Walk through any bazaar in a mall, and you’d probably find at least one small business selling home decor made from concrete, clay, and even ceramics.
These businesses turning construction material into something warmer and inviting can help homeowners add a touch of personality to their space.
They also make great conversation starters, which Carmen Chow believes is the case with her home decor products made out of jesmonite, sold through Jiwa Home.
But what is jesmonite?
Jesmonite is essentially a mixture of a water-based acrylic resin liquid and a mineral base. Widely used as a construction material, it was used for building movie sets, theme parks, sculptures, and more, before it became a craft material.
For Carmen, working with jesmonite came as a result of her environment.
“As I live in a small apartment without a balcony or yard, I needed a safe and non-toxic material to work with,” Carmen told Vulcan Post. “Being VOC-free and water-based, it allows me to work indoors and makes cleaning up easier.”
Did you know: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a large group of chemicals that are found in many products we use to build and maintain our homes. Breathing VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and may cause breathing difficulty.Minnesota Department of Health / American Lung Association
But the main thing that drew Carmen to working with jesmonite was its finishing, and the feel of the finished product.
According to Carmen, jesmonite has a matte, stone-like finish that is soft to the touch, think of it as a smooth eggshell texture.
It is something my boss could attest to when stumbling upon Jiwa Home at a bazaar. She shared that the jesmonite products had a smooth finish, unlike concrete products that can sometimes feel grainy on the surface.
“Jesmonite also picks up a lot of details nicely from moulds,” Carmen realised. “The finished product is also stronger yet much lighter than concrete, factors I have considered as a major benefit for postage as we do sell [the products] online as well.”
From working in property to crafting home decor
Prior to launching Jiwa Home in November 2021, Carmen was mainly involved in the property development industry.
She’s held a handful of roles there, having been a digital marketer, writer, and property manager. Carmen has no formal experience in crafting, only a raging curiosity about how things are made.
So, what is one to do when they have no experience in crafting but the drive to try? Turn to YouTube tutorials, of course.
“In the beginning, I just bought some jesmonite, learnt to make some items, and set up a pop-up booth at Jaya One to see how it goes as part of my market research,” Carmen recalled.
“Sometimes it’s important to put yourself out there and just do it, you can get a lot of valuable feedback by talking to people too.”
The process of making her jesmonite products which can range from trinket trays, coasters, pencil holders, and plant pots, starts with experimenting.
Taking into account her intended colours and shapes, Carmen will then “tweak it or leave it”, as she puts it, detailing that there’s always a tiny (or big) element of surprise with handmade items.
Due to the nature of jesmonite, the material will start to harden about 20 minutes after it is mixed with water, which is a blessing and a curse to the crafter. While a tangible product can be created in a short time, Carmen must plan ahead and work quickly.
And because jesmonite is also a costly material, Carmen tries to reduce Jiwa Home’s production waste.
For example, when there are extra bits of mixture left over, she makes small magnets or saves them for terrazzo chips to use for future products.
Handmade products mean that no two pieces are alike. On average, making a normal piece takes about an hour, while others, depending on the design, can require up to two days to finish.
Feeling is believing
Carmen pointed out that her biggest challenge in running Jiwa Home is in educating customers.
She highlighted that most would assume her products are concrete, clay, or even ceramic at first glance, but their perspective shifts after they feel the materials for themselves. Hence, offline sales from bazaars and pop-up markets are the drivers of Jiwa Home’s sales.
Despite Carmen stating that jesmonite is a costly material to work with, Jiwa Home’s products are sold at what she believes is a competitive rate between RM30-RM70.
Being a small business, Carmen disclosed that her sales have yet to be consistent each month. But the founder did report that Jiwa Home is profitable at the moment.
Other than increasing the number of product designs sold on Jiwa Home, Carmen is also looking to move into a small studio and start workshops, due to customer demand.
The home decor market Jiwa Home competes in is crowded. However, Carmen believes that every maker has their own style and creativity put into these handcrafted products.
On top of that, the market for jesmonite home decor products is still rare in Malaysia, and Jiwa Home now has the opportunity to lead it.
Featured Image Credit: Carmen Chow, founder and crafter of Jiwa Home