From Confucius to Contemporary: the Jade Journey of Yim Tom

This article is brought to you by L’École, The School of Jewelry Arts.

On a rainy early April evening in Hong Kong’s nightlife district, a determined band of collectors and connoisseurs pushes through the cocktail crowds to a basement bar with low lighting and a hidden entrance, Lan Kwai Lau. Piercing the gloom with her smile and energetic presence is Yim Tom, head of the eponymous jewellery atelier Yim Tom Jewels for the Journey, clad in flamingo-like tropical pastels and a riveting amber tiger pendant embellished with garnet druze, a coating of fine crystals.

The audience settles back to listen. Orientations, a high-brow publication on Asian art, has asked Tom to talk about the rather staid topic of “The Art of Dress: Antiques and Contemporary Fashion.” In Tom’s hands, the subject is anything but academic. Whatever her audience may have expected, she gives them vintage Yim Tom – erudite and energetic, flamboyant yet meticulous. Racing through her slides, the talk morphs into a breathless account of her love affair with China’s past and its impact on her design philosophy. Nobody minds.

Layering Hollywood glamour with Chinese metaphysics, Tom is a cultural mosaic in her own right. As a teenager in Miami, she learned about the concept of yin and yang, how seemingly opposite forces can be complementary, and the search for immortality embodied in Chinese jade. “A veil lifted from my eyes,” she says. Thus began a journey that has included establishing Treasure East Antiques in Hong Kong as well as marketing for the high-intensity TV sales network, QVC, where she became the best-known jade expert to its hundreds of thousands of viewers through her show, “Chinese Jade with Yim Tom,” and finally to her own atelier making bespoke jewellery.

Jade, both contemporary and antique, is a major element in Tom’s craft, as well as her design philosophy. She says it represents all the spiritual qualities most important to Chinese civilisation – the glue that held the culture together for thousands of years, along with the ideographic writing system. One of the most difficult of materials due to its hardness, with its gleaming lustre and range of colours, jade came to represent aspirations for permanence and protection across many cultures.

“Jade has a very vibrant spirit within itself that is very potent,” she says. An object made of jade does not shatter and cannot be melted down, and so jade became an icon of immortality, as well as the yin-yang concept, most often represented by a spinning wheel of black and white, that sees permanence and impermanence as aspects of the same thing. As early as 2,800 years ago, Chinese aristocrats were buried in jade body suits made up of hundreds of plates of the precious material, and Confucius himself expropriated the mysticism surrounding the stone to instruct his disciples in the qualities of the junzi (君子), or gentleman, that helped to entrench the reverence for jade that persists to the present day.

Continuing her presentation, Tom shows slides of jade from ancient Chinese burial suits to the Olmec culture of Guatemala, and a 1900 painting of Maori chiefly women in the Auckland Art Gallery. “Why is the obsession with jade still so strong in China but not in South America or New Zealand?” asks a woman in the audience. In the answer lies a story – both the history of a civilisation, and Tom’s own winding path through the Chinese diaspora, leading to a home in Hong Kong and a passion for bringing pieces from the Chinese past and newly cut gemstones together in her craft.

Yim Tom

19th century jadeite buttons with mid 20th century jadeite plaque renewed as brooch or pendant accented tsavorite garnet and orange sapphire. Yim Tom Jewels for the Journey – Photo by Nicolas Petit

Bringing together old and new

At her studio in the industrial neighbourhood of Lai Chi Kok, Tom gathers with members of her team, designer Ivy So and business partner Selma Fong, to explain her atelier’s philosophy. “We take materials that have already served another purpose,” she says, displaying a plastic box full of antique snuff bottle caps, among the many different kinds of antique materials she has collected for use and inspiration – buttons, old hair sticks and dangles, broken jade bracelets. “The last thing we want to do is take old stuff and make it look old.”

As evidence, she pulls out an apple-green jadeite brooch and pendant, embellished with an orange sapphire and tsavorite garnets. The flat plaque that makes up the body of the brooch, carved with dragons, dates from the 19th century. Its function today is unknown, but it may have been used as a centrepiece for crown-like headgear or an appliqué on a Manchu-style qipao, a high-necked women’s garment.

In the 20th century, the typical treatment for such an antique would have been to surround it with a halo of diamonds. What Tom and her atelier have done instead is to give it a “high heel” of gold punctuated with the orange sapphire, giving it architectural structure. The 18-karat gold mounting can hold a bail so that it can be used as a pendant as well as a brooch. “We’ve always looked to gemstones for aspiration and guidance,” she says. “Do the stones find their host or do the hosts find their stones?

“It almost feels like a calling to help find another purpose for these stones. Not only is there a physical presence, but a vibrational intensity. In a previous incarnation, they spent their whole life accompanying a person of great means, who had to have the intelligence to acquire them. The former wearer must have had a great deal of wisdom. The only way I can describe it is as an energetic history.”

Tom’s style signature is delicate and contemporary. Its challenge lies in re-using fragments of antique gemstones together with newly carved gems and new mountings. Adapting traditional Chinese jewellery for use as contemporary fashion is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle from different boxes. All jewellery follows the human form, but before the 20th century, the typology and iconography of Chinese and Western jewellery were sharply different, which has made it difficult to simply apply polish to the old pieces and wear them as contemporary fashion.

Serving as the link between past and present is Hong Kong itself, one of the centres of the world’s jewellery trade and the major hub for jadeite jewellery, the best-known class of contemporary jewellery associated with the Chinese market. In the 1950s, China’s jadeite lapidaries congregated in Hong Kong as part of middle-class flight from the new Chinese government’s anti-capitalist campaigns.

An industry that was bespoke and fragmented in China, with centres in Suzhou, Guangzhou, and Beijing, coagulated in the former British colony and embraced mass manufacturing along Western lines. Today, Hong Kong holds two of the world’s largest jewellery gemstone sourcing and marketing fairs in March and September each year. In March, the Hong Kong Jewellery and Gem Fair featured 2,500 exhibitors from 41 countries and regions, providing gems, pearls, and jewellery to the global jewellery trade in advance of the September event, the world’s largest jewellery fair.

The competitive edge of Hong Kong jewellery manufacturers  is the jadeite trade, with stones sourced largely from Myanmar and the jewellery manufactured across the border in mainland China. Jadeite’s vibrant hues contrast with the more subdued tones the nephrite used in China since ancient times, as showy as the traditional material is contemplative. Tom’s own jewellery uses more nephrite than jadeite, but she is able to leverage from the availability of nearby manufacturing resources, as well as the business knowhow of her partner, Fong, from an old-line Hong Kong jewellery business.

A tradition based on intimate relationships

In order to understand the challenge Tom faces, a history lesson is in order. The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 brought an end to the system of using gems as rank markers within the court and bureaucracy. It also put an end to the palace workshops that produced sumptuous jewelled headdresses, earrings, rings, bracelets, and fingernail guards for court ladies.

In contrast to Mediterranean and South Asian cultures, which used jewellery to celebrate the naked human form, Chinese culture kept the body wrapped in clothing. (Although European civilisation became more buttoned up with the Middle Ages, Renaissance humanism revived ideals of the beauty of the human form together with jewellery such as statement necklaces, that were meant to shine on women’s semi-exposed breasts or hang across the chests of courtiers.) The 2,500 year old Confucian text Li Ji (禮記) or Book of Rites, prescribed what became the earliest form of clothing for both sexes, the shenyi (深依) or “deep garment,” which buried the body in silk or linen folds. Jewellery was worn on top of clothing, sewn or hung from belts, dangling from ear lobes, and pinned to elaborately coiffed hair or dangled from ornamental hair sticks. Necklaces had to hang outside the folds of garments and were rarely used after the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), until rosary beads were imported along with Buddhism.

According to Tom, the essential concept behind Chinese jewellery is that of an intimate relationship between the owner and a precious object, in contrast to the decorative function of Western jewellery. For men and women alike, symbolism was a ubiquitous element, whether embroidered rank badges for the men, elaborately carved belt toggles, or hair and hat accessories. “The design rarely exists for itself,” says Tom. “Symbolism is part of the motif, part of a shared understanding when you looked at an image, without any writing. It was an integral part of the culture, part of how the society was able to survive for so long.”

Tom keeps a heavy folder of readings on Chinese symbols and rebuses used in jewellery. The traditional word for bat, fu (蝠) sounds like the word for blessings, also fu, but written differently (福). A monkey and a peach together form a rebus for nobility and prosperity. The word for fish, yu, (魚) is a homonym for surplus or affluence (於) so that a small boy with a fish represents a desire for high-ranking sons.

Last but not least, the role of jade in Chinese jewellery is unique. The Li Ji records the earliest paean to jade, attributed to the greatest of China’s sages, Confucius (551-479 BC). It is not “because jade is rare” that it is valued, Confucius said. “Anciently superior men found the likeness of all excellent qualities in jade.” The text compared jade to benevolence, intelligence, righteousness, propriety, music, loyalty, good faith, heaven, earth, virtue, and the path of truth and duty. As Confucianism was taken up by the state as an official religion from the Song dynasty forward, it became impossible for officials and educated people to disassociate jade from Confucian ideology or its precepts.

“Two things have brought Chinese civilisation together – the writing system and jade. Jade is like water. It saturates the entire culture,” says Tom. “All the qualities of jade are what we aspire to. He saw it as the metaphor for human integrity. The material has a voice of its own. We’re just the caretakers.” Integrity was associated with the stone because of its hardness. Objects made of bronze or gold could be melted down; objects carved from jade can survive unscathed for 5,000 years, other than from mineral leaching if they were buried underground.

Yim Tom

Contemporary stone pendants on gold wire — Natural clear quartz with Pyrite crystals, blue topaz, chalcedony,Padparadscha sapphire and tourmaline. Yim Tom Jewels for the Journey – Photo by Nicolas Petit

From QVC to Luna Ming to bespoke jewellery

Tom found her calling the hard way. She was less than a year old when she became an immigrant, entering the United States in 1961. Born in Beijing Ms. Tom was the daughter of a Soviet specialist and legal scholar with an air-conditioned office in Zhongnanhai, the inner sanctum of the Chinese Communist Party. Her mother was a kindergarten schoolteacher in the Public Security Bureau’s administrative danwei, or unit. After the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, her father was due to be “sent down” to a provincial university, and Tom’s mother feared that relatives who had migrated to the United States early in the 20th century would become a liability in China’s increasingly insular, anti-capitalist society.

With the help of relatives in Hong Kong, California, New York, and Miami, the family started over in the US, with Tom’s university-educated, Russian-speaking father doing manual labor for the first time in a bean sprout factory. Later, he worked at a Chinese restaurant serving northern-style food, Tiger Tiger Teahouse, which turned out to be a success. Although the young Yim Tom graduated with a degree in Asian studies from the University of Florida, she worked to the age of 29 in the restaurant. “I can pour tea very well,” she laughs.

When her family first introduced her to Chinese antiques, “it was like the floodgates opened,” she recalls. “My parents were too busy to teach me more about Chinese culture than lai see packets at Chinese New Year.” In 1990, Francis Li, an antique dealer with galleries in Chicago and Hong Kong, mentioned that he needed help with his business. Tom jumped at the chance. After moving to Hong Kong, she consulted for the auction house Spink & Son to organise independent exhibitions in Taiwan, where she met her future husband in 1994. “I had a Forrest Gump strategy,” Tom says of her younger self. “Just keep going.” She gradually built up expertise in Chinese antiques, and her buoyant personality put her in demand for international dealers and collectors as well as other visitors to Hong Kong.

Tom came into the jewellery business by accident. Asked to develop an on-air marketing show by the American television shopping giant, QVC, for the Chinese market, she kept at it for 12 years, becoming a jade expert in the process as well as establishing her own line of mass-market jadeite jewellery for her show. In 2000, she started her own line of jewellery, Luna Ming, working with Ivy So, who studied Chinese painting at the fine arts department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

She met her second designer, Ceil Meredith, on a New York subway in 2002. A retired layout editor with Women’s Wear Daily in New York, Meredith had a hobby as a goldsmith and an interest in Asian art through working in the bookstore at Asia Society in New York. In her mid-60s, she moved to Hong Kong, helping to bring the collection to its present form, a bespoke private collection, called Yim Tom Jewels for the Journey, moving away from the mid-market approach of Luna Ming towards an elegant, one-of-a-kind collection under the “Journeys” brand.

Meredith died in January 2015, leaving her source fragments and finished jewellery to her partners. Today, So remains the principal designer, and Tom’s husband, the artist Fung Ming-chip, is contributing to the atelier, and Yim Tom continues on her inspired and passionate journey.

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