Often called the stone of heaven, jade is believed to absorb negative energy and bring balance to emotions. The deep-green mineral — which started as an essential material in fashioning tools and then evolved into a means of artistic expression — has a rich history that dates back to 3400 BC.
"[The Chinese] used to think that jade was created by supernatural forces and represented the essence of heaven and earth," explains Crystal Ung, founder of the jewelry line Ren. A first-generation Chinese-American, she grew up hearing stories about the significance of jade and seeing her family members wear it. The thing about childhood memories is that they tend to get buried until we experience or come across something in our adult lives that brings them to the surface. That's what happened to Ung when she wandered into a vintage shop while on a trip to Bermuda and came across a beautiful jade bracelet. She didn't buy it (it came with an enormously high price tag, she remembers), but it got her thinking about the enduring spirit of the sentimental stone.
"When I got back to New York, I couldn't stop thinking about it," Ung says. "I just felt so compelled to find something because I craved that connection to my family that I was so far away from."
She began her search online. When that failed to deliver anything worthwhile, she set out to find something in person, only to discover designs that felt outdated, that she couldn't imagine pairing with the minimalist options that rule Instagram. Fueled with this desire to keep East Asian traditions alive and to make a treasure that can be coveted in the present and future, Ung decided to make her own jade jewels.
"Having spent so many years in fashion, I really saw an opportunity to celebrate Asian beauty and culture, and to create a brand that I felt our community could see ourselves in," Ung, who's worked in brand strategy and marketing for almost a decade, tells me.
This was December 2019. By the time she really began building out the idea, it was 2020 — and the world could really use restoration in the harmony department. "I felt a lot of urgency to pursue this because there was just so many things happening with coronavirus prompting a lot of increased violence against Asian Americans, with Black Lives Matter and with the election," she says.
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Ren officially launched at the beginning of November with five pieces; it's since gone up to seven, with prices starting at $195 for a 14k gold chain and going up to $900 for a jadeite cabochon ring. Each item is named after Asian-American pop culture icons whom Ung admired during her childhood: Highlights include the Lucy necklace (named after Lucy Liu), the Margaret bracelet (named after comedian Margaret Cho) and the Naoko huggies (named after the manga artist Naoko Takeuchi). The brand also sells an assortment of vintage jade baubles on its website. A portion of proceeds from all items is donated to Apex for Youth and the Asian Youth Center.
According to Ung, the collection is inspired by two things: the people wearing the jewelry and the concept of kinship.
"I wanted to capture the beautiful connection between parents and children, siblings, best friends and family through generations," she explains. For her first few pieces, Ung focused on versatility — jewelry that can be worn every day, but feels special enough to mark a pivotal moment in life. "I'm also designing for people who want to connect with cultural traditions, create their own or pass them on."
Ung had no problem creating the designs for her debut line, but sourcing the jade — especially during a global pandemic — was tough.
"I wanted to make sure that we were using the best and top quality jade that hasn't been treated, because oftentimes people will inject jade with bleaches or dye to make it look better," she says. "Luckily, I have some family who've been in the jewelry business for decades, and my aunt brought me to this huge gemstone convention in Tucson in February. That really kicked off the entire exploratory part and I was able to get a lot of introductions. But, it was really hard when a lot of things were shut down and it took much longer than I had anticipated."
On top of Covid-related closures, Ung ran into issues with sourcing smaller cut stones. "Unlike diamonds or opals, it's easy to say: 'I need this in four millimeters.' But with jade, sizing is everywhere. And a lot of times the stones are carved and they're really big," she explains.
She works with a few different suppliers of Type A (natural and untreated) Burmese jadeite — one that she found through the Responsible Jewelry Council and a couple that she got connected to through family contacts. "Jadeite has only been found in 12 locations across the world and the translucent emerald green jadeite remains the most sought-after variation," Ung notes.
The other gemstones she works with were much easier to source: The opals come straight from a mine in Australia, the Lagniappe pearls (irregular pearls) are responsibly cultured from the Tennessee River and the smaller freshwater pearls are sourced from Japan. The samples and pieces are made-to-order in Brooklyn.
Ren is just over a month old, but it's already gotten a lot of positive feedback — and the approval of one very famous individual.
"I'm getting notes and messages about how excited people are, because jade is something that is so coveted in the East and I think people in the West are starting to realize why this stone is so beautiful," Ung says. "And I guess Lucy Liu had seen the article written in the New York Times and she reached out, which made the whole process worth it."