SINGAPORE — Jade jewelry, often heavy and ornately carved, has traditionally been a prized possession, handed down from mothers to daughters and treasured as much for its value as its beauty. Classic designs in imperial green jade, or jadeite, the most green and translucent form of the stone, remain very much in favor. Fulvio Maria Scavia, the designer behind the Milanese craft jeweler Scavia, says that about 75 percent of his jade pieces, inspired by traditional Chinese motifs, sell to an Asian clientele.
"I'm creating new, one-of-a-kind jade pieces every month and they're selling very well in Japan, Thailand, India and the Middle East," he said.
But for the younger generation, increasingly used to international luxury brands, the traditional bangles and bead necklaces are just a bit old-fashioned. These buyers, a small but growing band, are pushing jade toward more experimental and contemporary designs and colors.
"I often hear from young customers, 'Jade is for old people, my grandmother gave me one, but I never use it.' So we realized there was a market there for something different and that's when we started using jade in our designs," said Doris Baer, director of Baerjewels in Hong Kong.
Baer said many consumers still have preconceived ideas about the stone: "Chinese think they can only wear green jade and the other jade colors don't match their skin tone; and that's if they realize that there are other colored jades. But icy jade for example matches almost all skin tones and complexions, and it's much easier to match with different colored clothes than the green jade."
Alain Evrard, director at Edward Chiu, a jeweler based in Hong Kong, believes young people are "slowly disregarding" green jade. Chiu has made a name for itself with dramatic designs contrasting black and white jade.
"We now have a new generation of Chinese that is exploring new options beside green jade," he said. "We often have clients bringing in their pieces and asking us to update them and make them more contemporary."
Natural colors of jade include lavender, red and yellow - the result of oxidation and of the presence of "chromophores" or color-inducing impurities - as well as black, white and ice. Black jade is actually a very deep green with a high iron content, while the currently very trendy ice jade is the result of perfectly fused jade crystals.
"Imperial green is still obviously the most sought after jade in Asia," Baer said. "This is a jade that has a deep, dark green and very even color with no cracks or watercolor marks. It is rare and as such extremely expensive.
"Colored jades are much more affordable and allow us to reach a new, younger market. The different colors also allow us to be very creative. Jade, compared to other precious stones, can be cut in many different ways, which is an artist's dream."
Baer said colored jades, especially ice and black, started to emerge as a trend in jewelry design in Hong Kong about three years ago. Baerjewels itself has devised a new cutting technique for the stone that allows the designer to create interesting and unique forms.
Instead of the usual cabochon grinding and polishing technique, which produces a thick, rounded stone, the designer Peter Baer cuts the jade in slivers, revealing each stone's unique textures. "It works best on jade which when uncut appears black and gray and has glassy, transparent veins," he said.
But good quality, deep black jade is becoming hard to find, and some designers say that white jade is even more so, though Scavia, who was in Myanmar during last month's unrest, said he had no problem finding supplies. About 90 percent of all jade comes from Myanmar.
Evrard said the price of white jade has soared in recent months. "Workers and suppliers are telling us the same story," he said. "That white jade is now much in demand, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland."
So much so that Chinese television recently reported a crackdown on private mining to curb environmental damage resulting from a "jade-rush" by thousands of prospectors to the remote Yurungkax River in Xinjiang Province, where white jade is extracted.
Next year's Olympics may be partly responsible.
Beijing has announced that the gold, silver and bronze medals will incorporate jade in the design, with a fine white jade in the gold medal, a slightly darker shade in the silver medal and green jade in the bronze medal. Olympic organizers are also producing 2,008 replicas of the jade seal of the Beijing 2008 emblem, which will be sold to the public at 56,000 yuan, or $7,500, each.