Jade: The Living Stone
edited: Thursday, November 04, 2010
By Cherie Fehrman
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, November 04, 2010
Become a Fan
A look into the secret world of jade collecting.
It is seductive, mysterious, addictive––it's jade. People have died for it. Legends surround it. A Chinese emperor once offered fifteen cities for a jade carving so small that it fit in the palm of his hand. Jade was thought to be a male stone, so naked virgins were sent to gather it from stream beds in the belief that the stone would be attracted to them. Jade has survived floods, fires, burial, and economic upheavals. Not least of all, during the past decade, some jade carvings have appreciated at a rate of nearly three thousand percent. Another plus for collectors is that manly of these treasures are small enough to be easily portable or worn as jewelry.
Jade carvings are hoarded by some shrewd investors and continue to be avidly sought. Jades worth investing in are gem quality Burmese jadeite or the archaic jades from the Han through Sung Dynasties (206 BC. to 1297 AD.) or the more recently produced Ming (1368-1644) and Ching (1644-1912) Dynasty pieces. White it's true that some jade carvings can set you back thousands of dollars, fine, authentic pieces can still be bought for a few hundred dollars or less.
Any potential collector must first acquire at least a working knowledge of the mysteries and myths surrounding jade. It was thought to protect the dead from decomposition, so many jades were buried with the deceased. When excavated, these are sometimes called "tomb jades." Chinese authors have called jade "tears of the Imperial Dragon," "a window to reality," "the stone of heaven," "the stone of immortality," and "the living stone." Such references allude to nephrite, one of the two stones which are grouped under the general term jade. The other is jadeite.
When most people think of jade, the color green comes to mind, although jade comes in every color of the spectrum. Pure jade (both nephrite and jadeite) is white. Color comes from impurities of other minerals in the stone. Iron gives the largest variety of colors from pale green to browns, yellows, grays, near black and, on very rare occasions, blue. Manganese is responsible for shades of gray and black and, very rarely, pink. Chromium makes possible the vivid emerald green of the valued Imperial green jadeite color.
While manly cultures, including native Americans and ancient tribes from the South Seas to New Zealand have collected and prized jade, it is the oriental jades which excite most collectors. West Coast fanatics are especially fortunate because so many fine jades are available in the area.
So, jade is really a broad category which includes two separate stones. Nephrite is a silicate of magnesium. It is the old, original jade of which all archaic pieces are made. A relative newcomer is jadeite, which comes from Burma and was not known in China until 1784. It was pure white nephrite which the Emperor of China used as an instrument for communicating with heaven. It was nephrite which was used for ceremonial implements and on which the history of Chinese art and symbolism is hinged. Nephrite is the toughest stone on earth: it takes fifty tones of weight to crush one cubic inch of nephrite. Because of its toughness it wears extremely well, and even ancient pieces often appear in flawless condition. Jadeite, however, has a crystalline structure and breaks relatively easily.
Nephrite jade was highly prized by the scholaars and moneyed classes of ancient China. When the nephrite deposits eventually began to run low, jadeite was introduced from Burma. At first the jade carvers scorned it, saying it was not true jade. Since it was considered inferior, it was used only as ornaments on clothing or on relatively insignificant personal items. These are a source of interest to today's collectors and can be found as earrings, bracelets, comb backs, mirror handles, buttons, belt buckles and brooches. Gradually, necessity and a scarcity of nephrite caused jadeite to gain acceptance.
Webster's Dictionary defines jadeite as "true jade" but, in fact, the original true jade was nephrite. Chinese legends represent nephrite as a living stone "highly charged with creative force," and there are more than a few jade connoisseurs who would agree that wearing nephrite rings, bracelets, or pendants on a regular basis forms an intimate rapport between the stone and the wearer. Nephrite reacts with the skin and body chemistry, often changing color and growing more lustrous with use.
The Colors of Jade
Certain colors of jadeite, the newer jade, are highly valued as gem material. The emerald colored "Imperial green," along with lavender, rare blue, yellow and red are the most sought after colors of jadeite. It is an interesting quirk of the jade market to note that the most highly prized nephrite is pure white, while white is the least valued form of jadeite.
Color is as important as the quality of carving when grading jade. There are said to be over one hundred distinct classifications of green, with such fanciful names as "moss entangled in snow" or "spring onion green." The Chinese respect for nature was the basis for most of the jade color categories. "Sky after the rain" and "sky reflected in clear water" refer to two of the rarer shades. From the animal kingdom come antelope, chicken bone, egg, kingfisher, mutton fat (a highly desirable lardy white color of nephrite), nightingale and shrimp. From the vegetable kingdom: apple, bamboo, betel nut, chestnut, date, melon, moss, olive, young onion, peach, pine flower, rice, rose, sunflower and spinach. Other equally descriptive but less charming names include "purple of the veins" and "mucous of the nose gray."
Today's jade collectors usually fall into one of two categories: those who seek out the old nephrite pieces, and those who prefer the more showy jadeite carvings and jewelry. The soft, waxy luster and subdued colors of nephrite attract collectors whose tastes run to the antique and archaic pieces while the bright, glossy finish and sharp, clear colors of jadeite are preferred by those who like a brighter, more contemporary approach. Many of the old jade pieces are very plain with little or no surface decoration. Animal carvings or symbols are often highly stylized. The more recently produced carvings or symbols are often elaborately decorated with floral or animal forms.
Determining the authenticity of jade can be extremely tricky. There are well over a dozen substitutes that can fool both the eye and the touch of the unwary, including serpentine, bowenite, soapstone, chrysoprase and even glass. While the only way to be absolutely sure if a piece is jade is to have it tested by a qualified gemologist, there are several things the consumer can do to protect a potential investment.
The most obvious form of insurance is to buy from reputable dealers who will stand by their merchandise. But what about the collector who loves the hunt (and what true collector doesn't?), the collector who haunts the flea markets and garage sales in the hope of finding a treasure among the plastic fruit and broken china? This collector has to have some ammunition for protection, and the following suggestions may help.
Tips for the Novice Collector
1. Jade is a relatively hard substance. Nephrite is 6.5 on the Mohs scale and jadeite is a 7. (The Mohs scale is used by gemologists who measure the hardness of a stone with the following designations: 1 talc, 2 gypsum, 3 calcite, 4 fluorite, 5 apatite, 6 feldspar, 7 quartz, 8 topaz, 9 corundum (sapphire & ruby), 9 diamond.) Because of its hardness, most jade cannot be scratched with a steel blade. With the consent of the seller, try pulling a steel knife blade across an inconspicuous spot on the jade. If a white mark appears it is not jade because the knife has scratched into it leaving a white, powdery substance. If a silvery or gray mark appears, it indicates that the stone is hard enough to have worn off some of the steel and it might be jade, but not necessarily. This is not a foolproof test, but it will help you to eliminate the softer jade impostors.
2. The surface appearance of jadeite and nephrite are quire different, which is helpful when trying to tell them apart. Nephrite is more fibrous and much tougher than jadeite. It takes a waxy, greasy looking polish where jadeite can be polished to a high gloss resembling glass. Being able to differentiate between the two types can be an aid in dating a piece. For example, if a piece of jade is being offered as archaic or "tomb jade" but it is made of jadeite, you will know it is being represented incorrectly since all of the archaic jade pieces were made of nephrite.
3. Another way to distinguish between jade and its substitutes is to look at it under a magnifying glass or jeweler's loupe. You can usually see air bubbles in glass, and the holes at the end of glass beads will be sharp and often chipped, where jade will be polished. When you look through a loop at old jades the surface looks rather like orange peel, rather than smooth from today's diamond or laser cutting and polishing methods.
4. Jade feels cold to the touch, but so do some of its imitators. The novice collector must learn by study and experience to distinguish jade by eye and by touch. Some of the best professional jade buyers rely on the touch method and recommend carrying a small piece each of nephrite and jadeite as guide stones whenever you go to buy jade.
5. A sad but true fact is that jade jewelry is often dyed. This is particularly true of jadeite. Because jadeite has a microcrystalline structure it is a relatively simple matter to dye inexpensive white jadeite with exotic lavender and bright green dyes to imitate the rare and expensive jade colors. There simply isn't enough natural lavender jadeite to account for all the lavender jewelry and carvings in today's market. If you develop an eye, it is usually easy to spot dyed jade because of its harsh, synthetic tone. During the last 1950s alone over 25,000 pieces of dyed jade were known to be imported into the U.S. and these pieces are still out there waiting to fool the unwary.
6. Fortunately, ancient jades are seldom faked because the process of creating the exquisite workmanship is too time consuming and therefore not profitable enough.
7. In today's jade market both jadeite and nephrite are considered jade, but the novice collector has to be cautious about jade terminology because the less than savvy can be easily fooled if depending on names alone. Chinese dealers often refer to nephrite as "old jade" and to jadeite as "new jade" or "Hong Kong jade." If a stone is offered as "Taiwan jade" it is serpentine. "Colored jade" is dyed jade. "Pink jade" is colored quartz. "Mexican jade" is usually dyed onyx and "India jade" is aventurine.
8. Always look at jade in natural light. Artificial light alters colors sufficiently so that you can't really see what you're buying. Always ask the seller if you can take the piece into the natural daylight before making your decision. If they understandably balk at letting you walk out on the street with an expensive piece, ask if you can buy the piece with a 24 hour return policy. This will give you time to see it in natural daylight.
9. Finally, size is no guarantee of financial appreciation. A carving four feet high of inferior quality or workmanship is worth less than a palm sized piece of excellent quality.
Before you buy:
Always ask yourself three questions before you buy jade: (1) Is the piece of good quality? (2) Is the workmanship good? (3) Do I really love it? (Don't ignore the last point. Fine collections are built on a combination of knowledge and love.)
To be a true connoisseur of jade you must begin a love affair with it. Fondle it. Get to know all of its moods and nuances. You may choose to overlook some of its flaws, but you will know instantly when a piece is right for you. When that moment comes, buy it, treasure it, and enjoy. An ancient legend says that jade, the living stone, must be loved and appreciated in order to show its true beauty.
Copyrighted 2006, Cherie Fehrman. All rights reserved.