Jade: The Living Stone
Copyrighted Cherie Fehrman, 2022
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 scholars 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.