Telling stories through jade

Dedication of jewellery artisans from a Thai hill tribe inspired Choo Yilin to follow her dream

This Prada bag was jewellery designer Choo Yilin's first luxury purchase, made in 2012.
This Prada bag was jewellery designer Choo Yilin's first luxury purchase, made in 2012.ST PHOTOS: JAMIE KOH, STACEY CHIA

Jewellery designer Choo Yilin specialises in jade, but if you are looking for a plain jade bracelet or ring, do not go knocking on her door.

"A lot of people ask if they can just buy a simple jade bracelet and we always say no because, at the end of the day, we want to tell people we are designers," says the 34-year- old, who has been running her eponymous jewellery label since 2009.

Her jade designs come embellished with precious metals and gemstones, which add a youthful spin on the rock.

"Jade is so culturally important to us here in Asia, but the younger generation do not have that sort of emotional connection with it because they always associate it with their grandmothers," says Ms Choo, who uses jade from Myanmar.

The self-taught designer developed an interest in jewellery while working as a political analyst at the Ministry of Defence. During her free time, she beaded bracelets "to counterbalance an extremely left-brain job".

She decided to start her label after spending a few years in Thailand where her civil servant husband was posted for work. They have no children.

She got acquainted with jewellery artisans from the Karen hill tribe in northern Thailand and was inspired by their dedication to their craft.

"I've always been inspired by stories and I feel jewellery is a very powerful medium to communicate stories," she says.

Jade, with its distinctive Chinese association, coupled with other Asian icons, such as bamboo and cherry blossom flowers, was a way for her to distinguish herself as an Asian jeweller.

Last year, she opened her first boutique in the heritage neighbourhood Joo Chiat, which gives her the opportunity to interact with her customers.

Sometimes, she spends up to an hour discussing her designs with them.

Prices range from $188 for earrings to $100,000 for customised pieces. Before this, she sold her pieces at independent boutiques in Singapore.

She also offers a restoration service for customers to bring in family heirlooms that need to be reworked by her creative team in Singapore and artisans based in Thailand.

Ms Choo, who has a master's in business administration, recently started an e-commerce platform.

"I tried to design other things because I didn't want to be known as the jade designer. But then I thought, if I didn't do jade, then I'd just be competing with so many other people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2015, with the headline 'Telling stories through jade MyBag'. Print Edition | Subscribe