Beautiful Objects: Precious Metal Pewter

A long time ago a young pewtersmith named Yong Koon sailed the high seas to Kuala Lumpur. Who could guess that the legacy of this Chinese craftsman, whose first pieces were for religious ceremonial purposes, would eventually filter into a front window on King’s Road?

Glowering behind the glass hangs a life-size rendition of Star Wars hero Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, a fictional alloy that exists in the Star Wars universe. But this particular work of art is far from make believe, it’s made wholly from the precious metal pewter. Royal Selangor opened it’s first flagship store in London this year, though production is still based in Malaysia, as the company remains in the original family’s hands. You might be wondering: how did a family-owned manufacturer of luxury goods pair up with a massive Hollywood brand like Star Wars? To answer that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The story of pewter design and Royal Selangor in particular, began a long time ago, in a country far far away.

To go back to the beginning; Yong Koon cast in stone (sorry, pewter!) the foundations of a company that would weave its fairytale from East to West. You can still purchase one of his earliest original designs, 130 years old: a melon tea set. The set includes a gorgeous teapot that looks like a silvery amalgam of a peach and a magic lamp. The tea set is elegant and classy, bringing an eastern charm that would feel at home even in the most decidedly modern of English living rooms. This isn’t that surprising, since Yong Koon and Royal Selangor style was influenced heavily by Western customs and design due to British involvement in the Malay States during the 19th century. That relationship led to Pewter’s probably most common association: the tankard. Pewter tankards were popular beer mugs used both by the British Navy and the regular drinking public.

Global turmoil did its finest to cloud this victory tale. In the years of the Great Depression, for instance, pewtersmiths were heavily affected by shadows cast on the economy, as well as the following years of yet another World War. The declining demand for religious objects did not make it any easier, yet Royal Selangor managed to swiftly adapt to fluctuating markets and economic trials alike. They shined through the gloomy times, managing not only to expand to global markets, but were even honored with a royal warrant from the Sultan of Selangor (hence the name Royal Selangor, previously they were known as Selangor Pewter). The ‘brilliant finish’ which gives their objects such an alluringly high sheen, no doubt contributed the seduction of the Sultan and subsequent royal favour!

The new London site functions as both a boutique and gallery; displaying the achievements of pewter design through the ages. Yong Koon’s original melon tea set sitting on one shelf and a row of specially designed tankards on another. David Mills, UK Country Manager, who showed us round the space, also explained that the tankard—particularly the Eton tankard—has often been a family heirloom passed on from generation to generation. Given the company’s age, Mills quips, “You may have a piece from Royal Selangor and not even realize it.” Quick everyone! To raid Grandpa’s cellars!

The shop also displays modern pewter design, which challenges tradition by incorporating gold or wood for example. There is something for everyone, from Deco-style salad bowls, to friendly looking children’s piggy banks. “We use many different styles and techniques that all employ handcraftsmanship so we can get enormous amounts of detail into our products,” Mills elaborates. It makes sense because what I didn’t know was how perfect pewter is as a metal for designers and craftsman; it has a low melting point making it malleable and easy to shape. What’s more, customers find it convenient as well as a pleasure to own; pewter kitchen utensils are easy to clean, and ornaments don’t tarnish.

More than just working with the needs of different cultures, Royal Selangor has pushed the boundaries of pewter design. The company has produced sublime trophies for the ATP Tennis Masters, LPGA Golf Masters and most recently, the Grand Prix in China. They have also worked with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to produce portrait cases and other housewares inspired by items featured in the famous museum. They’ve even been passed round the ring of prominent champagne houses, having worked with Krug, Dom Pérignon and recently teaming up with champagne house Veuve Clicquot to create the first ever champagne chiller where the bottle never touches the ice. Is there something in the malleability of the material which allows for it to be so progressively re-designed and re-applied?

Pewter is good, but Royal Selangor is better. It’s their dedication to craftsmanship that got Royal Selangor the license to make the limited edition Star Wars figures: featuring scaled models of Darth Vader, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Yoda, and others.

“In order for them to come on board with us for this collaboration, we had to be able to make the characters look like they were in the original trilogy and also [that] our depictions of the characters are a true likeness of what they actually are like,” Mills says, “the design process was just phenomenal.”

Whether ancient tea set, a tankard heirloom or Han Solo, Royal Selangor shows that unlike gold or silver—decadent metals of ancient kings and emperors—pewter could be the substance that gets brought forward along with us.

* Photography curtesy of Royal Selangor

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