It’s always difficult to step away when things are on the up. But that is precisely what Singaporean jeweller Choo Yilin did with her eponymous brand back in 2019, initiating a hiatus just as the brand closed on its best financial year. The brand shut down its flagship boutique at Mandarin Gallery, and Choo went on a sabbatical in New York City.
The brand had remade perceptions of fine jade jewellery—shifting its associations gently away from musty old styles worn by grandmothers to desirable and modern designs that nonetheless tapped into the precious stone’s cultural importance. Choo Yilin the brand also tapped into a surging desire for modernity in nuptial jewels. With young brides, for example, whose tastes in bridal gifts were shifting from very yellow 24-carat gold toward jade jewellery: just as symbolically traditional, but less stylistically so.
And the brand was rather celebrated too: actress Janice Koh wore Choo’s jewellery to the Hollywood premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in Los Angeles, Singapore Airlines commissioned the brand to create jewellery sold exclusively on its planes, its creations have been worn by celebrities like Amanda Seyfried, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, shown at Paris Fashion Week and London Jewellery Week, and won a slew of design awards.
Which is why it was a surprise when, in November 2023, the brand announced the end of its hiatus. But what came back was a very different form of Choo Yilin, something the founder informally dubs “v2.0”. Instead of setting up shop in a fancy location or starting up an online storefront, the brand is holding exclusive digital trunk shows. And instead of launching with a ready-to-wear collection that’s easy to shop, Choo introduced an Estate collection of extremely limited, one-off antique pieces that the brand had sourced, collected and reimagined for the present.
Now, the form the brand is taking is one that’s got more mystique, and with it an inbuilt if-you-know-you-know desirability. Choo’s chops as a jeweller and designer are proven, and she is selling her pieces exclusively through these digital trunk shows. The first, titled Something Old, Something New, is slated to run from 26 to 28 January. The last day is open to the public, but the goods are prioritised for subscribers on their mailing list during the first two days, with a password being shared to unlock a secret website. It’s not a stretch to expect demand to be white hot. The last time the brand held a digital trunk show in July of 2022, more than half of the offerings were sold out within 10 minutes, with certain pieces generating waitlists in the hundreds.
The theme of the Something Old, Something New digital trunk show will feature pieces that have had long waitlists, according to the brand. Those old somethings refer to popular lines from the brand like the Peranakan Flower, Hydrangea, Renda and Sakura collections, as well as a limited number of jade bangles.
And on the something new front, the brand is introducing a fresh collection called the Warisan Diadem, which is inspired by traditional Peranakan bridal headpieces of yore. The designs fold in motifs from the region, as well as influences from the Dutch, Portuguese and Victorian English to create an aesthetic that reflects the cultural hodgepodge of our corner of the world.
There’s also Choo’s Estate Collection of updated antique jewellery. There will be just six creations on offer this January that have been meticulously restored and reimagined with type-A jadeite. Other rare creations on offer include designs from the Hydrangea collection in custom-cut type-A lavender jade, and three lunar jade bangles.
Ahead of the digital trunk show’s launch, Choo lets Vogue in on the lead up to her brand’s comeback.
This relaunch is a comeback for Choo Yilin the brand. What’s changed, and what’s staying the same, since its hiatus in 2019?
We aren’t abandoning our original ethos of celebrating Asian heritage, love and becoming; but rather, deepening and expanding on it to speak to a larger audience beyond our core Southeast Asian base.
Jade is an integral part of your brand. Do you think that you had managed to update and modernise perceptions of jade jewellery?
We actually never explicitly set out to do that! It was an unexpected and wonderful consequence of simply committing to telling stories of our heritage. Jade was an integral material in telling these stories and our community seemed to resonate deeply with them. Brides started to embrace jade rather than traditional 24-carat gold for their wedding trousseaus, and couples were procuring jade engagement and wedding rings instead of the classic diamond solitaires.
Did you gain any lessons or reflections you gained in the four years of hiatus?
One of the things I realised was that Choo Yilin had something beyond the material. The love and obsessive detail that goes into creating each piece, the quality and attention to craftsmanship, and ultimately the storytelling which is the soul of Choo Yilin. We received letters and notes from our community even while we were in hiatus telling us how the brand made them feel. They didn’t simply talk about how beautiful the pieces were, but they spoke about how each of our pieces made them feel far more connected to their grandmothers and ancestors. And that through our stories and the pieces, they felt like they were being given a tangible piece of protection and love. These stories were incredibly humbling and touching, and reinforced our original belief that storytelling about heritage, love and becoming was crucial. Choo Yilin v2.0 is about deepening and expanding on that.
You led with the Estate Collection when you staged the comeback of the brand. Can you tell us about that?
It’s worth mentioning that the Estate campaign wasn’t created for sale in the beginning. It was meant as a love story to the past and this was demonstrated through a digital exhibition. What might be significant is how we’re taking inspiration from these historically significant stories, fine jewellery and artefacts—some of them more than 100 years old—and creating our 21st century interpretations of them. This is what Choo Yilin v2.0 has evolved towards, and our first example of this is the newly launched Warisan Diadem collection.
You’re only selling your jewellery through digital trunk shows now. This is a much more limited medium. What’s behind this shift?
I don’t think mass retail is the right fit for us at this juncture. The world has changed dramatically since the pandemic, and we believe that focusing on artistic growth and storytelling will best serve us for now. But we’ve been deeply touched by the love that we still receive from our community, so in addition to unveiling new collections and stories we do make digital pop-ups available a few days a year. I don’t think the goal is to do more of the same or to follow a conventional path, but to follow the true artistic and heritage identity of Choo Yilin. This will likely evolve in the future, but this is right for us at this point in time.
The Estate pieces, in particular, are quite unique because they’re each one-of-a-kind. Could you tell us more about how you sourced and reworked them?
Procuring the pieces was an adventure. They’re incredibly hard to come by, and it often takes a lot of luck to find something that we feel will speak to the soul of Choo Yilin and its community. There have been many times when we set out to find a specific piece because we wanted it for a particular story, only to be disappointed. But in a pure moment of serendipity, we would be gifted with something entirely unexpected that would take our breaths away. Much of procuring estate pieces depends on luck, serendipity and the grace of the universe. And because of their age, some pieces had to be carefully restored which required particular skills that only a select few artisans had. We needed an immense amount of patience, and we couldn’t hold the artisans to any timelines.
This interview has been edited for clarity.