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What is Antique White Jade?

Few materials better epitomise Chinese art than antique white jade. Mined and carved since Neolithic times, white jade stone is the primary hardstone used in Chinese sculpture and while jade comes in a variety of colours (bright green is most common in Europe), the most highly-prized in China is white nephrite jade, known as ‘mutton fat’ and is found in shades from translucent white to a light yellow.

The original prehistoric sources of white nephrite jade were the riverbeds of Hotan and Yarkand in modern-day Xinjiang province, an autonomous region of north-western China where white jade stone was found in boulder form. It is extremely likely that there were other sources of white jade stone but once they became exhausted they appear to have disappeared from the historical record.

How to Assess the Quality of White Jade

White jade as we know it can be separated into two distinct gemstones – white nephrite jade and white jadeite. Until the early 19th century they were considered the same but in fact they have quite distinct properties.

White nephrite jade is more common and has a slightly waxy, somewhat oily appearance whereas jadeite is rarer, more dense and harder with a more vivid, translucent quality.

The colour and luster of jade is a determining factor when assessing the quality of white jade. If you examine it under a direct source of light, you can judge the stone’s authenticity and quality as it will glisten akin to light being reflected in a pool of water. As you peer through your piece of antique white jade, it will appear to have a gloss-like finish but on a closer inspection, it will likely contain subtle variations in tone and hue and possibly slight impurities in the form of vein-like fibres.

How a piece of white jade stone feels in your hand is also a determining factor to its authenticity. Both white nephrite jade and white jadeite are dense materials composed of tightly-packed, interlocking crystals which mean that white jade stone has a smooth texture.
In addition, real jade is naturally cool to the touch and there’s a simple test you can do to discover whether your piece of jade feels real. Try to warm the stone up in your cupped hands and then set it aside for a few seconds. Real jade takes a while to warm up and very quickly returns to its original, cool temperature.

There are many other ways to assess the quality of white jade but first and foremost we advise you to take expert advice from our antique white jade experts at Marchant.

The History of White Jade Stone

Chinese white jade, known by the Chinese character ‘yu’, has been used throughout all periods of Chinese history but as with all forms of art, porcelain, sculpture and literature, styles usually accord with fashions and trends of each dynasty. White jade stone was regarded as ancient China’s most precious, intrinsically valuable stone, the equivalent to how the West values diamonds and gold. It was highly prized for its beauty and durability, it symbolised purity and moral integrity, even indestructibility.

Ancient Chinese mythological tales tell us that jade is believed to have magical or immortal powers and is the link between the realms of physicality and spirituality, possessing the qualities of yin and yang, day and night, perhaps this is why many Chinese white jade carvings were buried with the dead.

The antique white jade mined in China for thousands of years is white nephrite jade – white jadeite wasn’t known in China until the 18th century when it was introduced from Burma – now Myanmar. When it was first introduced, green was the preferred colour but during the 5th and 4th centuries BC, white jade with a slight brown tinge became fashionable and from the 1st century BC, pure white jade stone became available from other regions of central Asia following economic expansion during the Han dynasty.

The earliest Chinese white jade carvings were mainly primitive tools and ritual objects including ceremonial gui and zhang axe blades, arrowheads and chisels however while they are fascinating from an archaeological standpoint, their ritual functions are largely unknown and little or no documentation exists.

Two of the most famous types of antique white jade objects produced during the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1766 – 221 BC) are the ritual cups known as zong which have a round tube encased in a square and were often adorned with small circles or notches. The zong were believed to be shaped as such because the Chinese thought the sky was round and the earth was square. There was also the bi, a white nephrite jade disc with a hole cut out and often with notches around the outer edge. Possibly with an astrological meaning, the bi were often found on the chest or waist of the dead.

Also common around this time were Chinese white jade bracelets as well as representations of humans, monsters, halberd blades and tools such as sickles, knives, combs and scoops, all of which had small holes, presumably to be worn as Chinese white jade necklaces or from waist belts both for the living and the deceased.

Later, as the scholar class emerged, antique white jade became the favoured material for personal objects such as calligraphy brush holders and inkwells and even the detailed mouthpieces for opium pipes because of the belief that these intricate Chinese white jade carvings would bestow longevity on the smoker.

Like gold and silver in the West, antique white jade was the material of choice for objects such as ceremonial weaponry – antique jade daggers and swords and the associated fittings; personal items of jewellery such as Chinese white jade necklaces, Chinese white jade earrings, Chinese white jade bracelets and Chinese white jade hairpins, clasps, buckles and belt decorations.

Chinese White Jade Burial Suits

Such was the belief that antique white jade was the link between the living and the dead, white jade stone burial suits were made – often taking ten years or more by the most famous and highly-skilled artisan craftsmen of the age – and were used as armour to prevent mortal decay.

These burial suits were documented around the 3rd century AD – even though there is archaeological proof from 500 years before – but their existence wasn’t confirmed until the undisturbed tombs of Han dynasty Prince Liu Sheng and Princess Dou Wan were unearthed in the Hebei province as recently as 1968. The find is widely regarded as one of the most important of the 20th century.

The antique white jade burial suits were each made with over 2,000 pieces of jade bound together with gold thread for the prince and silver thread for the princess. They were incredibly expensive to make and because there were instances of looters burning the suits to steal the gold and silver thread, Emperor Wen of Wei in 223 AD ceased production to stop the thievery.

The reason these white jade stone suits were made was because the ancient Chinese believed that jade’s protective and preservative qualities prevented the decay of soft tissue and ward off bad spirits however as the tombs were excavated, only crumbled skeletons remained.

Ancient Methods for Carving and Sculpting White Jade

From the Neolithic cultures of the Majiabang, Liangzhu and Hongshan, virtually all white jade stone carvings have been from white nephrite jade since white jadeite only really became popular from the 18th century. Jadeite is similar in density to quartz and nephrite is a little softer but since both are exceptionally hard, they can’t be cut, shaped or carved with traditional metal tools.

The traditional method of carving antique white jade was to wear it away using carborundum sand (silicon carbide) and a soft tool which has subsequently been replaced with rotary tools with diamond-tipped drill bits.

As the centuries and dynasties progressed, the techniques of carving of white jade stone became more and more advanced and evolved from basic tools, weapons and belt loops into rather beautiful figurines and jewellery and most pieces not only had inherent beauty but also a deep meaning. Many of the most common white nephrite jade pieces, for example bats and gourds, are symbols of good fortune but collectors of antique white jade also recognise peaches as symbols of longevity, magpies representing happiness, lotus plants representing harmony and lotus seeds as symbols of fertility.

The high-ranking officials in each of the dynastic periods wore Chinese white jade carvings of roosters and cockscomb flowers to assert their power while artists of the age carved white jade stone into exceptionally realistic representations of flowers, trees, mountains, animals and even legendary figures from Chinese literature. To showcase their skills the makers of Chinese white jade carvings would also borrow motifs from Chinese paintings and bronze sacrificial vessels to create some of the most stunning antique white jade pieces ever made.

Antique White Jade

As the Tang dynasty gave way to the Song, Yuan, Ming and finally the Qing, white jade stone remained almost exclusively the domain of the Imperial families, reaching its peak as an art form during the Ming dynasty. Until the Qing dynasty, (1644 – 1911), most antique white jade was made from white nephrite jade but from around 1800, merchants began to import a vivid green variety of jadeite known as feicui, or Kingfisher Feathers Jade. While the green was favoured by the Manchu court, scholars and aristocrats of the old school preferred the milky white nephrite jade.