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Imperial Jade – An Introduction

Gold has a price; jade is priceless (Chinese proverb)

In China, the rich, emerald green gemstone known as imperial jade is a symbol of status, of purity, of deep spirituality and of good health. It is no coincidence that in Chinese writing, the character for ‘jade’ is virtually identical to the character for ‘emperor.’

Chinese jade jewellery is as highly prized as the finest diamond, ruby and sapphire jewellery is in the West. Unlike nephrite, or ‘mutton fat’ jade which has been in China for thousands of years, the stunning imperial green jade known as jadeite was introduced from Burma (now Myanmar) as recently as the 18th century.

The Origins and History of Chinese Jade Jewellery in China

The significance of imperial jade to Chinese history and culture should not be underestimated. Chinese jade jewellery has been made since the first deposits were found in Neolithic times and archaeological digs have uncovered ornaments as well as tools and weapons such as axe-heads and daggers.

By around 3,000 BC, this most precious of hardstones became revered with an almost otherworldly significance and was known by the Chinese character ‘yu’ or ‘royal gem’. It was used for intricate carvings, decorations in the homes of the wealthy and entitled, royal and religious ceremonies and was made into the most beautifully detailed pieces of Chinese jade jewellery for the imperial families.

In his seminal work Shuowen Jiezi, Han dynasty scholar Xu Shen detailed the five virtues of imperial jade in the 2nd century –

Benevolence – for its lustre and brilliance

Honesty – for its translucent texture

Wisdom – for its tranquil and far-reaching tone

Integrity and Bravery – for it may be broken but cannot be twisted

Nephrite jade had been used in China for millennia – archaeological data suggests that the Chinese were using it almost 8,000 years ago in the smoke-fogged caves that sheltered prehistoric man – but it wasn’t until the late 1700s that jadeite, or imperial green jade reached China from Burma (now Myanmar). Through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, China’s finest artisan craftsmen created magnificent imperial jade jewellery and other masterpieces from imperial green jade that remain unsurpassed to this day for their design, intricacy, quality and technical execution.

Chinese culture associates imperial jade with a purity of spirit and clarity of thought and many of the ancient symbolic motifs are still used today. For example bats are associated with happiness, butterflies signify a long life, dragons suggest power, prosperity and goodness and peaches are a sign of immortality.

According to myth, the first boulder of jadeite arrived in China from Myanmar’s (then Burma’s) northernmost state, the Kachin State. It was supposedly carried by a merchant on the back of a mule with the sole purpose of balancing his load. He had no idea he was carrying imperial jadeite or the importance of that journey to Chinese culture.

The often mysterious world of imperial jade is complex. The most experienced buyers can recall with absolute clarity the rough stones and pieces of Chinese jade jewellery they saw years before. They then apply that knowledge to similar stones and finished pieces and they can make accurate and informed predictions of value.

Another fascinating aspect of the innermost world of trading imperial jade is the buying and selling process. Across China, imperial green jade is often still bought and sold using the ancient ritual of secrecy. To keep the bidding prices secret, the buyer holds the piece of jade he wants in one hand and holds hands with the seller under a cloth with his other hand. The buyer only says two words – the word for ‘hundred’ or the word for ‘thousand’ and signals under the cloth with his fingers a number between one and ten. If he extends four fingers under the cloth and says the word for ‘thousand’, he’s making a bid for 4,000. The seller then chooses to accept or reject the offer for the piece of imperial jadeite and the process either stops or continues.

How to Assess the Quality of Imperial Jade

Imperial jadeite, in fact all jade, is not a single polished or cut crystal like a diamond or a ruby. It is formed from interlocking microcrystals and no two pieces have the same crystalline structure. In addition, the mined stones can contain impurities or grains. This means that no two pieces of imperial jade jewellery are exactly the same, another reason why it is so highly valued in China.

The best quality imperial jade has a vibrant green colour, is translucent and feels smooth to the touch. These are three of the main elements to be aware of when assessing the quality of a piece of Chinese jade jewellery.

Colour – this is the most important quality and indicator of value. The most coveted – and therefore the most valuable – is a very specific shade of green known as imperial jade. There are other shades of green jade including kingfisher jade, apple jade and moss-in-snow jade. Look for a strong, vivid, almost lively colour and ensure that when you are looking at a piece of imperial jadeite, it’s viewed under natural and artificial light.

Translucency – The highest quality Chinese jade jewellery is made from semi-transparent jade which has a slightly blurred look. When light hits the stone, it penetrates deep into it giving it a rather ethereal, glowing appearance.

Texture – Imperial jadeite is smooth to touch because of the density of the interlocked crystals. It can be found in three main crystal sizes – course, medium and fine. The most sought after size is fine-grained jade. They have an incredibly smooth feel and a very high lustre. 

Where Does Imperial Green Jade Come From?

What is known as imperial jadeite comes predominantly from Myanmar (formerly Burma). In fact over 70% of the world’s highest quality jadeite which is made into the finest imperial jade jewellery is from Myanmar and some estimates suggest that around 50% of Myanmar’s GDP derives from the jade trade. Most is from the ‘Jade Tract’ in the Kachin State, taking in the alluvial region of the Uyu River and today, most of the mined jade is from four sites – Hpakant-gyi, Maw Se Za, Tin Tin and Khansee.

There are other jadeite deposits in the USA, New Zealand, Guatemala, Japan, Kazakhstan and Italy but the vast majority of the imperial green jade in China is from Myanmar’s mines.

Imperial Jade Jewellery – Techniques

Until very recently, the craftsmen who create the most beautiful pieces of Chinese jade jewellery used the traditional method of carving jade – drawing a bowstring backwards and forwards to propel a drill using water and abrasives.

Due to its crystalline structure, jade is very hard to carve. Some of the more modern carvers use electric tools but there are still some artisans who use the same method their forefathers were using a thousand years ago – a pedal-operated treadle grinder. The old ways give more control and there’s far less waste.

These master craftsmen treat their piece of raw imperial jade with the utmost respect. It’s very expensive and they have to be very careful. They can sometimes spend weeks just looking at the rock and much of the consideration tends to be around doing as little as possible yet still making an enticing and beautiful piece of imperial jade jewellery.

Imperial Jade

Imperial green jade is used to make Chinese jade jewellery, ornaments, figurines, chopsticks, writing desk paraphernalia and even small pieces of furniture. As well as it being a precious stone in its own right, it’s also used as a decorative inlay in other works of art such as gilded bronze or gold jewellery. For the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, every medal – gold, silver and bronze – was embedded with a piece of jade.

In recent times, imperial green jade has faced increased competition for the attention of collectors and aesthetes from paintings, ceramics such as the stunning Ming dynasty antique blue and white vases and other Chinese antiques but it remains immensely popular thanks to its mystical allure.

Perhaps the most famous and certainly the world’s largest ever jade piece, ‘Yu the Great Taming the Waters’ took seven years to complete by a team of the most accomplished jade carvers of the Qing dynasty and is one of the most famous works of art in China. An illustration of how imperial jade has had a hold on the Chinese imagination for many thousands of years and it remains powerfully strong, even today.