SINGAPORE: The brand Risis may be synonymous with corporate gifts and gold-plated orchids but, occasionally, an unusual project crops up.
Navin Amarasuriya, who oversees product development and manufacturing at the company, has had to handle the gold-plating of the SAR 21 assault rifle for the Singapore Armed Forces.
“That project was significant because every Singaporean who has served in the army would have used this rifle.
There are very few companies in the world that can achieve a glossy gold finish on a rifle,” he explains.
“If you look at every stage of the production process, there are always rejects.
For instance, a small blemish on the rifle will be magnified tenfold once you plate it in gold,” adds Amarasuriya, who is also managing director of BP de Silva Group, which carries Risis as one of its luxury brands.
He notes that one of the companies that made Risis what it is today is Singa pore Airlines.
“In the 1970s, SIA did projects with Risis that forced us to find technical solutions to massproduce gold-plated products of high quality.” The collaboration continues today.
In 2014, for the second consecutive year, Risis was chosen to handcraft the co veted winner’s trophy for the Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix.
Today, corporate gifts make up more than a third of Risis’ business.
It is also heavily involved in gifts of courtesy and diplomatic gifts for official visits.
“We have such requests all the time and it’s quite interesting because it gives variety to our day-to-day work and presents a technical challenge,” Amarasuriya says.
He recounts an incident where one of his friends saw a Risis orchid during a tour of Buckingham Palace.
“He took a photo of it and mailed it to me.
This is pretty common.
People will find our products all over the world because they are given as gifts and hung up on walls.
Risis is an artefact of Singapore.” Immortalising the orchid Founded in 1976, Risis was born of a man’s dream to immortalise a natural orchid in purest gold.
“A chemist’s wife wistfully told him she would love it if orchids could last forever.
He kept that thought at the back of his mind and eventually devised the process to encapsulate orchids in gold,” says Amarasuriya.
He remembers visiting the Risis factory with his father and watching craftsmen sculpt jewellery.
However, it wasn’t until he was older and had the opportunity to work in the factory that he realised his interest in manufacturing.
“Visiting a factory is very different from working in it,” he adds.
Meanwhile, BP de Silva grew from a small jewellery business in High Street to become a diversified investment holding company focusing on luxury goods and commodities.
The company was founded by Sri Lankan entrepreneur Balage Porolis de Silva over 140 years ago.
In addition to Risis, the group’s portfolio includes Italian restaurants La Nonna, La Villa, Senso Ristorante & Bar and Spizza; The 1872 Clipper Tea Co; water purification company EnviPure; and Zyrex, a hydroelectric power company.
BP de Silva also has a stake in Swiss luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet.
Of these many brands, Amarasuriya chose to work with Risis because of its limitless opportunities.
“Risis is a company where, if I were to draw something today, whatever it is, we can make it in a few weeks,” he says.
“The problem then becomes, if you could plate anything in gold, what would you plate?” He adds that the brand has always had the technology to gold-plate single pieces.
However, scaling up production is a challenge because the company has to look for ways to do so without compromising on quality.
“Every piece is different because it is handmade.
These are not products that a machine mass-produces by the thousands.
Each piece actually goes through a series of polishing, buffing and grinding by a skilled person,” he says.
Selective about projects While Risis presents numerous possibilities to create new products, Amarasuriya believes the company should remain selective about the projects it undertakes.
“If we ramp up production too much, we compromise on the quality.
That’s something we don’t want to do.” One project he is currently involved in is The Singapore Storytellers Collect ion, launched to mark the city-state’s 50th birthday this year.
It showcases various facets of the country’s success, as seen through the eyes of five promi nent individuals.
“If you look at the collection, it is really more than just beautiful design.
It brings to the fore the landmark moments in Singapore’s history.
And once you dive deeper, you find that it mirrors Risis’ story,” says Amarasuriya.
The storytellers behind this limitededition pendant collection are Dr Kiat W Tan, CEO of Gardens by the Bay; Dick Lee, accomplished music director and composer; Anita Kapoor, international media personality; Trina Liang, president of UN Women Singapore and managing director of Templebridge Investments; and Dr Leslie Tay, food blogger, cook, photographer and medical practitioner.
All proceeds from this collection will be donated to Community Chest.
Picking up the trade Despite being a fifth-generation heir at BP de Silva, Amarasuriya says it took him about two years to learn the science of gold-plating.
“It was a real challenge for me to get the hang of some of the chemistry because there’s a lot to understand.
Many of our trade secrets are based on chemistry,” he says.
Amarasuriya also had to learn how to pick out the perfect orchid for goldplating.
“There were times when I was presented with 500 orchids and had to pick just one.
By the end of it, I was splitting hairs because you need to choose something that relates to current fashion trends and is the correct form,” he reveals.
Part of the learning process involved doing the actual gold-plating.
Should the need arise, Amarasuriya has no qualms about helping out in the factory.
“Once you realise what it takes to create the product, you can’t help but admire the craftspeople who produce all this stuff.” He says the company made a strategic decision to have its factory located close to headquarters.
“We could have just been a design company that outsourced everything to third-party manufacturers.
But we didn’t want to do that because there are benefits to having two sets of people who are diametrical ly opposed in their work.
Design is conceptual while manufacturing is tangible,” he says.
The way he tells it, Amarasuriya has made it his personal goal to keep the design and manu facturing of Risis products in-house.
“There was a lot of pressure to outsource certain parts of the [production] process because that will make the company very profitable.
But it will be at the expense of quality.
Even with very tight control on suppliers, there’s nothing like having ownership of the operation,” he says.
However, a major difficulty he faces is getting skilled craftsmen.
“There is a fight for talent everywhere in the world as the luxury goods industry expands,” Amarasuriya says.
Lack of manpower was one reason Risis relocated its factory to Iskandar, Malaysia.
But he believes Risis can retain its talent pool by creating an inclusive workforce.
“In our factory, we have a programme to integrate disabled workers into the production line.
The programme started in our factory in Singapore.” To be sure, Amarasuriya had the option of starting his own business.
“One of the good things about family businesses is that there is a sense of predictability.
Each of us has the option to spin off our own business,” he says.
“One thing I’m really happy about is that the family and managers of the group try to look at the best interests of the whole company.
I feel very fortunate to be a part of that and it’s rare that a fifth-generation family business is as united as ours.”
This article appeared in the Enterprise of Issue 665 (Feb 23) of The Edge Singapore.