February 7th, 2020 – By Eleanor Flegg
In Chinese culture, jade is the stone of heaven and the love of it is deeply embedded in mythology. When China was invaded by the Mongols – or so one legend has it – the Imperial dragons wept tears that turned to jade.
It’s still the most sought-after gemstone in China, attracting prices that compete with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds. It’s different in the West. Without a deep knowledge of Chinese heritage and an appreciation of Eastern aesthetics, jade can be difficult to love. Jade’s main problem is that it doesn’t sparkle and the Western world is bewitched by sparkling things. The diamond industry has made sure of this, but there’s probably a deeper cultural thing going on.
To appreciate jade, you need to think differently. In China, jade is prized for a quality that roughly translates as “water content”. According to Fung Chiang, specialist at Christie’s: “The crystalline structure of jade is finer, enabling rays of light to penetrate the stone more easily to create translucency. This creates a reflection and refraction, causing the viewer to see something like water inside the stone itself, which is what makes jadeite so special, and so valuable.” There are three pieces of jadeite jade jewellery coming up for sale at Adam’s Valentine’s Auction of jewellery and watches, which takes place on Tuesday at 6pm. The most valuable of these is a jadeite jade and diamond dress ring (Lot 65: est. €12,000 to €14,000). It’s a modern ring that balances the lack of sparkle in the central stone with carefully orchestrated peripheral bling. It’s described as follows: “The translucent oval-shaped cabochon jadeite jade of green hue within a double four-claw setting, framed with brilliant and baguette-cut diamonds, to similarly-cut diamond shoulders.”
Even if you know nothing about jade, the setting communicates that this is a valuable ring. At the highest end, jade can be extraordinarily valuable. In 2014, the Hutton-Mdivani Jadeite Necklace by Cartier sold at Sotheby’s for HKD 214,040,000 (around €25m). The fact that the necklace was made by Cartier and owned by the Woolworth heiress Barbara Woolworth Hutton did its price no harm at all, but one of its selling points was the uniformity of the beads. This sameness is hard to achieve in jadeite because it is difficult to match the quality and size of the beads and adds to the value of a piece. In a Western culture that fetishizes the extraordinary, the love of sameness is counter-intuitive. For English speakers, the word “jadeite” is misleading. It sounds like a lesser form of jade. In fact, the opposite applies. There are two types of jade: nephrite and jadeite. Of these, jadeite is much more valuable and, being lustrous and translucent, better suited for jewellery.
It’s a relatively recent discovery. Jadeite arrived in China from Burma in 1784. Nephrite, on the other hand, is more opaque and has been used to make Chinese art for thousands of years. Once again, jade reverses expectations. The more ancient material isn’t always the best. In China, jadeite was popularised by the Empress Dowager Cixi (1861-1908), and massively promoted by the Imperial Court and all its hangers-on. It became known as the Imperial Stone. But, when you hear jadeite described as “Imperial Green” that refers to the colour rather than the provenance of the piece. Jadeite comes in many colours, most famously green or lavender, but the most highly prized is what Chiang describes as “strict green, with the highest saturation and a medium to medium-dark tone so that it is almost like a vivid emerald green, also known as imperial green.”
In the Adam’s sale, an early 20th-century jadeite jade and diamond ring (Lot 27: est. €2,500 to €3,000) comes with a report from the Gem & Pearl Laboratory in London describing the stone as “Imperial Jadeite Jade, with no indications of treatment.” Lot 65 comes with similar certification. In terms of value, this is hugely important. Some jade is colour-boosted by impregnating it with polymer and will be worth between five and 10pc of the value of natural jade. It can also be dyed, which renders it almost worthless.
For jadeite to be truly valuable, it must be natural, untreated, and from Myanmar (Burma). There are human rights concerns about the jadeite industry in Myanmar. Antique pieces feel somehow cleaner. Whatever the injustices in their production, you’re not contributing to an ongoing problem and some of them are rich with untold stories. The third jadeite lot at Adam’s – a pair of late 19th-century jadeite jade, ruby and diamond pendent earrings (Lot 39: est. €6,000 to €7,000) – seem to be of mongrel heritage. They’re catalogued as follows: “each old brilliant-cut diamond surmount, suspending a translucent jadeite jade disc of green hue embellished with a central ruby cabochon and rose-cut diamond cluster, mounted in silver and gold.”
The centre of one shows signs of careful repair, they have clearly been worn and loved, and they come in a fitted case by Hamilton & Co Limited of Calcutta, Delhi and Simla. Hamilton & Co Robert Hamilton (1772-1848) started work in Calcutta in 1808 and became the most celebrated British silversmith in India. He is known as the inventor of the Toffee pot, a coffee pot that doubles as a teapot. And, while there is no mark to show that he made the jadeite earrings, there is nothing to say that he didn’t. See adams.ie.