When it comes to jewellery, the delicate, detailed variety is definitely having its moment. Pieces that tell a story, that transform an outfit and take us on a trip down memory lane as we wear them.
But if a trip to an Indian market or Marrakesh souk isn’t on the cards, fear not, as Murkani’s spectacular pieces do just that, without the accompanying airfare.
With truly beautiful pieces that are crafted in a mindful way with durable, sustainable materials, each of Murkani’s collections are designed and hand drawn by founder, Kiralee McNamara. Kiralee’s passion for travel, combined with her love of architecture and patterns, led to the creation of the brand, which is now stocked in retailers across the world.
We spoke to Kiralee about her collection, her time in Vietnam, balancing family life and work, and the incredible charity work she’s doing to not only make beautiful jewellery, but to make a difference in the process.
You lived in Vietnam for 7 years – when did you move there, how old were your children and what are some of your most vivid memories of living in Asia?
We moved to Vietnam in 2011, when my children were 6, 4 and my youngest daughter (Lulu) was 10 weeks old. I remember it was hot and steamy all the time and I was unsure about swaddling Lulu in that heat as I was so used to swaddling my children to sleep in Melbourne! I also remember how loud it was compared to Melbourne, as there were so many car horns tooting all the time.
What’s daily life like for an expat living in Vietnam?
It’s really the same as living anywhere when you have kids, as you still need to get everyone to school and work around a baby’s sleep hours! I was lucky enough to do this, as I started Murkani when my kids were young and I could work from home.
I think the main difference I found was that Vietnam had limited access to what I would call “Western” grocery supplies when we first arrived. So sometimes it would take a trip to four different shops to get what we would in Australia all in one visit to Coles or Woolworths! I had to learn where to shop for different things and that different shops specialised in various items.
Also, getting around when you don’t know the language was interesting! I ended up in the wrong markets many times. You need patience to live in a foreign country.
What about raising children in Vietnam – did you ever feel isolated or is there a strong sense of community there?
Initially I felt quite isolated, but once I made friends in the small expat community that we lived in; I experienced a very strong sense of community.
We lived in a small village outside of the main city of Ho Chi Minh down south, where you couldn’t go out to dinner without running into someone you knew. I loved it. It was very social and fun. When you are an expat, your friends become your family, and everyone supports each other, as you don’t have your normal support crew. It’s very nurturing.
What do you think your children got out of the experience of living in Asia – what will their fond memories be?
I think they will have an appreciation of travel, as well as an appreciation of different cultures, religions, traditions and family styles. They were exposed to so many different versions of this that the “new norm” became “no norm”. They have become very accepting of people’s differences on a global level. I guess it made them real global citizens.
They are also now very adventurous in terms of food. They’ve regularly eaten frogs legs as the Vietnamese fried love frogs legs! We call it “jumping chicken”!
What’s more, they have developed a strong understanding and appreciation of how lucky they are to be born in Australia, with regard to their living conditions, opportunities for education and access to good medical services. They are acutely aware of real poverty and hardship and how this impacts people in developing countries. I would like to think that this has really instilled a strong sense of empathy for others, hard work and fairness in them.
And when it comes to fond memories, there are so many! Here are a few …
- Travel adventures with our family to far flung destinations like Cambodia and Sri Lanka
- Riding through the mountains of Sapa in Northern Vietnam on motorbikes through the small Hmong villages
- Visiting remote villages outside of Siem Reap in Cambodia
- Climbing through the long under grounds caves in Phong Nha, in Northern Vietnam
- Going to school with 62 nationalities – the lunch boxes every day were amazing
- Coming home from school one day to find a family of Hornbills sitting on the fence!
What were some of the challenges you faced being an expat in Vietnam?
Firstly, it was making new friends and not being able to have close access to our friends and family in Australia, so the need to build a whole new support network.
Then as I mentioned – the lack of availability of our usual foods! (Like rolled oats or aborio rice.)
Finally, accepting differences in the culture, like driving! I have many driving stories from Vietnam – especially in the city, during traffic jams in high tide! We’d get stuck for such a long time, so would eventually get out and walk home in water up to our knees!
What did living in Vietnam teach you about parenting?
I learnt that the social norms you’re familiar with in your home country are not the only way to life life … Like how you get your baby to sleep, norms around breastfeeding, norms around parenting in general, norms around working while you have children … I felt freed from the very strong social norms we have in Australia and felt like I could express myself differently as a parent, and then later as a working parent. When you live and socialise with around 10 different nationalities in your normal everyday friendship group, you come to realise very quickly that the way you’ve been taught is not the only way. It was very liberating.
What challenges have you faced moving back to Australia?
Well, it’s freezing in Melbourne compared to Saigon! And now it’s the reverse to when we moved away – my kids need to make new friends in a new school in a new country. So we needed to start again in re-establishing friendships and support networks.
What do you miss most about Vietnam?
Here we go … !
- The food, especially the pho (the local soup)
- My friends there
- Working with my team there
- The gorgeous warm weather
- The travel… We were travelling all the time!
- The coffee … Vietnam is known for its good coffee and there are coffee shops on almost every corner
- The friendly faces of locals on the streets
- The weekends away in gorgeous local Vietnamese resorts
- My gorgeous house. I loved my house in Vietnam. It was a colonial style with a large outdoor veranda and pool. It was a great house for entertaining and had a gorgeous tropical garden and outdoor entertaining area which was perfect in that climate. We spent our weekends socialising with family friends by the pool and having BBQs.
And what did you miss about Australia when you were living abroad?
My family and friends of course, but also the arts scene. I love the ballet, art and theatre and these things were hard to see in Vietnam. I also missed the greenery and Melbourne’s many beautiful places to walk, hike and escape, whereas Ho Chi Minh was quite built up and urban.
Tell us about the early days of launching your business – where did it all begin?
I started it when my youngest was around 12 months old in my house in Saigon. I had always wanted to start my own business, and this was the first time in my adult life that I wasn’t employed and had the time to really focus on it. I needed space to be creative and the time to be brave enough to do it.
Your goal was to create: “a business and life that I loved” – have you achieved this goal and if you could offer any advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, wanting to launch a fashion or accessories brand what would it be?
Hmm… I would say that I am getting there! It’s always hard to get the balance right when you have young children. It’s such a busy time of your life. I love my work and I love where the brand is going right now in terms of the designs, the collaboration with Hagar Charity and the approach we are taking to production. We are trying to work with more organisations that support artisans and give back to women. I truly believe in the concept of supporting women so they can support themselves. I think this really raises the level of education, hope and prosperity of these communities. It makes me feel very hopeful about the future of the world; the world my daughters will live in.
I am so excited and feel very privileged every day that I can choose who I work with and the projects we work on. We have some really exciting projects coming up that I am thrilled to be involved in. I can’t wait to be able to share them. I have a million ideas. It’s just keeping up with them!
My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs would be not to wait until you feel confident. That time will never come. Just go for it and trust your gut. I wish I had started Murkani years ago.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
Trusting my inner voice when I need to make a decision. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions and you procrastinate (or I do), but you’ve known deep down all along that you were right and should have made the decision straight away!
My husband would say that I had to learn that “cash is king” … If you don’t have cash flow, your business won’t be here in a year’s time!
What are your time management tips for balancing raising children with a growing business?
Be organised. I write a lot of lists. I can’t remember anything without a list as there are too many things going on in my head between work and my three kids’ activities.
Talk us through the process behind each piece of jewellery you create…
For every collection, there are so many elements that come into the creative process. Like what individual pieces do we need in the overall in the range, where have we just been travelling and what design styles are inspiring me right now… For example, I might have just been to an exhibition of Indian architecture and may want to include this in the collection.
I take lots of photos when I travel and then sort them into design albums. I collect magazine articles and Instagram images of ancient architecture and travel destinations, which I also add to these albums. I feel like a bowerbird as I collect lots of ideas from everywhere and create mood boards with themes. Once I’ve chosen one common theme, I’ll then focus on the materials. Whether they’ll have semi-precious stones in them or not, whether the materials are matte or shiny, and so on. Then I’ll design the pieces and send them to my supplier to create samples.
Would you describe the style of your jewellery as boho luxe?
It’s so hard to describe your style in one way really. Different collections can be described as boho luxe and others could be described as modern minimalism. I think overall, we would describe ourselves as the elegant bohemian with a laid-back luxe style. I think as Australians we have an inherently laid-back style, even when we are really dressed up.
We try to make special pieces that you will be able to wear forever. We only use materials that are long wearing as we don’t want to make pieces that end in landfill six months later.
Tell us about the work you’re doing with HAGAR AUSTRALIA?
We have collaborated with HAGAR AUSTRALIA to create a collection of necklaces called the FREEDOM Collection. HAGAR is a not for profit organisation who works with women and children who have been enslaved, trafficked and abused in Cambodia, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
The range includes three designs featuring symbolism of freedom, protection and thriving. $10 from each necklace sold goes to HAGAR’s vocational training program in Cambodia.
What have been some of the most wonderful things about your work with HAGAR AUSTRALIA?
We already handed over our first donation contribution in June, which went straight to their vocational training program in Cambodia.
I was so privileged to go to Cambodia last year on their study tour to learn about their program there. It has really opened my eyes to what happens to these women and children and then all the support required to help them take control back of their lives.
We also worked with them on their gala event earlier this year in May, where we raised funds to give to their programs. It was such a rewarding experience and I can’t wait to start working on the next project with them.
Can you tell us about the meaning of the motifs you’ve used in the FREEDOM COLLECTION?
There are three different designs…
Freedom – the Vintage Swallow symbolises freedom, both financial and physical. It represents having a choice about how you live your life.
Protect – the Hamsa hand symbolises protection.
Blooming – the Lotus symbolises the potential to bloom given the right environment.
Finally, what are your plans for the year ahead?
We have three new collections coming out this Summer which we are excited about. One of those will be the new Freedom Earring collection which is another collaboration with HAGAR AUSTRALIA. It will feature the same three designs on the necklaces as pendants hanging off small hoops. $5 from each pair sold will be donated to HAGAR’s programs.
We are also launching a collection called TEMPLE MOON which is inspired by temples in India. It features Mother of Pearl and White Topaz stones.
Finally, we are working on new projects with artisans in India … But I can’t say too much about this as yet so stay tuned!