I went on an 'achievement holiday' in Kuala Lumpur. Here's how it went!

Returning from holiday having acquired a new skill or accomplishing something is the latest trend in travel. For a jewellery fan, learning to be a pewtersmith in Malaysia was the perfect way to 'upskill on downtime'.

Learning a new craft is a fantastic holiday experience.
  • Claire Turrell
  • January 2019

For someone who could easily spend breakfast, lunch and dinner at Tiffany & Co., I couldn’t be happier than I am right now, plunging a ladle into a pot of silver-coloured molten metal and using it to make my own treasure trove of keepsakes. I’m at The Foundry at the Royal Selangor factory in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And I’m here to learn some of the skills that have given the folks at this 134-year-old pewter factory a royal warrant and business from luxury brands such as Formula 1 and champagne house Veuve Clicquot.

You see, I’m embracing the latest travel trend – achievement holidays. Travellers are increasingly trading fly-and-flop getaways for self-improvement vacations involving anything from foraging with chefs to learning a new language or climbing mountains. In a 2017 trend report, travel researcher Skift said holiday-makers were no longer interested in “esteem” – it was about “realising one’s full potential”.

So after ticking off the tourist sights in KL, I decide to realise my full potential at this workshop, which promises me the chance to experience “living Malaysian heritage” and learn all the secrets of pewtersmithing. A history lesson mixed with creating something sparkly? I’m sold.

The Royal Selangor Factory provides hands-on pewtersmithing classes.
The Royal Selangor Factory provides hands-on pewtersmithing classes.

After watching too many historical TV dramas, I half expect to walk into a dark brick room filled with billowing steam but the reality is less Dickensian factory and more Tesla showroom. (There’s even a chic café onsite for me to enjoy a ciabatta sandwich and cappuccino.) Beneath the gleaming white walls, each stainless steel workbench contains a bubbling pot of pewter. Every valuable pewter shaving left over from previous smithing attempts has been carefully swept off the floor and returned to the smelting pot to be recycled into another tankard.

The workshop spaces are laboratory-like.
The workshop spaces are laboratory-like.

Kitted out in an apron and thick woollen gloves, I join my pewtersmith instructor Hafiz Ezman Bin Azmi at the table, where he demonstrates how to work the 230°C liquid pewter into paperweights, key rings and jewellery. It looks quite simple.

“You need the liquid to be hot so that it’s malleable and avoid the oxidised pewter that lies on the surface of the pot, otherwise the metal will start to corrode,” he explains.

Plunging a ladle deep into the pot of silver-coloured liquid, he then pours the contents into a heart-shaped rubber mould screwed tightly into a wooden vice. While it cools, he returns the ladle to the pot for another scoop and produces freehand designs on the table. Using a small spout on the ladle, he writes his name and creates a bracelet out of three strands of pewter wrapped around a metal cylinder.

Now it’s my turn. While the professionals on the other side of the glass walls are busy labouring over everything from engraved plates to Star Wars lightsabers, I start with a key ring from a mould. This should be easy, right? As I pour the metal into the mould, rich, silvery liquid seeps out between the seams. I didn’t screw the two pieces of the mould together tightly enough and I’m left with a glittering puddle on the table.

Various moulds are used to create intricate pieces.
Various moulds are used to create intricate pieces.

I try again and manage to forge a mini (albeit slightly dented) plane. Filled with encouragement, I start working the liquid freehand. And it’s not long before I’ve crafted a bangle that (I thought, at least) could sit happily in a bijou boutique.

Chen Tien Yue, the great-grandson of the founder of Royal Selangor, tells me, "Our visitors enjoy expressing their creativity. Many of them throw their early works back into the casting pot and start again but what matters in the end is that they have made something themselves."

At the end of the hour-long session, my slightly dented plane and handmade bracelets leave me with a real sense of achievement. It’s not often I get to create something from scratch – and they are all, in their slightly bent glory, unique.