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Thoroughly Modern Jade

Release Time: 2009-11-28|Read: 5623 times | Print

By ALEXANDRA A. SENO HONG KONG -- When Anita Lee got married a decade ago, her mother gave her a pair of green jade earrings. But they sat in a safe-deposit box for years.

The traditional jade earrings with a lot of gold "aren't really my style," says Ms. Lee, a 42-year-old Canadian-Chinese who used to live in Hong Kong but now resides in Tokyo. Drawn to jade because of the color and its versatility, Ms. Lee wanted to wear the jewelry, so she turned to a Hong Kong-based designer, Eugenia Lee, to refashion the gemstones into a more modern setting.

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This jade lavaliere necklace, made in the 1960s, was given to a Teufi client as a gift when she got married. She wanted it reworked into something more stylish and requested the redesign use all 26 jade pieces.

The term jade can refer to jadeite, the most precious type, or to the mineral nephrite, which is plentiful, readily accessible and therefore inexpensive. Dark green or "imperial green" is the most sought-after color of jadeite, and today the stone mainly comes from northern Myanmar.

Through the centuries, Chinese have treasured fine imperial jadeite above all other gems: Noble and wealthy households prized jadeite jewelry and objects, and artists immortalized the stone in poetry and paintings. Even through the current global economic downturn, demand for the gem has continued to soar among affluent Chinese. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council estimates that jadeite prices have risen 20% to 30% annually, on average, over the past few years. Today, a string of plain, polished round beads in the much-desired shade of green can command US$1 million.

And in a dramatic shift in tastes from the 1970s, when nearly all demand for jadeite was for traditional styles, jewelers estimate that now about 20% of pieces sold are contemporary designs.

Two years ago, Eugenia Lee, the jewelry designer, turned a longtime personal passion into her new career. A former banker, she set up custom jewelry-design brand Teufi. Now she's busy reworking jadeite belonging to clients in Hong Kong, many of whom have inherited pieces set in traditional styles. For instance, Ms. Lee (who isn't related to Anita Lee) reconfigured a pair of matronly, brown jadeite ear studs into a drop style for what she calls a "dramatic, sexy look."

"Traditional jadeite jewelry is very formal and perceived as outdated, to be worn only on special occasions such as weddings, to complement a cheongsam (a traditional high-necked, figure-hugging Chinese dress with a side-slit skirt)," Ms. Lee of Teufi says. "The current taste in jadeite jewelry not only is modern in form and design, but also is versatile in terms of its wearability."

Designer Dickson Yewn creates elaborately handcrafted Chinese-history-inspired works that sell at international auctions. The Hong Kong designer contends that jadeite's value lies not only in its beauty and cultural significance, but also its rarity. "Every year, truckloads of diamonds are extracted from the ground, but not jadeite. The old jadeite mines are depleted, so the best stones are often old," Mr. Yewn says.

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Qeelin's Tien Di dragon necklace features inlaid diamonds and gold.

Because really good specimens of jadeite are difficult to come by, he doesn't often use the stone in his own designs. But private collectors frequently bring him jadeite and ask for one-of-a-kind creations. His more affordable retail collection, available at his eponymous Hong Kong boutique and at luxury outlets such as New York's Bergdorf Goodman, currently includes two dramatic rings (prices starting at US$9,900). They are made with diamonds and lower-grade jadeite, set in a white gold lattice that echos the cloud pattern found in Chinese architecture and furniture.

At Qeelin in Hong Kong, which aims to become the first international Chinese luxury jewelry house, some of designer Dennis Chan's best-selling pendants and rings incorporate black or light-colored jadeites, materials that he likes for their cultural nuance and texture.

Hanging off a simple silk cord, the focal point of one necklace is a large piece of jadeite adorned with a dragon in diamonds and inlaid white gold (HK$188,000 or about US$24,260). A deceptively simple squarish ring whose top is the gemstone sells for HK$22,800 (US$2,940).

While jadeite might remain the most Asian of gems, Western designs for the material are proving a hit among adventurous Chinese. "Our clients are still pursuing high-quality, vivid green, transparent or translucent jadeite," says Marguerite Sam, general merchandise manager for jewelry at upscale department store Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. "What has changed is the design of the pieces, steering away from the explicitly traditional or Oriental designs." Many European designers are "presenting jade designs in a more contemporary aesthetic," she adds.

Noting the trend for new-style jadeite accessories in the Chinese market, the luxury retailer, which also has stores in mainland China, collaborated with Paris-based designers Jean Grisoni and Taher Chemirik to produce an exclusive line. Lane Crawford sourced top-grade jadeite beads and cabochons in greens, pinks and blacks that the designers set in yellow gold. The most expensive item, a pendant, retails for HK$10.8 million (about US$1.4 million).

Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, Anita Lee plans to commission Teufi to refashion pieces from a box full of jadeite that belonged to her mother, who lives in Vancouver. Once her mother saw the made-over green jadeite earrings, Ms. Lee says, she was in favor of resetting more pieces.

Wearing them will make "me feel closer to her," says Ms. Lee, who is expecting her second child soon. "I hope to also pass them on to my children when the time comes," she adds, and by making the pieces "more modern and wearable" she hopes "they, too, will come to love them."

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