I talked to Choo Yilin about her journey into jewellery, why it’s so important to pay homage to heritage and history, and the reasons behind her jewellery’s resounding success.
A few years ago, we could be forgiven for thinking that jade jewellery belonged solely in the domain of our mothers and grandmothers. You probably remember a jade bangle being a constant feature on their wrists: steadfast and solid, but perhaps not the most stylish.
That’s what jeweller Choo Yilin wants to change– or has changed, judging by her success. Since launching her eponymous brand a decade ago, Yilin’s jade jewellery has won her awards, international press coverage and has even been worn on the Crazy Rich Asians red carpet.
A political analyst by training, jewellery had been something Yilin had dabbled in just as a hobby and creative outlet until an encounter with traditional silversmiths in the hill tribes of North Thailand made her realise that Southeast Asian craftsmanship was something she wanted to preserve and share. After plunging into jewellery design and production, Yilin’s art is now a remedy to a world that’s spent too long being shaped by Western-centric ideals of beauty.
It’s a world Yilin has had to struggle through herself.
“Growing up, I had always been slightly ashamed of being Chinese,” she says frankly. “I used to wish I was white because I thought that life would be easier that way.” This refrain is a familiar one among minorities of colour who have grown up in Western-dominated cultures and are often made to feel like less for being different.
In business too, championing Asian ideals hasn’t been easy. Yilin still recalls the difficulty she faced trying to make a case for showcasing her Type A jadeite at Paris Fashion Week– a difficulty, one imagines, she might not have experienced had she been dealing in diamonds rather than jade. They understood that jade was “exotic”, but the actual quality of the material didn’t matter. And there is also the fact that to call something is “exotic” is to imply that there is a default range of normality that it falls outside of.
But a few years later, and there’s no doubt that Yilin has carved a name for herself and her jade in the jewellery scene– an apt metaphor for someone whose name literally translates to “moving towards beautiful jade”. And if her success is anything to go by, others share her view too.
So what’s going on? Why are young women, who would previously have never dreamt of wearing a jade bangle like their grandmothers, so drawn to her designs?
For Yilin, it’s probably thanks to the stories she tells with her jewellery. She describes herself as a storyteller first and a jeweller second, and so every piece she creates is imbued with meaning and a heritage story of its own.
Take, for example, one of her favourite designs: the Peranakan Lace earrings. The elaborate Peranakan motifs are reflected in the intricate metalwork adorning the jade pieces that have become her signature– not an easy technique to master, but one important enough to Yilin that it was worth the months of struggle to get right.
And it must have paid off, with her clients telling her that they feel a connection to her pieces. After all, there’s no denying the cultural heft and compelling lore that jade holds in Asia. Jade has been valuable for over 8000 years, Yilin points out, compared to a diamond’s relatively recent glittering history. For Yilin, there was no better gemstone to represent the stories of heritage, female strength, nostalgia, and immigration she wanted to tell.
Letting her jewellery designs tell these stories have come to define Choo Yilin– both the person and the brand. As she puts it herself: “Our heritage is so profoundly moving, and our stories are deserving to be told on a global scale. We in Asia are capable of creating immense beauty that will leave people in deep awe. We don’t have to borrow from another person’s culture or history to feel enough. Because quite simply, we are good enough.”
Beyond that, there is also the fact that her jewellery so perfectly encapsulates the cultural experience of this Southeast Asian generation. “My designs could only come from someone with our background,” Yilin explains. “The fact that we are children of immigrants, that we are female, that we grew up in an Anglicised culture heavily influenced by the Western world and are now invested in taking back our roots.”
These ideals are put on fine display in Yilin’s latest work, a jewellery capsule collection produced in partnership with YTL Hotels. Titled “A Vintage Honeymoon”, she drew inspiration from both The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur’s distinctly colonial Southeast Asian design heritage and the opulence of the Eastern & Oriental Express‘ old-world glamour to reimagine and remodernise two classic jewellery styles that were popular in the 1930’s – sautoir necklaces and seed pearl halos – with a Southeast Asian touch.
First, the sautoir necklace, with either pearl and jadeite beads on a slim rose or white gold chain, is deceptively simple in its elegance. But look closer and you’ll see it’s cleverly designed to be wearable in a number of ways. You may recognise this glamorous silhouette from period dramas or photos of the Golden Age, but the use of pearl and jade gives it a uniquely Choo Yilin touch.
The next in the collection is a ring that’s almost impossible to take your eyes off– a stunning ice jade cabochon surrounded by a halo of seed pearls on a rose gold band. Diamonds nestled within the halo create an almost translucent, shimmering effect under the right light. Finally, a pair of earrings echo the ring’s cabochon and halo design, but the detachable pearl drops give you the option of a different dangling silhouette.
As for what’s next for Yilin, there is a lot – more collections, collaborations and even a book on jade are in the works – but one thing’s for certain: the young girl who once wished to renounce her Asian heritage now embraces it fiercely.
“In order to go on and do impactful work for the future, you have to honour your past,” she says.
A Vintage Honeymoon is now available at the Choo Yilin Flagship Boutique in Mandarin Gallery (#02-23), Singapore, as well as on www.chooyilin.com.