In the fall of 2019, I happened to be in Taipei on vacation. I was wandering through the massive jade market, not expecting to buy anything, when an auntie working one of the stalls pulled me over. She placed a plastic glove over my hand and began slipping on various bangles in different shades of green. One, she declared, suited my skin tone and would provide luck and protection for the next year. I was so sold on her pitch that I let her follow me three blocks to the nearest ATM to pay for it. Since then, the bracelet hasn’t left my wrist.
When I posted about the experience on Instagram stories, my DMs filled with other Asian-American women who were either curious about buying their own jade jewellery, or showing off the pieces they’d already acquired. Their interest surprised me, mainly because I recall growing up with peers who deemed jade outdated and aging. When I was a teen, it wasn’t exactly cool to wear a Buddha on the traditional red string, or a circular Bi disc pendant. (We used to jokingly call them Lifesavers, but it’s actually a classic shape that dates back to the Neolithic era and symbolises heaven.) Jade was what your grandmother or elderly aunts would wear. At its most extreme, wearing the stone suggested you were not properly assimilated — a terrifying thought for a kid facing strong social pressure to adopt the customs and aesthetics of the dominant American culture. But while my friends may have failed to see the value in jade during our teens, it’s undeniably back.
Jade is traditionally revered in many Asian cultures, where it’s considered more precious than gold or diamonds. Legend has it that it protects the wearer from misfortune — if your bangle breaks, that’s because it was absorbing the evil intentions directed towards you. It’s not uncommon to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a high quality piece.
For many immigrants, jade is one of the few tethers to their homelands. “Jade is the indestructible bond between generations. [To keep it safe] you hide it in small embroidered jacquard pouches within medicine cupboards, sock drawers, safety deposit boxes, or even in the pantry next to the rice,” explains New York City-based publicist Cynthia Leung. Passed down from one female relative to another, bangles and pendants begin to take on the weight of history; you can easily amass a collection with pieces that are centuries old. “The pendant and bracelet I own are family heirlooms, given by my mother or grandmother whom I was very close to. They were passed down from their mothers and grandmothers,” she explains.
Associating jade jewellery with an older generation once made it hard for younger women to embrace these pieces, but thankfully, that attitude has changed. In part, that’s due to the recent wave of anti-Asian racism, and the subsequent activism it inspired among Asian-Americans. “My attitude towards traditional Asian things — my jade bracelet specifically — started to shift before this recent bout of anti-Asian racism, but now I’m even more resolute. The first instinct might be to hide, for fear of our safety, but we risk losing that part [of our identity] forever. I’m determined not to let our light be dimmed,” says New York-based fashion publicist Lisa Lu.
Emily B. Yang echoes Lu’s sentiments. “I’ve been wearing my jade more in the last two years. It’s a mix of turning 30 and growing into myself more. I want to be more outspoken about who I am and what I stand for, which includes being unafraid to ‘seem Asian’ in a time of anti-Asian sentiment,” she says. Alongside her day job as adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design, Yang also volunteers for Welcome to Chinatown, a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving New York City’s Chinatown.
It’s something I wear proudly that announces my heritage.”
The pandemic was also top of mind for Emily Cherkassky — especially its effects on small Asian-owned businesses. While spending time at her childhood home in Minnesota with her family, Cherkassky decided to buy her mother a piece of jade jewellery. “I always frequented small shops in Chinatown for this stuff, so I DM-ed Jalee Jewelry for help,” she says. The process was so seamless that it inspired her to start L. Lu Fine Jewelry, a site that connects customers to small Mom-and-Pop fine jewellery stores in New York City-area Chinatowns. “[They] have great products but they tend to face negative stigmas and lack of foot traffic so I wanted to change that. Sites like Mejuri make it easy for women to buy pieces, so why not do the same for them?” she explained. L. Lu is named after her grandmother, Long Xian Lu. Initially she sold 14k gold, but customers kept on requesting jade, and it’s become a top seller.
Crystal Ung also wanted to give back to her community during the pandemic, which inspired her to found Ren, a direct-to-consumer jade jewellery website. Ren specialises in delicate Catbird-esque rings and necklaces, as well as vintage pieces that can skew either modern or traditional, like bangles, Bi discs, and Buddha pendants. “At the height of the pandemic, as the violence began, I thought about what it means to be Asian as well as my American identity. I felt like the best form of activism was creating something meaningful and of value, that keeps East Asian traditions alive,” she said. Since Ren’s launch, Ung’s pieces have been featured in magazines, and worn by the likes of Eva Chen, as well as Gemma Chan in her British Vogue spread.
With jade jewellery popping up more on celebrities and influencers and becoming easier to find online, many Asian-American women have found their anxieties about wearing the stone have eased. Delaney Wing, a consultant in Chicago, shopped at Ren after seeing Chen post about it on her Instagram. She wound up purchasing a delicate lavender pendant, adding to a collection that also includes an inherited bracelet from her grandmother and a bangle gifted by a friend.
“Growing up, I was obsessed with Michelle Kwan, who famously wore a lucky pendant. Today, I love how Eva Chen wears it,” she says. What motivates Wing to wear it now? “I’m half Chinese and third-generation, so I used to associate the stone with older women. I always assumed I wasn’t ‘Chinese enough’ to wear it. As I have become more confident in my background, my jade jewellery has even more meaning for me. It’s something I wear proudly that announces my heritage.”
It’s important not to just value the way it looks, but also understand its deep cultural ties.”
Sites like Ren and L. Lu Fine Jewelry are a hit among millennial Asian women mainly because in the past, acquiring jade involved going through several hoops. Getting a genuine, high quality bangle or pendant requires legwork. Small jewellery stores are usually owned by first-generation immigrants, making it difficult to communicate unless you’re fluent in the language. Some would even argue that the best jade is bought in Asia, requiring a planet ticket. Contrary to what you might see on Amazon, you could spend anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. But now it’s as easy as clicking a button, no haggling required.
As jade hits the mainstream, it also risks losing its cultural meaning. Yang’s fellow Welcome to Chinatown volunteer Gabi Tran, who serves as the organisation’s Director of Grants & Outreach, has noticed how social media has shifted things: “The attitude is changing, especially with the rise of jade bracelets trending on TikTok, where it’s prized for its aesthetics. But it’s important not to just value the way it looks as an accessory, but also understand its deep cultural ties,” she says.
Las Vegas-based artist Lyvian Dao saw firsthand what happens when jade jewellery goes viral. When she posted a TikTok video showing off her bruised hand after her mom forces a gifted bangle over her wrist, it racked up over five million views. Questions by commenters about whether it was appropriate to wear jade if you were not Asian prompted her to film a spin-off video.
“A commenter genuinely wanted to know the difference between appropriation versus appreciation was, when it came to wearing a bangle. It’s a thin line, but I needed to address that,” she says. Reactions in the comments were mixed, with some accusing her of gatekeeping, but Dao doesn’t regret speaking out, “Anyone can wear jade. Just do the basic research and understand why it means so much to us.”
But perhaps this popularity is not all bad. For those of us who, during our youth, were worried about it betraying our foreign-ness, jade jewellery now feels normalised, meshing seamlessly with our Westernised lives. If anything, it’s shown that we’ve made it in our new homes, since jade is ultimately a symbol of financial means.
“My parents were working class, so this emblem of wealth felt super unobtainable to me, but is now something that has been fun to reclaim for myself as an adult,” says Jess Tran, an influencer who grew up in Sydney and now calls Brooklyn home. To find success and wear it proudly — isn’t that exactly what our ancestors would have wanted?
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US