Encasing your breastmilk in jewellery for keepsake

You've heard of paintbrushes made from the hair of infants, or traditional Chinese stamps made with a baby's umbilical cord stump encased in liuli crystal. Now, the next head-scratching baby-related souvenir is made from yet another biological matter - breastmilk.

They say children grow so quickly, which perhaps explains the popularity of such keepsakes to remind folks of their little ones before they could climb, bicker or break their curfews. While mums are currently polarised over the call to breastfeed, with some new mothers feeling intense and sometimes irrational pressure to do so, those who choose to nurse like to preserve the experience.

The trend of creating jewellery from breastmilk - ranging from simple lockets and charms to even stylish accessories crafted from precious metals - started around seven years ago as international sellers on craft e-commerce site Etsy began offering such products. In recent years, craft-savvy mums here have been picking up techniques on preserving their own milk and those of fellow mothers.

"I gave birth last year and really wanted to get a piece of breastmilk jewellery made, so my husband suggested that we bring this into Singapore," says Ryo Goh, who used to run a tuition centre and was an A-level economics teacher.

"It was a very rocky start, our sales numbers were very low and the very first batch of orders turned brown due to decay in the first few months. We scrambled to find a chemist to help us with refining the breastmilk preservation technique, and devoted many sleepless nights to remaking the affected orders."

Starting her business Keepsake By Ryo in February of this year, Ms Goh now completes an average of 400 pieces of jewellery a month. Customers mail in 20ml of their own breastmilk or locks of their babies' hair or umbilical cord stumps to be used in the designs. Excess breastmilk is stored in case of defects, whereby the pieces may be replaced. The milk is then cast using a jeweller's grade resin that will not fade over time, forming cabochons that can be incorporated into necklaces, rings or earrings. And she is just one of several local makers providing this very specialised service.

"I heard about breastmilk jewellery on Facebook from overseas brands and they were so expensive, but I was intrigued by the idea of preserving something so precious and special," says Denise Low, a stay-at-home mother of two who started her brand Babylove Breastmilk Jewellery Keepsake in January.

"As a nursing mother of a 20-month-old boy and having breast fed my elder child until the age of three, the times of hardship, restless nights, ups and downs, are all summed up by breastmilk and how mums persevere to give their best to their children.

"So I decided to make my own (breastmilk jewellery), which is not an easy feat."

Ms Low and other makers of the unique accessories explain that the process is incredibly unpredictable because breastmilk is an organic material. Often, several attempts are required to create a perfect piece. On average, it takes at least two weeks to a month to complete a single item as it takes days to preserve the milk and cast it in resin, before customising it into a jewellery design.

However, the idea of wearing solidified bodily excretion might be a tad off-putting to some, even mothers who have been breastfeeding.

"I personally think the practice sounds rather strange," says Charlene Cai, a mother of one who is expecting her second child. "I don't see the need for something like that and find it a waste of money."

However, many producers of such mementos reveal that customers are excited when they chance upon the jewellery since the act of breastfeeding is a meaningful part of their own motherhood experience.

"There's nothing to be grossed out about, the breastmilk has already been preserved and you wouldn't even know it's breastmilk jewellery unless we told you," says Melody Zhuang, who makes breastmilk jewellery for her own brand Tokens of Eternity to supplement her family's income, as she is unable to work in order to care for her child who needs more attention.

"Mums who are still breastfeeding are usually thankful that they have something to keep as a memory for their tough breastfeeding moments."

One of Ms Zhuang's customers not only adored the earrings that she ordered, she was also surprised when her mother and husband requested for similar keepsakes to be made for them.

"I joined breastfeeding groups and saw some other mummies had theirs made and started doing my research on it," says Calista Faye, a mother of two, who owns two pairs of earrings, a heart-shaped locket and a keychain with little footprints filled with preserved breastmilk.

"I was a struggling breastfeeder with supply issues and I wanted something to remember this struggle by. My mother was shocked but she also requested for a pair of earrings made out of my milk."

Such creators of breastmilk jewellery also try to be innovative in their designs, with some such as Ms Zhuang making charms that can be looped onto bracelets or necklaces. Others such as Ms Goh take it a step further, creating fine jewellery using gold and diamonds.

"One of my first few customers inspired us," says Ms Goh.

"She teared uncontrollably when we told her that silver breastmilk jewellery could not last for many generations. We spoke to her further before finding out that she was suffering from cancer with only months to live and that she had to forsake treatment just so that her child could survive. Till this day, I regret telling her that silver could not last. It was because of her that we started experimenting with gold and diamonds to create a keepsake that could stand the test of time."

This article was first published on July 02, 2016.
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