Ren jade ring and bracelet

Crystal Ung learnt as a child about the “magical, protective powers” of jade. Her grandfather had emigrated alone from southern China to Cambodia during the Chinese Communist Revolution with a jade ring gifted by his father, and her aunt had told her the story of his journey.

“It was thought that really provided him the protection and helped contribute to his thriving when he made the move,” Ung says.

So, when she saw a vintage jade bracelet while shopping on holiday in Bermuda, it brought back memories of her family. But, on her return to New York, Ung found it difficult to find pieces online, particularly “more minimal” designs. Her response was to set up the jewellery brand Ren last year, to keeping East Asian traditions alive.

This decision seems timely. Jade has long been prized in Chinese culture for its beauty, spiritual and mystical properties, and as a talisman and status symbol. However, one hundred years since French jewellers began using jade in art deco pieces, auction houses and brands are reporting a growing appreciation for the gemstone from outside of Asia.

Crystal Ung
After Crystal Ung launched Ren she saw pieces were appealing to a broader audience than just Asian-Americans

There are two types of jade: nephrite and the harder, translucent jadeite, favoured for jewellery. The finest jadeite comes from Myanmar, with imperial green the most sought-after colour.

Wenhao Yu, deputy chair for jewellery in Asia at Sotheby’s, says the lack of a standard method to value jadeite — which has a more complex composition than stones such as diamonds or emeralds — has restricted its popularity internationally.

But the proportion of Sotheby’s clients participating in jadeite jewellery sales who live outside Asia is now increasing. Since 2019, an average of 20 per cent of bidders and buyers have been based outside the continent, compared with 7 per cent of non-Asian buyers between 2010 and 2018.

To encourage this trend, the auction house has worked with the Swiss gem laboratories Gübelin and SSEF to produce standard certification for the imperial green colour jadeite it sells — in the traditional cabochon, bead and bangle forms.

Sotheby’s aim is to demonstrate that it is top quality — comparable to a pigeon blood ruby or royal blue sapphire. It also publishes post-auction price per carat information.

The idea is to “make a consistent system” that is easier for an international audience to understand, says Yu. He also attributes the growth in jadeite’s popularity to international brands showcasing it in high jewellery, using different settings and techniques.

Swiss jewellery house Boghossian uses nephrite and jadeite as support stones, as well as creating five to 10 pieces a year featuring jadeite as the central stone.

Collectors are attracted by its rarity and having “a new area to jump into”, believes managing partner Roberto Boghossian.

Boghossian necklace
Boghossian necklace

The jeweller is another that reports increased interest in jade from non-Asian customers in the past three years.

“Probably, we started working with it to tap into the Asian market and then organically it has evolved,” says Boghossian. “It has now become part of our collection on a limited number of pieces, which we show to our whole client base.”

In the meantime, Phillips is targeting a wider audience for jadeite by showcasing contemporary designs. The auction house sold earrings with 54 navette-shaped jadeite cabochons, and paraiba tourmalines and diamonds, by Hong Kong-based Karen Suen for HK$302,400 ($38,800) in June.

Karen Suen earrings
Karen Suen earrings

Cristel Tan, Phillips’ international jewellery specialist for south-east Asia, says that Asian contemporary designers — such as Chinese artist Wallace Chan — have “pushed the boundaries” for jadeite.

“They have come out with contemporary uses, which appeal more to the western aesthetic, but still keeping with a traditional sense of the material itself,” Tan notes.

Wallace Chan brooch
Wallace Chan Stilled Life brooch

Chan, a former jade carver whose pieces are exhibited around the world, says he tries to be “free” with materials rather than relying on traditional approaches: he might use an emerald cut for jade and make a milky diamond into a jade-like cabochon. His patented polishing technique — used for the sculptural Stilled Life brooch, which features imperial green jadeite as the body of a cicada — makes jade appear brighter by letting in more light.

Chan says jade is a “teacher” because of its “very distinctive” character and the difference between pieces in terms of colour, composition and translucency.

He says the goal is to make jade, historically a symbol of a gentleman’s virtues, “attractive but humble”.

“It’s a subtle beauty that we look for,” he explains, suggesting that this subtlety means that it takes time to appreciate the beauty of jade — unlike the immediate attraction of a diamond.

But jade is attracting fans. Earlier this year, Rihanna posted Instagram pictures of herself adorned in green and lavender jade and British actor Gemma Chan wore a Ren jadeite necklace in September’s British Vogue.

Although Ung was targeting Asian-Americans when she launched Ren, pieces are appealing to a broader audience.

She thinks the growing popularity of jade rollers and Gua Sha tools for face massage is playing a role. “The thought that jade equals wellness has driven some more interest in the stone as jewellery, but I think it [will] take a bit more education to continue to drive that interest,” she says.

Wallace Chan thinks it will be difficult to get a more widespread appreciation of jade because, without the technology and standardised grading methods of other stones, much is “still based on the eyes, the experience, [and] the experts”.

“In Chinese, we have a saying that if there are 1,000 kinds of stones, there are 10,000 kinds of jade,” he says. “But that is not enough.”

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