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Burma Jadeite

Although jade is primarily associated with the Chinese, who have treasured it for more than 5,000 years, the gem owes its English name to a group of far less well-known jade aficionados, the Mayans of Central America. When the Spaniards arrived in Central America in the early 16th century, they found many Mayans wearing the stone to ward off or cure kidney problems. This talismanic use led the Spaniards to call the gem piedra de l’ejade, or “stone of the loins.” The French later shortened this to le jade.

The stone the Spaniards named in the new world was not the same as the nephrite jade revered in China at the time. It was its cousin: jadeite from Guatemala, a silicate of sodium and aluminum. Nephrite jade is a silicate of calcium and magnesium.

The Chinese were also about to encounter jadeite, from a new source of unrivalled quality: Burma. The encounter would change the world’s perspective on jade forever.

The Jade-Cutter’s Gamble

For centuries, Chinese poets linked jade’s attributes, such as its steel-like toughness, to those of the gods, while philosophers praised its virtues. So esteemed was China’s native jade, the nephrite variety, that its emperors, accorded divine rights, spoke their prayers through ceremonial jade discs.

But the most prized nephrite, a white diaphanous variety called “mutton fat jade,” was becoming scarce, and China’s master carvers were forced instead to work with the more common waxy spinach green nephrite. The green of this nephrite was no match for the green of the jadeite that arrived in China from neighboring Burma in 1784, after the two countries signed a trade pact. The Chinese called it te t’sui, which means “kingfisher feather,” because its intense vivid green conjured up the color intensity of that bird’s feathers (which are actually blue, not green.) This color, couple with the stone’s luster and translucence, captivated Chinese carvers and artisans immediately. Ever since, jadeite has been the jade of preference in China and the rest of the world. Today, nephrite is valued mainly for its antiquity, while jadeite is valued in and of itself.

A case in point: in 1965, a New York gem dealer bought an antique jadeite archer’s ring for $735. After he had it cut into four cabochons, he sold the resulting stones for $10,000. That result gives you an idea of the tremendous value placed on fine jadeite. As a result, Chinese dealers will gamble ten, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars on rough jadeite boulders weighing from a few kilos to hundreds of pounds that they think will yield superb stones. The boulders are sometimes even sold in a high stakes gamble based on the outward appearance alone. More often the boulder will have a small window polished in its side that gives a tantalizing clue to what the rest of the boulder may, or may not, contain.

Although Burma is the world’s source for fine jadeite, Hong Kong is the world capital for trading and cutting of the gem. Hong Kong dealers have developed a system of priorities for maximizing the potential of a rough boulder. If a piece is free from streaks and fractures, and is deep enough, it is earmarked for cutting into cabochons, the smooth domed oval shape that is set in rings, pendants, and earrings. Next come, in descending order of preference, bangles, beads, carvings, and the flat doughnut-shaped discs popular as pendants in Asia. Jadeite carvings, including Buddhas, animals, and crosses, are also popular talismans worn as pendants.

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Burma Jadeite