How Jade Helped This First-Generation Jewelry Designer Reconnect With Her Culture

Courtesy Ren

There are few gemstones — if any — with such impenetrable cultural bonds as jade. According to the Gemology Institute of America, the Chinese character for jade 'Yu' is among the oldest in written Chinese and dates back to 2950 BC. For fine jade jewelry designer Crystal Ung, it's a memory of her past and a symbol of her future. "Jade is special to me," she tells TZR. "Like a lot of Asian Americans, I grew up wearing jade and my family wore jade religiously."

An anecdote that cemented her gratitude for the gemstone was told to her as a young child. "My paternal and maternal grandparents were Chinese and immigrated to Southeast Asia in the 1940s to flee communism. My father was born in Cambodia and my mother was born in Laos," she explains. "The story starts with my paternal grandfather’s journey to Cambodia. He was the only unmarried one in his family and therefore immigrated alone, leaving behind his parents and siblings. His father passed onto him his jade ring, which was meant to protect him on his journey. He had a near-death incident and attributed his safety to this treasured jade." In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power, her grandfather had to surrender his possessions, (including the jade ring) and he ultimately did not survive. "I feel a sense of connection to him when I wear jade," she shares. It's these deeply personal ties and a broader sense of heritage that inspired Ung to create Ren — a newly-launched modern jade jewelry brand that translates to 'humanity' in Chinese.

Jade As An Expression of Identity and Pride

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When Ung slips into a piece of jade jewelry, an emotional response sweeps over her. "I feel a sense of nostalgia and familiarity, of being surrounded by family when I wear jade," she says. "It’s also iconic to East Asian culture and by wearing it, I’m choosing to express the pride I have for my heritage." She recalls a podcast episode featuring Chef Eddie Huang where he makes the connection between jade and China's expansive history. "When he was having a hard time growing up in Florida, his dad reminded him he came from a culture that’s spanned thousands of years," she says. "In a way, jade serves as a reminder that part of my identity — my heritage — is strong and enduring."

The Jade Market As It Stands

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Ung shares that the traditional jade market is unique in that it tends to stay within the family and is passed on through generations. "Because of this, the designs have stayed pretty consistent over the years and continue to cater to older generations’ tastes," she explains. "In terms of the aesthetic of traditional jade jewelry, the mantra 'bigger is better' applies here." Ung offers the example of chunky pieces featuring carvings, which used to signal premium quality. "This was especially true decades and centuries ago when modern machinery did not exist and a highly trained artist would hand-carve jade with simple tools," she says. "As jade became more mass-produced, carved jade lost some prestige, particularly to younger consumers because the skill required today is not the same level of skill required as decades ago."

She points to her parent's generation as the market currently catered to when it comes to jade. "Their preferences are reflected in what’s available today," she says. "Another example is they generally prefer white gold so you’ll often see jade set in white gold. You have to find vintage lots from the '80s and '70s set in yellow gold, which is preferred by younger consumers today."

Where Ren Comes Into the Picture

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Ren is reimagining jade jewelry for the modern woman, without compromising on its history or significance. "We are aiming to not only pay homage to our culture and to keep East Asian traditions alive, but to also incorporate the modern sensibilities we grew up appreciating," she explains. "I’m excited for Ren to share the beauty of jade and its connection to Asian culture with everyone. It’s a love story that I feel has not been adequately shared with the world." Her collection offers lightweight, delicate pieces set in solid 10k/14k yellow gold ("the opposite of what you see in the market now.")

Using Jade As Representation

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Ung points to lack of representation (particularly on Instagram) as a driving force to highlight Asian art and art by Asian Americans. "I love Italian landscapes and Parisian style as much as the next gal, but where’s all the beautiful content on Japanese architecture, South Korean landscapes, or Vietnamese ceramics?" Because of this, she's collaborating with Asian creatives for Ren's shoots — photographers, creative directors, and models. "With that being said, we’re interested in exploring the intersection of East and West from the perspective of an Asian American, merging two (or more) cultures as one," she adds. "It’s an evolving process and Ren will continue to explore how to marry Eastern and Western design sensibilities in our content and collections."

Sourcing Rare, Quality Jade

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If you're not familiar with jade, there are two types: jadeite and nephrite (the former being more rare and valuable). Ung focuses on Burmese jadeite that is Type A (the highest quality, natural and untreated). While many of her pieces offer the emerald green tones jade is well-known for, she also plans to design with other jade colors and opacities, such as lavender, translucent white, and yellow-amber. Ren's samples are handmade in Brooklyn and the pieces are made-to-order in New York City.

"Our opals are sourced straight from a mine in Australia, the Lagniappe pearls (irregular pearls) are responsibly cultured from the Tennessee River, the smaller pearls are freshwater pearls from Japan," she shares. "The jadeite comes from a few sources: We work with the most credible American supplier to source Type A (natural and untreated) Burmese jadeite, a supplier we sourced through the Responsible Jewelry Council."

Caring For Your Jade

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Ung shares that jade should be cleaned with a soft cloth dipped in water and mild soap. "Never steam jade (make sure your jeweler knows this)," she notes. "Do not use ultra-sonic jewelry equipment or cleaning solutions, avoid pools, hot tubs, oceans, and frequent showers." If you’re handling dirt and soil, Ung adds that quartz dust in soil is abrasive to the stone.