Under the term “jade” there are two semi-precious stones, commonly known as nephrite and jadeite.
For most of Chinese history, from prehistoric times to the present, nephrite has been obtained through intermediate traders from the Khotan and Yarkand areas of Xinjiang province in north-western China, formerly known as Chinese Turkistan or Eastern Turkistan.
While the Chinese controlled this area in many periods, or at least exercised influence over it for long stages in history, Turkistan was not incorporated into the Chinese domain until recently.
The Kunlun mountain range and the river beds nearby were the main source of rough, uncut nephrite in ancient times, and rough is still brought from this area to the main carving centres in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou (Canton) and other cities where stone carving factories have been established.
However, Neolithic sites (c. 4.000-3.000 B.C.) in eastern China, namely the Liangzhou and Lake Tai areas near Shanghai, have revealed deposits of jade rough materials in situ. Nanyang near Anyang in Henan province as well as Xiuyan in Liaoning province were mentioned as places where jade rough material was found in Shang times.
Jade dish in the shape of a peach to wash brushes
Nephrite occurs in white, grey, pale green, moss green, hunter green, spinach green, black, brown, yellow and combinations of these tones; white to grey-white nephrite is often referred to as “mutton fat” jade.
The Chinese have always respected the stone for its hardness and have been fascinated by nature’s ability to create infinite tonal variations.
Jadeite is found in Burma, the northern Tawmaw area being the main source for the Chinese, who probably did not import this material until the late eighteenth century; actually all evidence to date indicates that Burmese jadeite rough material was not imported by the Chinese until this time.
Jadeite at its best is a vivid, emerald green, or a pure white with bright green striations, or lavender or a combination of the three. Occasionally, jadeite has a fleck of rust brown tone which is sometimes referred to as “red” jade. It can be categorically being stated that there is no genuine cardinal red or poppy red jade, in either jadeite or nephrite.
Most emerald green jadeite is cut into cabochons, beads or brooch stones for jewellery, and a well matched strand of fine green jadeite breads is much rarer than emeralds; the series must come from that same core, or the breads would not match.
Anyone who has tried to match a jade brooch to a pair of ear-rings, or to a bracelet or ring, will be aware of the variations in the shades of green jadeite.
Jade dish with Taiji motives (symbol of the Taoism)
The Chinese today are inclined to label everything as “jade”. Beijing “jade” (probably pink rhodonite), “new jade” or “onion jade” (probably serpentine), and so forth. They know that genuine jade has sales appeal.
If you question the sales man behind the counter in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing, you will probably be told that this is “genuine new jade”. The word “new” is the key. Should you carry your questioning a little further, indicating that you know the difference between “new jade” and “old jade” you will usually be rewarded with a smile and an admission that “new jade” is not really jade.
If you do not know the difference between the two, they are not about to enlighten you. This is not dishonesty on the part of the shopkeepers; they are merely labelling some non-jade material as “new jade”.
Many a pale green serpentine bird or buffalo has been brought home to the West as “real” jade. Look carefully when considering a purchase. Study the jades and other semi-precious stone carvings in your museums, and in local auction galleries where there is no charge for looking and handling objects scheduled for sale.
Learn to recognize the characteristic structure and colour of the stones. Serpentine is usually pale green, translucent and without obvious flaws. Quartz has multiple crystal “fractures”. Soapstone is soft, waxy in appearance and can be scratched with a finger nail. In time your eye learns to recognize genuine jade.
A word of caution is in order here. Even an experienced eye can be fooled. When possible, have your stone carvings or jewels tested for authenticity. Is it jade? If it is, is it nephrite or jadeite? Is it another stone?
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to test a carving when considering its purchase. Auction houses should be willing to have an example tested if it represents a sizeable investment to the buyer.
If you purchase a carving or jewel at a substantial price, and should testing prove it to be spurious in any way, a reputable firm will stand by its guarantee, provided the testing is done within the specified period of time. The same should apply to any merchant of sound reputation.
Smaller purchases are usually made at the buyer’s risk. Take heart, for it is from such mistakes that we learn.
The Chinese have always appreciated the aesthetic potential of jade. They understand subtle nuance of tones, fine striations of colour, and natural patterns. Chinese lapidaries and master designers highlight these properties of the stone to create form and decoration. It is the Chinese alone who brought this art form to its peak of perfection.
Peoples such as the Central Americans, the Alaskans, and the Maoris of New Zealand have found jade. Their jade carving is attractive, vigorous and certainly and important facet of their cultures, but it is nevertheless primitive art.
In contrast, Mogul Indian jades are elegant, delicate, often a foil for exquisite jewellery, representing a royal test for luxury items, yet lacking the symbolism and imagination of their Chinese counterparts. The rough material which the Indians carved is also nephrite which was imported from Chinese Turkistan.
Cup and jade dish decorated with dragon motives
It is however, only the Chinese who have created superb works of art, sophisticated in shape and ornamentation and imbued with the rich traditions of their ancient culture.
The most precious 10 jade objects of Forbidden City
Among these objects, very few were made at the time of Emperor Yongzheng. But under the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the number of jade objects in the imperial Palace increased a lot. Until the last period Qing dynasty and under the impulse of Empress Cixi, jewels like bracelets, earrings and hairpins, took a big part in all the jade objects. Among articles of current usage, tableware is significant, such as cups, dishes, boxes and bowls.