Stories by Jacqueline Ann Surin and Liau Y-Sing
DRAWN by the lure of the East, a young man from Ceylon arrived on the shores of Singapore in 1872. Armed with little formal education but a determined entrepeneurial spirit, Balage Porolis de Silva would conquer the Far East in the years to come with his finely crafted jewellery.
From its humble beginnings in High Street, Singapore, as a business with two showcases, three tables and three cupboards, it has evolved to become a renowned purveyor of luxury goods known as B.P. De Silva Holdings (Pte) Ltd in Singapore and De Silva (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd in Malaysia today.
Balage Porolis, or BP as he is fondly called, is a Singhalese Buddhist from the port city of Magalle on the south coast of the then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was born on May 24, 1850, during a watershed period in which a rebellion had taken place two years earlier due to unpopular tax ordinances.
The logo of the B.P. de Silva group of companies with the image of its founder.
According to a book Gems of the Orient written in 1900 by a friend who signed off as only J.A.R.V, BP had accompanied his father from Ceylon to various countries and then to Southeast Asia in 1860 as a travelling jeweller. They visited the then Straits Settlement (comprising Singapore, Malacca and Penang), China, Japan, Australia, the US, Europe, Egypt, India and Burma (now known as Myanmar).
Eventually, they chose Singapore as the trade centre. It was a very small Singhalese community back then as an 1871 Singapore census showed that there were only 7 Singhalese on the island at that time as recounted in the book BPdeSilva--The Royal Jeweller of Southeast Asia by Richard Boyle.
B.P. De Silva Holdings chairman Sunil Amarasuriya said in an interview in Singapore that it was BP's adventurous spirit which drove him to establish a business in Singapore, rather than in Ceylon.
Initially, BP sold gem-set rings to travellers and wealthy resident Chinese. In 1872, he rented a shop for $20 a month in High Street--then Singapore's shopping and commercial hub--and started a business selling jewellery, walking sticks, carvings and lacquerware.
"Money was very scarce and goods were cheap," BP said of Singapore in a letter to his son some 50 years later. He told the son that his main customers were wealthy Europeans and Chinese.
Business boomed and BP had to bring in goldsmiths from Ceylon to help in the expansion. Eventually the High Street establishment was combined with a jewellery factory.
According to Boyle, the business was so profitable that within two years, BP was able to buy extensive land for himself and his family and build a house in Magalle.
"It was quite natural for my great grandfather to be involved in gems because most of the world's gemstones can be found in Sri Lanka," De Silva managing director Sonny De Silva told Star Business in Penang.
In venturing into business, BP went against the grain as it was uncommon for Sri Lankans to be entrepreneurs.
"There is no prestige going into business. Even today, most Singhalese aspire to become professionals and often become renowned as lawyers and doctors," Sonny said, noting that his family had produced two justice ministers in Sri Lanka.
Nonetheless, BP was quick to establish a reputation for honesty and integrity, and was known as one of the first jewellers to grant a guarantee of authenticity.
"Integrity was part of his business philosophy. He would not sell something which he himself wouldn't buy," Sunil said of BP.
In fact, his customers could return items within a specified time frame for a slightly discounted reimbursement as agreed upon.
Being a meticulous designer and craftsman, BP designed his own works and supervised the manufacture of the jewellery, taking great pains to personally train new goldsmiths.
Boyle said that in his quest to perfect his art, BP travelled around the world thrice to study the trends in different countries and identify shifting preferences.
BP's fame spawned competitors among other immigrant Singhalese who tried to copy his business model and piggy-back on his success and reputation.
"But most of their customers would invariably ask for BP at these shops and would leave disappointed that it was the wrong shop," Sonny said.
Often displaying great vision and characteristic perseverance, BP almost singlehandedly nurtured the business.
BP's brother-in-law N.W.P. don Seneris de Silva joined the business in the early 1880s and proved to be an indispensable assistant to BP for 20 years.
Still, there were some managers and distant relatives brought in by BP who broke away after World War II and were successful in their own businesses.
BP's fame as a fine and honest jeweller soon attracted royalty and he created many original pieces for them.
"The legacy he left behind was his good reputation for honesty and integrity. The name De Silva is trusted by royalty, and even today, the Malaysian royalty patronizes us," Sonny said. "We of the fourth generation have always maintained this reputation."