied business management and animation.

"Because you control the manufacturing, if people have an idea, all they have to do is to get a couple of concepts and see if we can make it in-house.

"That's something our designers do, something I do, something that some of the manufacturing guys do."

The newly-launched Risis rose gold collection was the result of one such experiment.

Mr Navin said: "It started off as a passion project from one of our designers who always wore pink gold.

"We started up a small pink gold bath, and the first orchids came out.

"They kind of looked a bit red, and it didn't quite work, but the concept was started."

Risis' signature medium is pure 24-karat gold, while rose gold is an alloy of copper, gold, and different materials, which required a new plating method.

The orchids are gathered from a local nursery.

Next year, Mr Navin plans to launch a collection on the themes of transparent supply chains and ethical sourcing.

"I'm looking at how we source our materials, and I'm trying to trace where they're from.

"It's to give consumers an idea of how things are made and how things can be made better," he said, taking inspiration from the fair trade movement.

Today, Risis products are distributed at stores in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, with prices starting at $59 for a pair of cast orchid earrings.

Mr Navin also plans to expand into Myanmar and China.

He visits the Risis factory in Johor every two weeks.

How many craftsmen the company has is a secret, as is its revenue.

The firm has chosen to stay private so that numbers like these can be held close to its chest, making it difficult for competitors like Royal Selangor to guess the output.

But the competition is friendly.

Mr Navin said he has good communication with the next-generation leaders at Royal Selangor.

At 143 years old, the B.P. de Silva conglomerate is probably one of the oldest family businesses in Singapore.

"In a way our family is connected through this entity, and each of us enjoys it for different reasons," said Mr Navin, who is the eldest of three children.

His sister runs B.P. de Silva Jewellers, while his brother runs the Clipper Tea company.

His father, a 67-year-old Sri Lankan-turned Singapore citizen, is chairman of the group.

"My father joined at 29, because his father had a stroke, so unfortunately he had no transition period with the previous generation," Mr Navin said.

That's why the patriarch wanted his children to start learning the trade early.

Initially, it was difficult working with his father, said Mr Navin, but he has come to value the elder businessman's wealth of experience: "He's looking at the whole forest whereas you're in between the trees, so he's able to guide you and point out areas of improvement very precisely."

This article was first published on August 8, 2016.
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