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Does the Chinese Tradition of Betrothal Jewellery Still Hold Its Significance?

By Lynette Kee

 
Si Dian Jin

A wedding portrait of a Chinese Peranakan couple shows the bride heavily adorned in traditional wedding jewellery.

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Si Dian Jin

Singaporean gold jeweller Poh Heng’s traditional dragon-phoenix jewellery represents a perfect marital match.

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Si Dian Jin

Poh Heng’s modern bridal collection is elegantly crafted with diamonds for new generation brides.

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Si Dian Jin

Traditional jewellery with the “double happiness” motif in Chinese from jeweller Chow Tai Fook.

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Like a diamond ring in the west, the quintessential accessory for a bride of Chinese descent is a set of dragon and phoenix jewellery in 24 karat gold, the purest form of precious metal with an opulent, buttery-yellow colour.

In the traditional custom originated from Teochew heritage (a subcategory of Han Chinese that is native to the eastern Guangdong province), wedding jewellery should come in a four-piece set, usually consisting of a necklace, a ring, a bracelet or a bangle, and a pair of earrings. During the ceremony, this set of jewellery, known to the Chinese as Si Dian Jin (which translates to “four touches of gold”), is presented to the bride as a betrothal gift by the groom’s family.

According to ancient traditions, Si Dian Jin usually takes the form of auspicious motifs, such as dragons and phoenixes for marital bliss, and pigs for fertility. These symbols are carved onto weighty chunks of 24 karat gold. When worn on the bride against her traditional Chinese Qua, a red phoenix-embroidered dress, this jewellery appears boldly sculptural, almost like an ostentatious display of wealth, which is essentially what Si Dian Jin means.

The moniker Si Dian Jin was derived from the Chinese character Jin (gold), which resembles the curved roof sitting atop the archaic houses in Teochew provinces. For the Chinese, cultural significance and rich symbolism plays an important role in its traditional customs. The act of gifting Si Dian Jin represents the groom’s wealth and ability to provide a roof over the bride’s head, ensuring that she will be well taken care of, while the rich gold hue of its material represents good luck and prosperity.

Of course, solid gold has also been a preferred choice for betrothal jewellery among the older generation for its value. “24 karat gold is considered an international form of currency,” said Kent Wong, managing director of Hong Kong-based jewellery house, Chow Tai Fook.

In the past, gold jewellery was sold by weight. Should the marriage not last, or the need for monetary support arise, these jewellery pieces could easily be melted down in exchange for cash. The jewellery pieces would otherwise be kept away as an heirloom to be passed down to the next generation.

For decades, women in the past consider an engagement to a respectable, wealthy family their single, most potent achievement. The wedding jewellery, in turn, was a prized possession to be privately cherished. But in the modern context, where women are gaining greater economic empowerment, does the concept of betrothal jewellery still hold its significance?

Traditions have evolved over time. Previously, the malleable state of pure gold made intricate designs hard to achieve from hand-engraving, which is why Chinese jewellers limited their designs to ones involving auspicious themes. Singaporean jeweller Choo Yilin said that these traditional designs are “incredibly hard to blend in with our everyday [modern] wardrobe” despite its cultural significance.

With the advancement of technology however, gold can now be easily crafted to the finest detail, given a rose tint or set with precious gems. Choo is the founder of her namesake jewellery label that focusses on modern design heirlooms (the jewellery brand Choo Yilin is currently on hiatus in preparation for internationalisation). She says, “Modern Si Dian Jin are viewed through the lens of fashion and style. People want to be able to wear the pieces post-wedding.”

Thanks to Hollywood’s influence, people around Asia are increasingly adopting Western traditions for their wedding day. White gold, for example, has become one of the more desirable choices for wedding rings. Modern Chinese betrothal jewellery has also taken on a minimalist design approach, so as not to clash with the white wedding gown. These days, traditional rituals are regarded from the lens of aesthetic preferences rather than customs. Choo says that Si Jian Din is now “emotionally significant, without the economic symbolism of what betrothals used to mean.”

“I think the preciousness of Chinese wedding jewellery will still remain,” says Choo. “Betrothal gifting has existed through a millennium and is unlikely to change.” However, adopting the culture for changing times is a notion that must be embraced. The more recent trend for women to be consulted for their wedding trousseau demonstrates the evolution of female empowerment. Despite the contemporary adaptations of traditional jewellery, as a jeweller, Choo says that it is important to keep certain elements in the designs. “Nuances in how the precious materials are crafted and how auspicious motifs are designed [will still be reflected], celebrating heritage and identity,” she says. If anything, the current relationship between the modern-day bride and Si Dian Jin means there will be a greater tendency towards self-expression and wearability in keeping with the wants of the modern woman.