Turning breast milk into jewellery: How a married couple stumbled onto an idea that puts food on their table
Keepsake By Ryo, run by husband and wife Ryan and Ryo, makes jewellery that are meaningful.
Buying a plate of $6 hor fun at a hawker might not mean much to the regular person, but to Ryo Goh, it signifies success and triumph.
When she just started her Keepsake By Ryo business – which she runs together with her husband, Ryan Lim – in 2016, she could hardly afford to spend that much on a meal.
The couple, who have two kids, were earning about $3,000 to $4,000 dollars a month, before factoring the money they reinvested into their business. They had to learn to be prudent, and as such, meals were typically a plate of chicken rice that cost no more than $3.50 or a cup of instant noodles. Even proper home-cooked meals was a luxury, as they hardly had the time to prepare it.
“This business taught us to really be grounded, to be prudent, and to not take things for granted,” shares Ryo, 30.
It also didn’t help that at the start of the business, they were forced to remake entire batches as products they made – jewellery made out of breastmilk, babies’ umbilical cord and hair curl, as well as pets’ fur – did not turn out as well as expected. That meant that they had to spend a few thousand dollars more than expected.
“It may not be a lot of money to others, but to us, it was everything,” says Ryo.
“We were really struggling because, even though it was a novel idea, in Singapore the costs of doing business are not low.”
“The pay wasn’t sufficient to uphold a family and we really dipped into our savings at that juncture. It really hurt us badly,” adds Ryan.
While the situation could have been avoided had Ryan, 32, not quit his job to help Ryo expand the business, Ryan felt compelled to do so because he saw the passion his wife had and the struggles she was going through. Ryo had been working up till 2am at times, which prompted Ryan to question what she was doing instead of sleeping.
Ryan is also experienced dealing with finance, business and advertising matters, and the couple thought having Ryan on board will allow Ryo to focus on just the art side of things.
Thankfully for the couple, things got better soon after a series of promotions they ran that helped them to capture the market share. Today, Keepsake By Ryo gets an average of 50 to 100 orders a month – on good months, they rake in a five-figure sum – and both Ryan and Ryo no longer have to think twice before ordering a plate of hor fun.
A former tuition teacher and cheongsam maker, Ryo always knew she wanted to be a mother. When she was 18, she was going through her choices for university with her dad, when the question of what she wanted to do in the future popped up.
“I wrote down that I wanted to be a mother, and my dad was like you don’t have to fill in the rest of the questions already. It doesn’t matter where you go (to be a mother),” recalls Ryo.
When she became a mum for the first time, Ryo wanted to get something to remember the experience. She chanced upon the idea of breast milk jewellery, but at that time, the only shops that did DNA jewellery were mostly based in the US.
The idea of sending their breast milk all the way to the States seemed troublesome, though. There were also concerns between her and other mums – they were planning on getting the jewelleries on group buy – that the final piece of work might not be up to standard too, and if that proved to be the case, they would have to send the piece all the way back to redo it.
Edged on by her husband, Ryo decided to try making some of her own breast milk jewellery instead.
“Since I took art in Junior College, I sort of had an understanding of materials,” she shares. “I made a trip to Art Friend, got some of the stuff I needed, and immediately went home to try and make some.”
It was not successful initially, as she did not have a full understanding of the science portion needed to preserve the breast milk. A relative who works as a chemist eventually helped her to get it right, and within six months – during which she also sought for breast milk from new mums online to experiment with – she started Keepsake By Ryo.
Then came the struggles, which Ryo says was a “very painful period”.
For Ryan, the idea of working with breast milk wasn’t very appealing initially.
“I’m a very practical person, so the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘if it rots, the smell could be disgusting’, you know. But gradually, through my customers, I started to see the value in the item and it’s meaningfulness,” shares Ryan.
“That actually changed my thoughts on the whole business.”
Running the business as a married couple has brought about a few learning points. Ryo says that it has changed their relationship to a “very pragmatic” one, and because of the need to make very efficient decisions, they have gotten much closer.
There have been memorable moments too.
Once, a customer had asked for a lifetime warranty for her jewellery. Ryan initially rejected the request as it wouldn’t have been sustainable for the business. Upon hearing that answer, the customer cried and Ryan found out that she was diagnosed with cancer and had not much time to live.
“She wanted jewellery that she can pass on to her children – something that’s symbolic of her presence, something that has mommy and her DNA inside, so her children can remember her. She initially wanted something that’s made out of gold, but at that point we only had silver pieces,” shares Ryan.
“I felt bad accusing her of being a difficult customer, and because of her, we actually launched a series of gold products that can last a lifetime. We wanted to give her one as a token of appreciation for giving us the idea, but unfortunately, she passed on by then.”
Then, there was also once when Ryan received a packaging that was so bloody.
“A woman actually mailed her entire raw placenta organ via Singpost registered mail to us,” Ryo recalls vividly.
“Immediately I asked the customer what she wanted us to do with it. Turns out, she said the umbilical cord was attached to the placenta and I had to explain that we did not work with the raw organ at all. That was the weirdest thing that happened to us. We even had to arrange for the entire package to be shipped back to her.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also unexpectedly gave Keepsake By Ryo a boost. Ryan was worried that the business might undergo a crisis and prevent them from putting food on the table for the family once again.
To their surprise, online shopping became much more popular, and it helped Ryan to realise that the business is actually sustainable.
The couple hopes to turn Keepsake By Ryo into a business that has longevity and stands the test of time.
“We hope to be making the same keepsake jewellery for our customers’ children, and grandchildren in the future. We really want to see this thing being passed on for generations,” shares Ryo.