On January 23 2023, many Asian communities will celebrate the most important day of the year—the Lunar New Year. Here is everything you need to know about the significance of the colour red in the festive season when it comes to jewellery

Every year, Asian communities around the world celebrate the Lunar New Year, accompanied by unique ceremonies and beliefs. But one thing remains constant across borders, clans, generations and traditions—the colour red.

The vibrant colour holds a significant place in Chinese culture particularly, as it represents good luck, vitality and prosperity. “Legend has it that a beast known as a nian would emerge on Chinese New Year’s Eve to devour villagers, livestock and crops,” says Stewart Young, director of jewellery and head of jewellery Asia at Bonhams. “[Certain] villagers heard that the nian were scared of children dressed in red; since then, we [Chinese communities] have hung red lanterns and scrolls with couplets to keep the mythical monster away for another year. The nian dance, or lion dance, is performed every Chinese New Year’s Eve to ward off evil.”

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Above Ronald Abram 10.45 carat oval-shape Burmese ruby ring

Asian countries that observe Lunar New Year include Singapore, Mongolia, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia. While each country has its own traditions for welcoming spring, the Vietnamese ceremonies are also painted with shades of red and yellow. The Sino-Vietnamese communities believe that wearing the colours brings good fortune and happiness. This is also the reason brides in Vietnam and India wear red to wedding ceremonies.

But it’s not just red lanterns, lai see envelopes and new outfits that appear in this celebratory colour: there is also a trend of buying red gems. “Wearing red, whether in the form of clothing or jewellery, is like wearing xi qi [good luck],” says Wenhao Yu, chairman of the jewellery and watches department at Sotheby’s Asia.

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Above A women’s traditional Chinese tunic suit with unique embroidery from China’s Guizhou province, auctioned by Sotheby’s

Chinese jewellery collectors in mainland China celebrate the festival a little differently compared to collectors in Hong Kong. “We find that the younger generations of Hong Kong customers view the festival less traditionally than their parents,” says Jonathan Abram, director at Ronald Abram. “They buy jewellery when it suits them and are not tied to a specific holiday or season. In contrast, our mainland Chinese customers still celebrate Chinese New Year with auspicious jewellery gifts, including the younger generation.”

In recent years, gemstones such as red corundums, aka rubies, and rubellites, have become more common at Chinese New Year auctions and collection debuts. A 50.24-carat pigeon blood ruby and diamond necklace was sold by Bonhams on November 26, 2022, for HK$9.8 million at the Hong Kong Jewels and Jadeite sale. But while rubies may be the most recognisable red stones today, and are revered as a sign of protection, love, wealth, and power, they were rarely used in traditional Chinese jewellery, as they were not easily available in the region. “In ancient times, when trade within the continent was limited, rubies were not well known among the Chinese,” says Young. “Red agate and chalcedony, found locally, were more acceptable [and common], while the rarer red corals found in the coastal regions were reserved only for kings and nobles.”

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Above Austy Lee solar eternity necklace made of reddish-orange jade (Photo: Austy Lee)

Austy Lee, owner and founder of the eponymous Hong Kong jewellery brand, honours the custom of using traditional materials for the new year through his creations. “I designed a new collection of reddish-orange coral for Chinese New Year. The Chinese believe that coral brings good luck and is a symbol of fertility because it comes from the sea, so these pieces are good for the festival and great for gifting purposes as well.”

While coral may have cultural significance, spinels and rubellites are proving to be contemporary alternatives that appeal to collectors. In June 2021, Bonhams sold
a rare spinel and diamond ring by Louis Vuitton for HK$3,377,500 at the Hong Kong Jewels and Jadeite Sale. “Historically, [spinels] were mistaken for rubies because some of them were set in royal crowns such as the British Imperial State Crown [where the Black Prince’s Ruby is found] and the Great Imperial Russian Crown [where Catherine the Great’s Ruby is found],” Young says. “Red spinels are known to be both larger and clearer than rubies, and somehow the fire in them is stronger than in a ruby, which makes them even more attractive to me.”

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Above Louis Vuitton spinel and diamond ring offered at auction by Bonhams (2021)

Abram confirms that the ruby-like stones are now in high demand and are a relatively affordable option. “These stones have a solid resale value and, if purchased with a knowledgeable advisor, can become an excellent investment option that stays within the family for many generations.” Lee adds, “People also buy rubellites instead of rubies. But even those are hard to find these days, especially if they [collectors] are looking for stones that are more than 20 carats.”

Yu, however, believes there is an even more alluring red gemstone: the mysterious alexandrite. “The basic colours of alexandrite are green and red: an emerald during the day and a ruby at night. In bright daylight, it appears to be a green hue [and changes] to a reddish purple [after sunset] in incandescent light.” he said.

But no matter how many lesser-known stones become popular, the lure of the ruby remains irresistible as the supply of rare, unheated pigeon blood Burmese and Mozambique rubies dwindles. “I have noticed that when Chinese collectors buy red gems, they are usually looking for unheated rubies of 20 to 40 carats or more, which are not available in local jewellery stores,” Lee says. “They are slowly becoming available only at auction houses. Now there are almost no mines producing these kinds of stones.”

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Above Ronald Abram ruby and diamond earrings

For the past two years, Sotheby’s Hong Kong has planned auctions around Chinese New Year, and this year will be no different. In 2021, the auction house sold a red flower brooch which was considered auspicious for not just its colour, but also its intricate floral design. Other important lots included a ruby and diamond brooch by Cindy Chao and the ruby and diamond ring Fountain on Fire by Feng J. “In our Luxury Edit auction in January, we continue to offer exceptional rubies to meet the market demand for red gemstones, especially for collectors who want to start the New Year with something festively red,” Yu says. “People tend to be in a festive mood and want to collect something to commemorate all happy occasions. We therefore carefully curate a selection of jewellery to match the festive mood.”

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