Part II: The trading & grading of jadeite
From the time jade is won in the Jade Mines area until it leaves Mogaung in the rough for cutting there is much that is underhand, tortuous and complicated, and much unprofitable antagonism. In my opinion the whole business requires cleansing, straightening and the light of day thrown on it. Major F.L. Roberts
Former Deputy Commissioner, Myitkyina (from Hertz, 1912)
Perhaps no other gemstone has the same aura of mystery as does jadeite. The mines' remote location in Upper Burma is certainly a factor. But most important is that jade connoisseurship is almost strictly a Chinese phenomenon. The people of the Orient have developed jade appreciation to a degree found nowhere else in the world, but this knowledge is largely locked away in arcane, non-Roman alphabet texts, adding further to the inscrutable nature of this precious stone.
Part 2 of this article continues to draw back the curtain on this enigmatic precious stone, revealing the manner in which Burmese jade is traded, graded, cut, treated and faked. Since the technical aspects of Burmese jade have already been extensively covered in the literature (Hobbs, 1982; Fritsch et al., 1992; Chunyun Wang, 1994), emphasis will be on the obscure and anecdotal. For if there is one concept more important than any other, it is that an understanding of jade is not limited to the technical or exacting, but is about feeling, a feeling for a culture, a feeling for the textural, ephemeral qualities that makes the study of jade unlike no other in the world of precious stones.
The color of joss
It is said that success in the jade business involves "joss" (luck). That's akin to calling a lottery ticket an investment in the future. The jade trade is not about luck, it's about strapping your hopes and dreams onto the rim of the roulette wheel and letting the creator give it a long, hard spin. Just how much joss is involved is illustrated by the tale of U Tin Ngwe, one of Hpakan's many laopan (kingpins). Ironically enough, he got his start in the business while working as a taxi driver. One day, a local jade trader fare offered him a spin of the green wheel, in the form of a grab bag of jade boulders. Picking up each piece, he studied them carefully. "Why not?" he thought, "I feel lucky," and handed over 3,000 kyat ($23) for the heaviest boulder in the lot. He felt even luckier after selling the piece to another trader for 650,000 kyat ($5000). And that trader felt even luckier still after selling the exact same piece for over 3,000,000 kyat ($23,000). "Hmm," he thought to himself, "this is interesting." It was so interesting that, today, U Tin Ngwe owns several jade mines and is one of the biggest traders in the valley. When the steel ball finally came to rest, it had stopped at his number (U Tin Ngwe, pers. comm. to RWH, OG, MS & TO, June, 1996).
Types of Jadeite Rough
Traders classify jadeite rough first according to where it was mined. River jade, the jadeite recovered from alluvial deposits in and along the Uru River, occurs as rounded boulders with a thin skin (Figure 19, top left). In contrast, mountain jade (found away from the river) appears as rounded boulders with thick skins (Figure 19, bottom left). The irregular chunks of jadeite quarried directly from in situ deposits, such as those at Tawmaw, represent a third type (Figure 19, right). According to Chhibber (1934b), "it is locally believed that jadeite mined from the rivers and conglomerate is more 'mature' than that of Tawmaw."
Because weathering usually removes damaged or altered areas, the best qualities are usually associated with river jade. In addition, the thin skin – and, therefore, greater likelihood of "show points" – in river jade allows a more accurate estimate of the quality and color within (Figure 10). Mountain jade boulders tend to be clouded by a thick layer (termed "mist" by Chinese traders) between the skin and the inner portion of the boulder (Ho, 1996; Figure 14).
The occurrence of green and lavender jadeite is independent of the deposit type, but reddish orange to brown jadeite is found only in those boulders that are recovered from an iron-rich soil. The reddish orange results from a natural iron-oxide staining of the skin of the porous jadeite, and is sometimes intensified with heat (Chhibber, 1934b).
Jadeite Trading in Burma
Contributing to the aura of mystery that surrounds jadeite is the distinctive system of jadeite commerce in Burma. This includes the markets for rough jadeite, the boulder "taxes," and evaluation of the rough. The Chinese, who dominate the market for fine jadeite both within and outside of Burma, play an important role in this system.
Rough Jade Markets
Most of Burma's open jadeite markets are small, perhaps because the idea of free trade is still somewhat new. Nevertheless, there are markets in Hpakan, Lonkin, and Mogaung.
Burma's largest jade market is in south Mandalay (Figure 12), a city that is said to operate on the three "lines" – white (heroin), red (ruby), and green (jade; Cummings and Wheeler, 1996). Trading is conducted in several places along 86th Street (Kammerling et al., 1995). Here, every morning, hundreds of people can be observed haggling over jadeite. Just south of the markets, cutting workshops are also found. Despite the toughness of jadeite, many cutters in Mandalay still shape cabochons on boards that have been coated with carborundum and hard wax, and then polish the jadeite on bamboo lathes (Figure 13).
Written on each jadeite boulder we saw in the markets was a registration number and the weight of the boulder; this signified that tax had been paid on the piece. A government-appointed committee evaluates the boulders in Hpakan and then levies a tax of 10% of the appraised value. Even though a boulder has been officially appraised, its purchase is inevitably a gamble for the trader.
Types of Jadeite Rough
Traders classify jadeite rough first according to where it was mined. River jade, the jadeite recovered from alluvial deposits in and along the Uru River, occurs as rounded boulders with a thin skin (Figure 14, top left). In contrast, mountain jade (found away from the river) appears as rounded boulders with thick skins (Figure 14, bottom left). The irregular chunks of jadeite quarried directly from in situ deposits, such as those at Tawmaw, represent a third type (Figure 14, right). According to Chhibber (1934b), "it is locally believed that jadeite mined from the rivers and conglomerate is more 'mature' than that of Tawmaw."
Because weathering usually removes damaged or altered areas, the best qualities are usually associated with river jade. In addition, the thin skin – and, therefore, greater likelihood of "show points" – in river jade allows a more accurate estimate of the quality and color within (Figure 10). Mountain jade boulders tend to be clouded by a thick layer (termed "mist" by Chinese traders) between the skin and the inner portion of the boulder (Ho, 1996; Figure 19).
The occurrence of green and lavender jadeite is independent of the deposit type, but reddish orange to brown jadeite is found only in those boulders that are recovered from an iron-rich soil. The reddish orange results from a natural iron-oxide staining of the skin of the porous jadeite, and is sometimes intensified with heat (Chhibber, 1934b).
Evaluating Rough – The Skin Game
One of the greatest challenges in the jadeite trade is the evaluation of a material that is covered by a skin that typically hides all traces of the color and clarity/diaphaneity that lies within. This skin can be white, yellow, light to dark brown, or black.
According to traders and miners with whom we spoke, they look first for any color spots or show points in those areas where the skin is thin enough to see through. Evidence of surface cracks is also important, as fractures often extend into the boulder and open a path for oxidants to discolor the interior (see Figure 19, top left). Such fractures can have a strong negative impact on the value of the material.
If a show point is not available or is inadequate, the owner will sometimes polish an "eye" or maw ("cut" or "window") through the skin (see Figure 1). First, though, the owner will carefully examine the piece to determine the best location because, if good color shows through the window, the boulder's value rises tremendously. Conversely, if poor color is revealed, the value drops. Such windows should be checked for artificial coatings or other tampering, which may give a false impression of the material within (see, e.g., Johnson and Koivula, 1998).
If there are no show points or windows, a common technique is to wet the surface of the boulder in the hope that the underlying color will come through (again, see Figure 10). Where even a little color is suggested, traders also use small metal plates in conjunction with a penlight. They place the edge of the plate on what appears to be a promising area and then shine the penlight from the side farthest from the eye (Figure 20). The plate removes the glare from the light, so any color can show through. If light penetrates the underlying jadeite, this is an indication of good transparency. But, due to jadeite's aggregate structure, the color will have been diffused from throughout the boulder by the scattering of light. Thus, even a small area of rich color can make a piece appear attractive through the window. To see an example of this, take a jadeite cabochon that is white, but has a small green vein or spot. Shine a penlight or fiber-optic light through the cab from behind. Voilà, the entire cabochon appears green.
To reduce the risk of such a speculative business, much jadeite rough is simply sawn in half; this is the approach used at the government-sponsored auctions in Yangon. However, parting a boulder down the middle has the danger of cutting right through the center of a good area. A more careful method of evaluating jadeite boulders involves grinding away the skin (Lee, 1956). Alternatively, some owners gradually slice the boulder from one end (perhaps the thickness of a bangle, so that each slice can be used for bangles or cabochons) until they hit good color. They then repeat the process from the opposite end, the top, and the bottom, until the area of best color is isolated (Figure 21).
Certain experienced jade traders are said to have a "golden hand" when it comes to judging jade boulders; that is, they are able to predict, by studying the outside of the boulder, what the inner color will be. Nevertheless, the jade trade seems to be a competition between sellers, who want to show the best spot of color and not disclose the remaining bad points, and buyers, who want to imagine a fine interior in a stone that shows poorly in the few maws.
Evaluation of Finished Jadeite
The evaluation of finished jadeite has been discussed by Healy and Yu (1983), Ng and Root (1984), and, most recently, by Christie's (1995b), Ho (1996), and Ou Yang (1995, 1999). The basic system is summarized below in a somewhat simplified fashion. Although we use the concepts discussed in the above publications, as much as possible we have chosen language that is comparable to that used for other colored stones.
While a number of fanciful terms have been used to describe jadeite, its evaluation is similar to that of other gemstones in that it is based primarily on the "Three Cs" – color, clarity, and cut (fashioning). Unlike most colored stones, the fourth "C" – carat weight – is less important than the dimensions of the fashioned piece. However, two additional factors are also considered – the "Two Ts" – translucency (diaphaneity) and texture. In the following discussion, Chinese terms for some of the key factors are given in parentheses, with a complete list of Chinese terms for various aspects of jade given in table 1.
This is the most important factor in the quality of fashioned jadeite. As per standard color nomenclature, jadeite's colors are best described by breaking them down into the three color components: hue (position on the color wheel), saturation (intensity), and tone (lightness or darkness). Color distribution must also be taken into account. The necklace in Figure 23 is an excellent example of top-quality hue, saturation, tone, and color distribution.
Hue (zheng): Top-quality jadeite is pure green. While its hue position is usually slightly more yellow than that of fine emerald and it never quite reaches the same intensity of color, the ideal for jadeite is a fine "emerald" green. No brown or gray modifiers should be present in the finished piece.
Saturation (nong): This is by far the most important element of green and lavender jadeite color. The finest colors appear intense from a distance (sometimes described as "penetrating"). Side-by-side comparisons are essential to judge saturation accurately. Generally, the more saturated the hue is, the more valuable the stone will be. A related factor is referred to as cui by the Chinese. Colors with fine cui are variously described as brilliant, sharp, bright, or hot. This is the quality that makes "shocking" pink shocking and "electric" blue electric.
Tone (xian): The ideal tone is medium – not too light or too dark.
Distribution (jun): Ideally, color should be completely even to the unaided eye, without spotting or veins. In lower qualities, fine root- or vein-like structures that contrast with the body color of the stone may be considered attractive. However, dull veins or roots are less desirable. Any form of mottling, dark irregular specks, or blotches that detract from the overall appearance of the stone will reduce the value.
TABLE 1. Chinese jade nomenclature (Based on Ho, 1996)
|Yu||Chinese word for jade|
|Ying yu||"Hard jade" or jadeite|
|Fei-ts'ui (feicui)||"Kingfisher" jadeite|
|Lao keng||"Old mine" jadeite – fine texture|
|Jiu keng||"Relatively old mine" jadeite – medium texture|
|Xin keng||"New mine" jadeite – coarse texture|
|Ying||Jadeite type with the highest luster and transparency|
|Guan yin zhong||Semi-translucent, even, pale green jadeite|
|Hong wu dong||Lesser quality than guan yin zhong, with a pale red mixed with the green|
|Jin si zhong||"Golden thread" jadeite: A vivid green color is spread evenly throughout the stone. This type is quite valuable.|
|Zi er cui||High-grade jadeite mined from rivers. Because of its high translucency, it is also known as bing zhong ("ice").|
|Lao keng bo li zhong||Old-mine "glassy" (finer texture, more translucent) jadeite (see Figure 24). In Imperial green, this type is the most valuable jadeite.|
|Fei yu||Red jadeite, named after a red-feathered bird|
|Hong pi||"Red skin" jadeite, cut from the red skin of a boulder (see Figure 1)|
|Jin fei cui||Golden or yellow jadeite|
|Shuangxi||Jadeite with both red and green|
|Fu lu shou||Jadeite with red, green, and lavender|
|Da si xi||Highly translucent jadeite with red, green, lavender, and yellow|
|Wufu linmen||Jadeite with red, green, lavender, and yellow, as well as white as the bottom layer|
This refers to imperfections that impair the passage of light. The finest jadeite has no inclusions or other clarity defects that are visible to the naked eye.
Typical imperfections are mineral inclusions, which usually are black, dark green, or brown, but may be other colors. White spots also are common, as are other intergrown minerals. The most severe clarity defects in jadeite are fractures (healed or unhealed), which can have an enormous impact on value because jadeite symbolizes durability and perfection (Ou Yang, 1999).
This is another important factor in evaluating quality. The best jadeite is semi-transparent; opaque jadeite or material with cloudy patches typically has the least value.
It is interesting to note that even if the overall color is uneven or low in saturation, jadeite can still be quite valuable if it has good transparency. The "glass" jade bangles in Figure 24 sold for U.S. $116,000 at the November 1999 Christie's Hong Kong auction.
In jadeite, texture is intimately related to transparency. In the authors' experience, typically the finer the texture is, the higher the transparency will be. Further, the evenness of the transparency depends on the consistency of the grain size. Our observations also suggest that coarse-grained jadeite tends to have more irregularities, blotches, or discolorations.
Texture is key to the classification of fashioned jadeite into three categories: fine (lao keng, or "old mine"), medium (jiu keng, or "relatively old mine"), and coarse (xin keng, or "new mine"), as described by Ho (1996). "Old mine" is considered the best, with the finest texture, translucency, and luster (again, see Figures 24 and 25). Note that Chinese jadeite dealers also use the terms "old mine" (keng zhong) and "new mine" (xin shan zi) to describe rough. This is not really an expression of the age or location where the jadeite is mined, but more an indication of texture and translucency, with old-mine jadeite having a higher quality, being of finer grain size, and having greater luster and translucency (Ho, 1996). It probably derives from the belief that jade that is more compact and of finer texture is of greater age.
Table 2: Burmese jadeite nomenclature (based on Chhibber, 1934)
|Kyauk sein (kyauk = stone; sein = green)||Burmese word for jadeite|
|Mya yay or yay kyauk (Chinese = kingfisher = fei-ts'ui)||First grade green; bright, intense emerald green; used for expensive jewelry, such as cabochons, rings, necklaces, earrings, etc.|
|Shwe lu||Second grade green; light green jadeite with bright green spots and streaks; also used for expensive jewelry, such as cabochons, rings, necklaces, ear rings, etc.|
|Lat yay||Third grade; clouded jadeite, used in making bracelets, buttons, hatpins, etc.|
|Kyauk am (English = chloromelanite)||Dark green, appearing black except when thinly cut. This material is rich in iron, and is used for making buttons, bars for brooches, etc.|
|Konpi||Red or brownish, found in boulders embedded in red earth|
|Hua hsueh tai tsao (Chinese; "moss entangled in melting snow")||White with veins of shaded green|
|Kyauk atha||Translucent white, used for bracelets, pipe stems, plates, spoons, etc.|
|Pan tha||Brilliant white, translucent, and opaque to a certain extent|
|Maw-sit-sit (English = maw-sit-sit; a rock mixture of kosmochlor, natrolite and albite)||Medium to dark green, mottled; ornamental gem material; soft and brittle|
More so than for most gem materials, fashioning plays a critical role in jadeite beauty and value. Typically, the finest qualities are cut for use in jewelry – as cabochons, bracelets, or beads. Cutters often specialize: one may do rings, another carvings, and so on.
Polish is particularly important with jadeite. Fine polish results in fine luster, so that light can pass cleanly in and out of a translucent or semi-transparent piece. One method of judging the quality of polish is to examine the reflection of a beam of light on the surface of a piece of jadeite. A stone with fine polish will produce a sharp, undistorted reflection, with no "orange-peel" or dimpling visible.
Following are a few of the more popular cutting styles of jadeite.
The finer qualities are usually cut as cabochons (see Figure 1). One of the premium sizes – the standard used by many dealers' price guides – is 14 x 10 mm (Samuel Kung, pers. comm., 1997). Material used for cabochons is generally of higher quality than that used for carvings (Ou Yang, 1999), although there are exceptions.
With cabochons, the key factors in evaluating cut are the contour of the dome, the symmetry and proportions of the cabochon, and its thickness. Cabochon domes should be smoothly curved, not too high or too flat, and should have no irregular flat spots. Proportions should be well balanced, not too narrow or wide, with a pleasing length-to-width ratio (Ng and Root, 1984). The best-cut cabochons have no flaws or unevenness of color that is visible to the unaided eye.
Since the 1930s, double cabochons, shaped like the Chinese ginko nut, have been considered the ideal for top-grade jadeite, since the convex bottom is said to increase light return to the eye, thus intensifying color (Christie's, 1996). Stones with poor transparency, however, are best cut with flat bases, since any material below the girdle just adds to the bulk without increasing beauty. Hollow cabochons are considered least valuable (Ou Yang, 1999).
Traditionally, when fine jadeite cabochons are mounted in jewelry, they are backed by metal with a small hole in the center. The metal acts as a foilback of sorts, increasing light return from the stone. Also, with the hole one can shine a penlight through the stone to examine the interior, or probe the back with a toothpick to determine the contours of the cabochon base (Ng and Root, 1984). When this hole is not present, one needs to take extra care, as the metal may be hiding some defect or deception.
Strands of uniform jadeite beads are in greater demand than those with graduated beads. The precision with which the beads are matched for color and texture is particularly important, with greater uniformity resulting in greater value (Figure 25). Other factors include the roundness of the beads and the symmetry of the drill holes. Because of the difficulties involved in matching color, longer strands and larger beads will carry significantly higher values. Beads should be closely examined for cracks. Those cracked beads of 15 mm diameter or greater may be recut into cabochons, which usually carry a higher value than a flawed bead (Ng and Root, 1984).
Bangles are one of the most popular forms of jadeite jewelry, symbolizing unity and eternity. Even today, it is widely believed in the Orient that a bangle will protect its wearer from disaster by absorbing negative influences. For example, if the wearer is caught in an accident, the bangle will break so that its owner will remain unharmed. Another common belief is that a spot of fine color in a bangle may spread across the entire stone, depending on the fuqi – good fortune – of the owner (Christie's, 1995a). In the past, bangles (and rings) were often made in pairs, in the belief that good things always come in twos (Christie's, 1997).
Because a single-piece bangle requires a large quantity of jadeite relative to its yield, prices can be quite high, particularly for fine-quality material. The bangle in Figure 26 sold for US$2,576,600 at the Christie's Hong Kong November 1999 auction. Multi-piece bangles are worth less than those fashioned from a single piece, because the former often represent a method of recovering parts of a broken bangle. Mottled material is generally used for carved bangles, as the carving will hide or disguise the imperfections. When a piece is carved from high-quality material, however, it can be a true collector's item (Ng and Root, 1984).
The Chinese symbol of eternity, this is a flat disk with a hole in its center, usually mounted as a pendant or brooch. Ideally, the hole should be one-fifth the diameter of the entire disk and exactly centered. Small pairs are often used in earrings or cufflinks (Figure 27).
Saddle Rings (su an)
Carved from a single piece of jadeite, these look like a simple jadeite band onto which a cabochon has been directly cut (Figure 28). Saddle rings allow the most beautiful area to be positioned on top of the ring, while the lower part is relatively hidden, whereas a standard jadeite band should have uniform color all around. Saddle tops are the top piece of a saddle ring, without the band portion (again, see Figure 27).
Double Hoop Earrings (lian huan)
These require a large amount of rough relative to their yield, since they are cut from two pieces of the same quality, each of which must produce two hoops. A pair of these earrings (Figure 29) sold for US$1.55 million at Christie's April 29, 1997, Hong Kong sale (Christie's, 1997).
For the most part, the jadeite used in carvings is of lower quality than that used for other cutting styles, but nevertheless there are some spectacular carved jadeite pendants and objets d'art. The intricacy of the design and the skill with which it is executed are significant factors in determining the value of the piece. Carving is certainly one area where the whole equals more than the sum of the parts.
Recut Recovery Potential
As with many other types of gems, the value of poorly cut or damaged pieces is generally based on their recut potential. For example, it might be possible to cut a broken bangle into several cabochons. Thus, the value of the broken bangle would be the value of the cabochons into which it was recut (Ng and Root, 1984). If three cabochons worth $500 each could be cut from the bangle, its value would be about $1,500.
Enhancements and Imitations
Jadeite historically has been subjected to various enhancements to "finish" it, "clean" surface and interior stains, and even dye it to change the color altogether. In recent years, a three-part – A through C – classification system has been used in Hong Kong and elsewhere to designate the treatment to which an item has been subjected (Fritsch et al., 1992).
A-Jade is jadeite that has not been treated in any way other than cutting and polishing. Surface waxing is generally considered part of the "traditional" finishing process. Used to improve luster and fill surface fractures and pits, wax dipping is the final step in finishing virtually all cut jadeite (Figure 30).
As noted above, much jadeite is discolored by rust-like oxidation stains. B-Jade is jadeite that has been soaked in chemical bleaches and/or acids for an extended period to remove brown or yellow impurities from between grain boundaries and cracks. Because this treatment process leaves voids in the jadeite, the bleached jadeite is subsequently impregnated with paraffin wax or, most commonly, a clear polymer resin (Figure 31). The result is usually a significant improvement in both transparency and color. However, detection of this enhancement generally requires infrared spectroscopy, a sophisticated technique that usually must be performed in a gemological laboratory. (See Fritsch et al., 1992, for a full description of both the treatment and its identification.)
C-Jade, jadeite that has been artificially stained or dyed, also has a long history. Green, lavender, and even orange-brown (Wu, 1997) colors are produced by staining suitable pale-colored material with vegetable or other organic dyes, a process that has been performed on jadeite since at least the 1950s. The methods used in Hong Kong have been described by Ehrmann (1958), Ng and Root (1984), and Ho (1996).
The authors have seen fading in both dyed green and dyed lavender jades, but the green dyes tend to fade more readily. Generally, dyeing is identified with a microscope and a spectroscope: The color tends to concentrate in veins throughout the stone, in surface cracks, and along grain boundaries; also, a broad band from about 630 to 670 nm in the red region of the visible spectrum is considered proof of dye in green jadeite (see, e.g., Hobbs, 1982). Some of the newer dyes may also show a weaker band at 600 nm. Because some stones are only partially dyed, the entire piece must be checked.
Assembled Stones and Other Imitations
There are many assembled stones that resemble jadeite. These include triplets made by taking a highly translucent piece of pale-colored jadeite and cutting it as a thin, hollow cabochon. A second cabochon is cut to fit snugly into the first, with a green cement or jelly-like substance placed between the two. A third, flat piece of jadeite of lower transparency is then cemented onto the base. Another type of assembled stone is that made with a piece of extremely dark green jadeite hollowed out to eggshell thickness. This allows light to pass through, creating the appearance of fine Imperial jade (Figure 32). To strengthen the piece, the hollow back is filled with an epoxy-like substance; and to hide the deception, the piece is then mounted in jewelry with the back hidden (Kammerling and McClure, 1995; Hughes and Slavens, 1999).
At Mandalay's jadeite market, two of the authors (RWH and FW) noticed many pale jadeite cabochons that had been coated on their upper surface with green plastic (Figure 33) (Hughes, 1987). Another convincing imitation is produced by first placing a dye layer on the piece and then overlaying it with varnish (Koivula et al., 1994).
Bangles in particular that have been broken during wear are sometimes cleverly reassembled with glue (Figure 34). UV fluorescence is a good method of detecting such fraud, since the glues often fluoresce (commonly blue; DelRe, 1992). Gas bubbles also may be seen in the cement portions (Hughes and Slavens, 1999).
The authors have observed several types of assembled rough. One type involves grinding away the skin of a jade boulder, painting or staining the surface green, and then "growing" a new skin via immersion in chemicals, which deposit a new oxidation layer on the outside. Unlike the skin on genuine jadeite boulders, which is extremely tough and can be removed only by grinding, the fake skins are soft and easily taken off. Another type involves sawing or drilling a core out of a jade boulder, inserting a green filling and a reflector, and then covering the hole with a combination of epoxy and grindings from the surface of jade boulders (see Figure 35).
In certain cases, even the cut windows of jadeite boulders may be faked. One method involves simply applying a superficial stain to the window area. Another is to break off a chip, stain it green and glue it back onto the boulder. When a window is then cut on the boulder, it "reveals" a fine green color.
At many of the early auctions, buyers would examine the jade and make offers to the seller using hand signals under a handkerchief (see, e.g., Ng and Root, 1984, for an illustration of these "finger signs"). This system, which has been used historically at the mines as well as in China, allows the seller to realize the highest price for each lot without letting others know the actual amount paid. Thus, the buyer can resell the material at whatever price the market will bear (Allan K. C. Lam, pers. comm., 1997). This technique can still be seen every morning in Hong Kong's Canton Road jade market. However, it is no longer used at the jadeite mines.
Recognizing the importance of the market for jadeite jewelry, Sotheby's Hong Kong initiated specialized jadeite jewelry auctions in November 1985 with just 25 pieces. Christie's Hong Kong followed suit in 1994 with a sale of 100 pieces. Since then, thousands of pieces have been auctioned off by Christie's Hong Kong in what are now biannual auctions of magnificent jadeite jewelry.
To give some idea of the importance of this market, the Mdivani necklace (Lot 898), which contains 27 beads (15.4 to 19.2 mm in diameter), sold for US$3.88 million at the October 1994, Christie's Hong Kong sale. The record price for a single piece of jadeite jewelry was set at the November 1997 Christie's Hong Kong sale: Lot 1843, the "Doubly Fortunate" necklace of 27 approximately 15 mm jadeite beads, sold for US$9.3 million (again, see Figure 25). Indeed, out of the top ten most expensive jewels sold worldwide by Christie's in 1999, five out of ten were jadeite, including three of the top four (1999: Christie's captures its…, n.d.). These auctions clearly show that jadeite is among the most valuable of all gemstones.
Jade (primarily nephrite) has been prized in China for thousands of years. Yet the finest jade – jadeite – has been a part of the Chinese culture only since the late 18th century, when the mines in what is today north-central Burma were opened. As the first Western gemologists to enter the remote jadeite mining area in more than three decades, the authors witnessed tens of thousands of miners working the rivers, Uru conglomerate, and in-situ deposits in search of jadeite. Backhoes, trucks, pneumatic drills, and rudimentary tools are all enlisted in the different mining operations.
Identification of jadeite in a boulder requires both luck and skill (and the presence of windows or "eyes"), although many dealers simply grind off the skin of the boulder or cut it in half. Once the taxes are paid (and the boulders marked accordingly), the rough jadeite is sold primarily to Chinese buyers who carry it to Hong Kong and elsewhere in China for resale and fashioning. Color, clarity, transparency, and texture are the key considerations in evaluating fine jadeite, which is cut into many different forms – such as cabochons, bangles, saddle rings, disks, and double hoop earrings, as well as carved for use as pendants or objets d'art.
The finest Imperial jadeite is a rich "emerald" green color that is highly translucent to semi-transparent, with a good luster. With both rough and fashioned jadeite, purchasers must be cautious about manufactured samples or enhancements. Although "waxing" of jadeite has been an accepted practice for many years, the more recent "B" jade – by which the stone is cleaned with acid and then impregnated with a paraffin wax or polymer – will affect the value of the piece. Jadeite is often dyed, and plastic-coated cabochons were seen even in the Burmese markets. Also of concern, because of durability, are those jadeite pieces that have been cut very thin and then "backed" or filled with an epoxy-like substance.
The prices received at the Hong Kong auctions held specifically for jade indicate that for many people, especially in the Orient, jadeite holds a higher value than almost any other gem material. From humble beginnings as an encrusted boulder to its exquisite emergence as a fashioned piece, jadeite truly is an inscrutable gem.
Conclusion: Spinning the jade wheel
If jade is not polished, it cannot be made worth anything. If man does not suffer trials, he cannot be purified. Chinese proverb (as quoted by Gump, 1962)
In jade, as in roulette and life itself, some win, some lose. Few who lived in Bangkok in the late-1970's can forget the story of one trader who invested a small fortune in a promising jade boulder. Others were also eager to possess it; one went so far as to offer him several times his money. But he refused to sell. Instead, giving the wheel a long, hard spin, he cut the stone open himself. Alas, it was not to be. The polishing wheel revealed no purity whatsoever, just a worthless lump. When the steel ball finally came to rest, it stopped right between his eyes – exiting from the muzzle of the weapon with which he blew out his brains.
Yes, the jade trade is a crapshoot, a spin of the roulette wheel. Some may win, more still will lose. But as long as the green stone continues to be taken from the soil in Upper Burma, there will be a steady line of players, ready to suffer for their art, ever ready to trace the green line, in search of color, in search of purification, in search of feeling – building the bridge to heaven, one pebble, one stone at a time.
Richard Hughes thanks Robert Weldon and Jewelers' Circular-Keystone for making his first trip possible. Thanks also to Robert Frey for a careful reading of the manuscript, Elaine Ferrari-Santhon and Dona Dirlam of the Richard T. Liddicoat Library and Information Center for helpful research on jade, and Dr. Edward Gübelin, whose earlier accounts of the mines provided inspiration. Olivier Galibert thanks the following: C. K. Chan of Chow Tai Fook, Edmond Chin of Christie's Hong Kong, Garry Dutoit of the AGTA Gemological Testing Center, Lisa Hubbard of Sotheby's Hong Kong, Benjamin So and Judith Grieder Jacobs of the Hong Kong Jade and Jewellery Association, Samuel Kung, Dominic Mok, and Eric Nussbaum of Cartier Geneva. George Bosshart thanks his wife, Anne, an outstanding trekking companion. Fred Ward and Richard Hughes thank Georg Peter Müller, television producer and friend with enough foresight, insight, and connections to get his colleagues and himself into the Burmese jade localities. George Harlow and Richard Hughes also thank William Larson of Pala International for his help and advice. Photographer Tino Hammid was very helpful in providing photos of the Christie's Hong Kong auction items, and Harold and Erica Van Pelt supplied Figures 1 and B-3, as well as the cover photo.
A special thanks is also due to Alice Keller, Brendan Laurs, Stuart Overlin, Karen Myers and the other staff of Gems & Gemology, for the fantastic job they did in fact-checking, editing and laying out the original version of this article.
This article is dedicated to our colleague and co-author, Dr. Thet Oo, who suffered a series of strokes after his second trip to the mines. A finer traveling companion does not exist. We wish him a speedy recovery.
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About the Authors
Richard W. Hughes is the author of the classic Ruby & Sapphire and over 170 articles on various aspects of gemology. Many of his writings can be found at www.lotusgemology.com and www.ruby-sapphire.com. His latest book is Ruby & Sapphire: A Collector's Guide (2014).
Left to right:
|George Harlow is curator of Gems and Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.|
|Fred Ward, a gemologist, writer, and photographer, owns Gem Book Publishers, Malibu, CA|
|Tay Thye Sun is president of Elvin Gems and Far Eastern Gemmological Lab of Singapore.|
|George Bosshart is chief gemologist, Research and Development, at the Gübelin Gem Lab, Lucerne, Switzerland.|
About the Photographers
Harold and Erica Van Pelt are well-known for their stunning photographs of both gems and minerals. They are based in Los Angeles.
Tino Hammid is Los Angeles-based gem and jewelry photographer.
Maha Tannous is a well-known staff photographer/gemologist at the Gemological Institute of America, Carlsbad, California.
*In the Burmese vernacular, the country has always been called Myanmar. The ruling Burmese military junta changed the English name of the country from Burma to Myanmar shortly after the anti-government riots of 1988. However, many Burma watchers (both Burmese and foreign alike) feel that the country should be referred to as Burma until such a time that a democratically-elected government decides to change the name (Burma Action Group, 1996) (back to text)
© 2000 Richard W. Hughes
Portions of this article originally appeared in Gems & Gemology, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 2–26.
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