old has value but jade is invaluable, goes the Chinese saying. A revered Asian obsession since time immemorial, the ‘stone of heaven’ is prized for its hardness, resilience and purity, not to mention the belief that it can heal and ward off evil.
In China, jade has long been viewed as a symbol of wealth and great privilege; during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), Chinese nobility were interred in jade suits as part of an opulent ceremonial burial tradition reserved for the privileged classes. In a ritual suggesting that the smooth gemstone had magical abilities to prevent physical decay and provide an auspicious after-life, hundreds of square jade plaques were stitched together with wire to cover the body in its final resting place.
Archaeologists assumed tales of jade burial suits were the stuff of legend until two whole examples of said shrouds were unearthed in 1968 in the tomb of Liu Sheng, son of Emperor Jing, and his wife, Dou Wan. Replete with a total of 2,498 tiles of solid jade weighing two and half pounds and bound by the gold wire reserved for imperial lineage, their magnificence had excavators in awe.
While being bedecked in green at death is no longer the fashion, jade is still widely beloved as a status symbol, a valuable collectible and an investment option. A walk along any commercial street in China, Hong Kong or Vietnam affords the opportunity to admire jade jewellery worn by many in varied forms, from pendant to bracelet to prized cabochon ring.
Jade trumps gold in value today – at about US$3,000 per ounce compared to bullion’s US$1,900. The mineral certainly outshone the metal in 2016 when auctioneers at the Shanghai World Jewellery Expo raised the opening bid for a jadeite to more than US$160 per gram (about $4,500 an ounce). It’s no wonder collecting jadeite (high-quality jade) is often viewed as offering greater investment return than buying real estate.
“There’s been an upward trend in jade’s prices over the last few years; China’s rising wealth has seen prices go through the roof,” says Chiang Shiu-fung, Vice-President and Senior Jewellery Specialist at Christie’s Hong Kong. A necklace that once belonged to American heiress Barbara Hutton comprising 27 vivid green jadeite beads – believed to have hailed from the Qing Dynasty court – and a Cartier clasp of rubies and diamonds sold at Sotheby’s in 2014 for an eye-watering US$27.44 million, roughly twice the estimated price.
When collectors part with millions of dollars for jade jewellery, what drives the market: the quality of the stone or its exquisite setting? “Always the quality, not so much the design,” noted Eddy Hui of iconic jade jewellery brand Edward Chiu Jewellery Art. In an interview with CNN in 2016, Hui remarked that sentiment and a stone’s value are inherently important to his traditional Asian clientele. “While Westerners pick more modern, beautifully carved jade pieces, the quality of the stone – the simplicity, originality and ability to make one feel calm – is the allure for most Chinese customers.”
One of the purest, hardest and most translucent minerals, jadeite presents itself with gleaming lustre and an array of colours – stunning apple green, lavender, white, even black. Its toughness allows for fine carving and polishing to increase its luminosity and create stunning jewellery and decorative objects. The best jadeite comes from Myanmar (Burma), and the most precious is the translucent emerald-green allure of so-called imperial jadeite. Nephrite, jadeite’s low-grade cousin, is a weaker, cloudier mineral.
Since the type and quality of jade differs enormously, having an eye for a fake is critical. Indeed, colour or polymer is often added to low-grade green stones to augment their visual appeal and make them look like the real deal.
Once the choice of the imperial court and then an elder generation of Chinese who covet its colour and protective powers, jade’s tranquil, glossy beauty is slowly spreading westwards. In 2008, former BBC journalist Andrew Shaw took an early retirement from the world of international news to learn jade carving in Suzhou, China.
Coming across a jade hawker stall in Thailand, the Londoner happened to pick up a quiet lavender jade Buddha. “It’s as if the beautiful stone sang to me. I fell in love, didn’t haggle, didn’t bargain, just bought it. The stone’s beauty and serenity were second to none,” says Shaw in his internationally acclaimed book, Jade Life: An Englishman’s Love Affair with China’s National Treasure.
From that moment he was pulled into the vivid intensity and energetic history of the stone. He learned the language and the delicate skills of carving the stone to become the only non-Chinese master jade carver in the world. “One in 20 Chinese wears some form of jade – yet no one in the West knows about this industry,” he notes.
As with all things precious, there is a dark underbelly to the world of jade. The most valuable jadeite mined in the Himalayan foothills of Myanmar remains shrouded in a trail of blood, crony capitalism and lack of labour laws. While blood diamonds attracted international attention and Hollywood scripts, the jade journey remains largely unscrutinised. There is only a basic, broad classification of jade and no certification process, which means the end customer has to rely on instinct or blind faith that the piece they’re paying very dearly for has been ethically sourced.
Christie’s Chiang shares important insight into what a layperson should look for in a stone before flexing their wallet. Texture, light and hue are the three most important factors when picking a piece. You should be able to feel the smoothness and appreciate the gloss of the stone. Colour is a key determiner of price: “Go straight for green, pure green; not bluish or sea green, just green,” he advises.
Translucency is paramount, so as far as possible see if light radiates from the stone and passes through it. Finally, bigger isn’t always best. “Large is good in bricks, not in a gemstone,” he quips. “If you have the option of buying a bigger, commercial-grade jade and a smaller, finer-quality stone – it’s better to go for the quality.”
Methodology aside, Chiang concurs with jade master Shaw. Love at first sight is the best way to connect with jade: “When you know, you just know.”
(Text: Nikita Mishra)