If you are meeting Navin Amarasuriya for the first time, it may be disconcerting to note just how unassuming and charmingly polite the privileged scion of a 140-year-old company can be. Right on schedule, Navin is standing at the glass entrance of his office building, all set to greet this interviewer—and to hold the door open while we fumble awkwardly for our namecards. Also striking: Navin's refreshing lack of big cheese ostentation. Nary a stuffy three-piece suit or constricting tie to be seen—not even a watch on his wrist, doubly striking given that his father sits on the board of one of the most venerated Swiss manufactures today. All we see is a personable young man, well turned out in a crisp white shirt and pants, whose eyes crinkle merrily as he ushers us into one of B.P. de Silva's conference rooms for a sit-down.
Of course, Navin's affability is in no way an indication of the 28-year-old, fifth-generation leader's gaucheness or inexperience. Having grown up in and around his family's business, the man was officially inducted into B.P. de Silva as a Director in 2010 (his father's ex-secretary fondly recalls the boy addressing her as his Aunty years ago, an anecdote which when mentioned brings a wide smile to Navin's face).
Today, Navin oversees B.P. de Silva's signature jewelry brand Risis, toggling between product development and manufacturing, although he acknowledges with boyish sheepishness that his professional interests reside in a slightly different sector: "I'm most passionate about engineering, to be honest. There’s nothing quite like seeing your concept go from paper to the plant into your palm."
As the conversation segues to his obession with machinery, we bring up the noticeable absence of a timepiece in his ensemble. Navin laughs and says that a watch would be "wasted" on a man like himself: "It’ll probably be damaged the first couple of days I wear it. If I did have to get a watch, it’ll probably be an Audemars Piguet model in carbon fiber, a material I love for its sheen, strength and association with spacecraft, Formula One cars—and bikes, of course."
Indeed, biking appears to be an abiding part of Navin's life: to wit, his press biography contains no "professional" shots of himself, only an image of him in a sports jersey, posing—and there's no other adjective to describe the look on his face—happily with his spiffy wooden bike. (The polished portraits you see here were requested for after our chat.) Navin has elevated the happiness he derives from the sport to a philanthropic level by spearheading B.P. de Silva's involvement with Cycle on Ceylon, a project affiliated with Practical Action, an NGO which sources for sustainable, low-cost solutions to poverty-related issues besetting Sri Lankan society.
On his drive, so to speak, to reach out to Sri Lanka, Navin says: "My ancestors originate from Sri Lanka. 140 years ago, a young Balage de Porolis set sail from Galle with nothing more than a handful of gems and a spirit of adventure. I want to use Cycle on Ceylon to highlight the plight of a country emerging from the ashes and gain a better understanding of the country myself."
When we wrap up, Navin requests for a copy of the audio recording, saying he would like to keep the transcript for "future generations, should they be interested in listening to what [he has] to say." Feeling mischievous, we ask the bachelor if he plans to start a family. Laughing, he demurs: "I keep my personal matters out of the office. Just being able to interact with people like you is pretty bloody awesome in itself!" Well, surely no one can say Navin Amarasuriya is not a media-savvy businessman.
You’re currently working for Risis, which is famous for its floral jewelry. Can you tell us about a particularly memorable or favorite piece from the collection?
Sure, I am a big fan of our orchids, and I get that most people think of flowers when you mention Risis, but here’s the thing: Let’s go back a decade, when Risis was bought over in 2000 by BP de Silva. The context of the sale was that we had always been peddling in European goods throughout our history as a company, and my father felt that we ought to have something of our own. Singapore, as you know, is not exactly known for its homegrown labels, so we wanted to make Risis as recognized across the world as the other big brands in our stable.
The orchids that are so synonymous with Risis are indeed its core product—for now. Like Audemars Piguet with the Royal Oak and Hermès with the Birkin, there are the icons and then there are the supporting characters around it. We hope to conjure up a range of universal, equally lovely objects around Risis’ floral-inspired accoutrements, and that’s what we’re gunning for right now.
What material is most difficult to work with, and which is your favorite?
If it is a piece of jewelry, then my personal inclination leans towards simplicity in design, so I like the white gold or silver objects in our collection: there’s a certain lushness and elegance to the metal that doesn’t come across as being vulgar or too in-your-face. That being said, yellow gold figures prominently in our popular Zodiac creatures, and all the better for it, I think, because of the rich cultural connotations and celebratory opulence of yellow gold.
"Some of the best experiences I’ve had have occurred when I’m cycling at a pace where, if someone were smiling at me, I can smile or wave back. There's this amazing feeling of interconnectedness."
Give us a peek into what a typical work day for you is like.
Well, at the moment my work lies somewhere between product development and manufacturing. My typical workday is split between the parent company and at the Risis headquarters. At Risis, I deal with on-the-ground issues revolving around manufacturing; at the holding office, I try to get a holistic understanding of the various subsidiaries and how to manage them as a whole. My passion really resides in engineering, to be honest—there’s nothing quite like seeing your concept go from paper to the plant into your palm.
Your biography says you are interested in machines. Does this extend to mechanical watches? What do you look for in a timepiece?
Oh, yes. I appreciate mechanical watches for the line that they blur between the incredibly artistic and the astonishingly complex, when you break them down into their individual components. It still amazes me every time I go to the Audemars Piguet factory and see the assembly of the different pieces into one single fine object. I admire products that transcend the boundaries of what the industry thinks possible.
There will be the cars or watches or whatever it is that customers buy en masse, but then there are also the hidden niches where a bunch of crazy guys are creating the most wonderful things, for themselves or for completely unknowable reasons. So in the horological space Audemars Piguet has always had a reputation as an independent watch maker with the most beautiful grand complications. Again, it’s not only the watch industry that has the mavericks who possess the boldness of vision to create things that are truly memorable.
As for myself, the truth is I don’t wear a watch. Outside of work I lead a pretty rough and tumble lifestyle, so a watch is wasted on me because it’ll probably be damaged the first couple of days I wear it.
If I did have to get a watch, I think I would most probably get an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak—I don’t think there’s a better balance between masculinity and delicacy in a watch to be found anywhere else. It’ll probably be a model in carbon fiber, which is a material I love for its sheen, strength and association with spacecraft, Formula One cars and bikes, of course. To have a piece of that on your wrist is pretty cool.