Chokmah: How this ex-flight attendant is revolutionising S’pore’s craft scene with jesmonite

As with any major global event, there are a few emerging trends that quickly become symbolic timestamps. While low-rise jeans and overly-plucked eyebrows marked the ’00s, it can be said that banana bread and crafting are emblematic of the pandemic.

In the height of the lockdown amid Covid-19, Singapore experienced a crafting renaissance of sorts. With grounded planes cancelling most travel plans, many sought out crafting as a means of escape.

Hoewever, not all crafting workshops are created equal — besides making earrings from polymer clay, it seems like the jesmonite workshops have thoroughly enamoured us.

We spoke to the doyenne of jesmonite workshops, Joyce Orallo Lim, on how she started her business Chokmah during the height of the pandemic to grow into what it is today.

How it started

Joyce of Chokmah / Image credit: Chokmah

I settled down to speak to Joyce via Zoom, and the newly-minted mother of two is everything you’d expect a crafter to be — warm, coupled with an infectious laugh, and an eagerness to share all about her life’s work.

Joyce has always had an affinity for the arts, but not in the way one might think. While the other children pored over colouring books, Joyce spent her early days scribbling over her dad’s floor plans.

“My dad is an architect. Other children would do colouring books, but for me, I grew up on his floor plans. I cannot forget those days, drawing and drawing on his floor plans”, she reminisced.

Those wonderfully endless afternoons had a lasting impact on Joyce on her journey to Chokmah.

As a young flight attendant with pockets of empty time and a love for the arts, Joyce made her first foray into the crafting scene with polymer clay earrings. It is a fun and pretty endeavour, but one with a huge amount of leftover scrap and other issues that didn’t sit well with Joyce.

“When we create jewellery with polymer clay, there will be a lot of leftovers because we don’t really need to use all of it. I can’t really use it. Especially after running workshops, all those leftovers can accumulate a lot, by the kilogram.”

“Then, I realised it wasn’t eco-friendly or safe for the environment and humans. When you bake it, some fumes come out from it. It’s also not biodegradable and things like that.”

It might seem like an inconsequential problem to have bits of remaining clay from one session of earring making, but multiply that across all the workshops that are conducted, you get left with quite a lot of clay. This excess of unusable polymer clay served as the main catalyst for Joyce to look for alternatives that aligned with her values.

“That’s when I told myself as a crafter, I want to start working on something friendlier to the environment. Something that has low to no wastage,” she added.

A plunge into the depths of the internet of eco-friendly materials, and she came across jesmonite.

That’s when I researched different materials and I came upon the material jesmonite. I was really looking for eco-friendly, sustainable material as a craft. I just did my research. That’s when I started studying the material (and learnt) how eco-friendly it was.

– Joyce Orallo Lim, founder of Chokmah

Jesmonite crowned the material of year

Jesmonite is an acrylic resin that’s used for architectural purposes — think buildings and large-scale sculptures.

One might say it’s kismet, with Joyce’s early childhood tied to architecture and her finding a material that ticks all the boxes.

Having little to zero waste is not just a buzzword for the times; it’s a cause that Joyce is wholly committed to. The moulds that she pours the jesmonite into are made with silicone, a durable material with a long shelf life.

Image credit: Chokmah

“Even the wastage, we can use it and make it into terrazzo patterns. We can just use and reuse those wastage materials”, Joyce explained.

Jesmonite has this magical quality of being able to be seamlessly reused — broken shards just become a funky terrazzo pattern for the next piece.

“Even if it breaks, we can recast it. We can recreate another beautiful design for it. We don’t have to use any glue. Just use jesmonite again, cast it, and it comes out beautifully,” she added.

Jesmonite is a hardy material, but if you don break it, all you need is more jesmonite and cast it in the same mould.

On top of that, jesmonite is also non-toxic. There are no fumes when used, and it’s safe for the skin. It was even named material of the year at the London Design Fair in 2017.

The early beginnings of Chokmah

Image credit: Chokmah

Chokmah was borne out of a time when we needed crafting the most — a pandemic baby, if you will. When we were in the thick of the circuit breaker, that was when Chokmah pivoted to selling DIY kits online so customers can have the workshop experience from home.

Still, it was a particularly challenging time since the awareness and use of jesmonite was relatively unknown. With shipping delays, there was a significant lack of jesmonite available on hand.

To spread the gospel of jesmonite, Joyce did it the only way she knew how: workshops.

It’s relatively new in the scene. We have to educate people. The best way to do it is to run workshops. We have workshops for thousands of students, teachers from Laselle, architects and interior designers. It’s very encouraging to see the materials being learned through Chokmah.

– Joyce Orallo Lim, founder of Chokmah

A Laselle alum herself, it was heartening to see so many people warm up to the idea of jesmonite and appreciate the material’s unique qualities. Plus, with people quickly running out of activities in Singapore, crafting workshops was the salve for quick weekend getaways to Bali of yesteryear.

Joyce attributes the success of these workshops to how much the pandemic has taken away our need for human connection.

“When you come for a workshop, there is so much interaction going on. We don’t have to be near each other, but just us talking to one another, interacting and enjoying each other’s company and motivating one another.”

The positive effects of going to a workshop are palpable. “People come out really refreshed, knowing that they have created something and interacted with another person. I think that’s what happened during the pandemic,” she continued.

The sole distributor of jesmonite in SEA: Casting Co.

Starting a business, especially a crafting one in Singapore, is no easy feat. One of the main roadblocks that Chokmah faced was the difficulty of getting jesmonite in Singapore.

I didn’t have any material to work with. Jesmonite is from the United Kingdom and we couldn’t find it in Singapore. That’s when I told myself (that) since I’m going to work with it, I (might as well) start another company. It’s called Casting Co., and it will be the distributor of jesmonite so I can bring it in bulk and share the joy of using jesmonite. 

– Joyce Orallo Lim, founder of Chokmah

Image Credit: Casting Co.

An ingenious solution to the problem now, Casting Co is the official distributor of jesmonite in Southeast Asia. One might think that setting up a business to be the sole distributor of jesmonite might be a money grab, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We don’t charge a high fee for that. If you compare the prices from the UK, there’s not a lot of difference. It’s quite affordable. It’s just to share the love of jesmonite”, Joyce affirmed.

A slice of the crafting pie

Joyce’s love for jesmonite has turned her students into budding entrepreneurs. With many of them starting their own workshops, I ask Joyce if that is an unwelcome addition to the overly saturated market. She laughs and tells me her students think the same thing.

“I always tell them creativity and talent is something that can never be copied. So you know, I tell them to never stop creating. Creativity takes a lot of courage”, said Joyce.

The fact that her workshops have spurred her students to start their own businesses have emboldened Joyce’s purpose even more. All the mushrooming workshops signal to Joyce that there is value in what Chokmah teaches and advocates for.

Chokmah collaboration with floral fairies / Image credit: Chokmah

Even when it comes to other crafters of different mediums, Joyce sees them as collaborators and that everyone can have a slice of the crafting pie. For an industry that is notorious for being cut-throat, Joyce’s ethos is uplifting indeed.

“It’s a friendly competition. At the same time, when we collaborate, we learn different kinds of knowledge, and that is where our creativity grows. This also gives variety to our consumers. This way, we don’t do the same thing over and over. We create better designs together.”

At the end of it, Joyce is more focused on her purpose of sustainability and her drive to create. “This is just a small part of me in my crafting career to save the earth and save humans as well.”

Featured Image Credit: Chokmah

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