HomeObjects Made from Jadeite

12. Objects Made from Jadeite

Jadeite is faceted or carved for jewelry, religious, or ornamental use. As jewelry it is cut into cabochons, beads, and earrings, carved to make intaglios, and carved into rings and bracelets. It is also carved into a wide variety shapes as ceremonial or ornamental sculptures and figures. The overall quality of the stone is sometimes taken into account when deciding how to fashion rough jadeite.

For example, in Hong Kong the best pieces (i.e., those that are free of white or black streaks, fractures) are earmarked for cabochons. Material of somewhat lesser quality tends to be made into bracelets and then beads. The poorest quality jadeite tends to be used for carvings and doughnut shaped disks.

Chhibber (1934: 79-80) reviews the varieties of jadeite found at Tawmaw and the uses to which each type respectively was put at the time of his writing. First he lists four varieties of green jadeite. The most precious variety (called mya yay or yay kyauk, or elsewhere Imperial Jade), which is translucent and has a uniform "grass-green" color, and the next most precious variety (called shwelu), which is light green with bright-green spots and streaks, "are used for expensive jewellery such as rings, necklaces, pendants, ear-rings, brooches, etc." The third most valuable variety (lat yay) is clouded and is used "in making bracelets, buttons, hatpins, ornaments, drinking cups, etc." The dark green variety (known as "hmaw sit sit") "is used in the manufacture of cheaper jewellery." Then he discusses two grades of white jadeite. The first (called kyauk-atha) is translucent, it "is used for bracelets, stems of pipes, plates, spoons, flower-pots, cups, saucers, etc." Of lesser value is a variety of white jadeite known as pan-tha. This variety has a brilliant white color and is largely translucent, but it is opaque to some extent. This variety "is used purely for decorative purposes, such as inlaying tables, boxes, and furniture generally." The final variety of jadeite discussed is called kyauk amè. This type is sometimes described as being black, but in fact is a dark green color. It is a variety of chloromelanite and contains a large proportion of iron instead of aluminum. This variety "is used for making buttons, bars for brooches, etc."

Frey (1991a) illustrates several pieces of Chinese jewelry made of jadeite dating from the nineteenth century. These include hair pins and slides, belt hooks and buckles, pendants, plain and carved bead necklaces, drop earrings, and a bangle bracelet. Most of the pieces are made of green jadeite. The bangle bracelet and plain bead necklace is a beautiful deep lavender color. One of the buckles is described as a having a "russet tone".

Goette (1976: 73) provides an interesting insight into the evolution of the ways in which jadeite was shaped during the inter-war years in response to changing market demands:

The influx of American tourists into Peking after the [First] World War opened up an entirely different type of jade business. While the wealthier visitors bought expensive jade figures, bowls, and such large pieces, as well as emerald or jewel jade, those who did not have such expansive purses sought rings, earrings, pendants, beads and bracelets within their limited means. Likewise, during this period, the American and European population of Peking increased, and it too offered a market for the new costume jewellery. The foreign ladies brought pictures of ensembles such as the Chinese feminine taste had never known. The more inventive among the westerners began designing sets for their own adornment, and for shipment to eager American specialty and department stores. As a result, there has grown up... a mushroom trade in those articles which never existed before.

It is apparent that much of the jadeite jewelry produced today owes its origin to this period of innovation.

Cabochons. As was noted above, the tendency is to cut better quality rough jadeite into cabochons. Ng and Root (1984: 41) discuss what to look for in assessing the quality of a cabochon beyond the quality of the jadeite itself:

First, we look for well balanced, pleasing proportions of length to width ratios which would be most useful in a ring stone. Next, the cabochon should not be too high or thick, nor be too thin. The half-moon is an ideal shape, with the height not being more than half the length... The cabochon should also have an only slightly rounded girdle, or edge, for good mounting. Moreover, the bottom of the stone should be slightly curved so as to form a well balanced lightly convex surface.

In the case of jadeite that is less transparent, the ideal in a cabochon is one cut with a flat base, since such curvature, as mentioned above, only adds to the weight of the stone without influencing its beauty. Size may also be a factor in assessing a cabochon. Ng and Root (1984: 48) comment that since people in Asia tend to be smaller than people in the West, very large cabochons "may not be as much sought after" in Asia as in the West, where "persons of larger build may well find those larger sizes the most desirable." The most common size of cabochon that is used as a standard for pricing is 14 x 10 mm. Larger sizes that may be viewed as more valuable include 15 x 11 mm, 20 x 15 mm, and 22 x 16 mm. Smaller sizes, ranging from 11 x 9 mm down, tend to be less valuable.

Ng and Root (1984: 42) also discuss the ideal way of mounting jadeite cabochons in jewelry. The cabochon should be mounted in a setting with a "small hole under the center of the stone." The hole helps to increase the amount of light returned from the stone. It also serves practical purposes in assessing the stone. It allows for the shape of the back of the stone to be examined and, in particular, to see if the stone has been hollowed out. A stone that is not mounted in this way should be examined with particular care.

In addition to oval cabochons, pieces of jadeite jewelry may also be carved into heart, marquise, pear, and teardrop shapes. Ng and Root (1984: 47) comment that the heart shape is the second most popular shape in Asia after the oval and that it too should have a rounded bottom. The ideal dimensions for a marquise cut piece is a length to width ratio of two to one. As for pear and teardrop shapes, "they must be well-tapered, cylindrical in form and pleasing in proportions."

Beads. While the jadeite used for beads tends to be of lesser quality than that found in the best cabochons, this is certainly not always the case and very fine jadeite is sometimes cut into beads. Hughes, Galibert, et al (2000: 20, fig. 19) illustrate a necklace (known as the "double fortunate" necklace since its owners had doubled their fortunes every time the boulder was cut) auctioned by Christie's in Hong Kong in 1997 that sold for about US$9.3 million. It featured some of the ideal characteristics looked for in a necklace: "Uniformity of a fine 'emerald' green color, superb translucency, size, and symmetry all come together." This necklace is comprised of twenty-seven beads ranging in size from 15.09 mm to 15.84 mm. They were all cut from the same portion of rough stone.

Ng and Root (1984: 66) discuss the ideal characteristics in a necklace. They begin by noting that "uniform strands are in greater demand than those which are graduated." The value of a necklace is influenced by the extent to which the beads match in terms of color and texture. Since matching jadeite beads is difficult, strands that are longer and that contain larger matching beads are especially valuable. Roundness of the beads and symmetry of the drill holes are also factors to be considered. Ng and Root warn that "beads should be closely examined for cracks." They add that there is value in older, larger beads (especially those above 15 mm in diameter) since they can be re-cut into cabochons.

Bracelets. Ng and Root (1984: 65) note that since "carving a bangle bracelet out of one entire piece of jade necessitates using up a considerable amount of precious gemstone... since quality one piece bangles may command relatively high prices." This is illustrated by a bracelet that was auctioned in Hong Kong in 1999 by Christie’s and sold for US$2,576,600 (Hughes, Galibert, et al (2000: 21, fig. 20). The popularity of jadeite bracelets among Chinese is associated with their supposed ability to protect the wearer from ill fortune and in some instances to bring good fortune. Because of a belief that good things should come in pairs, bracelets are often made in pairs. Bracelets made from several pieces of jadeite generally are worth less than those made from a single piece. Such bracelets may be made from older, broken bracelets. Carved jadeite bracelets are usually made from poorer quality material to eliminate or hide the defects.

Pi Disks. Pi are round disks with a hole in the center. They are also known as huaigu and represent the Chinese symbol for eternity. The hole should be about one-fifth the diameter of the disk and be placed precisely in the center. Larger pi may be mounted and used as pendants and brooches, smaller pairs as earrings or cufflinks.

Hoop Earrings. Like bracelets, jadeite hoop earrings require a relatively large amount of rough material to make. To make them match they should be cut from two pieces of stone of the same quality and overall characteristics. Exceptionally fine earrings can fetch very high prices.

Rings. These are cut from a single piece of jadeite. One type of ring is referred to as a "saddle top ring". The top or front of this type of ring (the "saddle top") has a cabochon shape. The most beautiful part of the stone should be positioned to form the saddle since the lower part is largely hidden from view. There are also jadeite rings in the form of simple bands. These should have uniform color.

Other Shapes for Jewelry. Ng and Root (1984: 47) mention several other shapes of jadeite that is used for jewelry: round half beads (used as cabochons in earrings), short cylindrical bars (used for pins, clasps, and other decorative items), small buttons (now sometimes used in earrings and necklaces), earstud jackets (small flat circles of jade), and small doughnut shapes (used in pendants).

Carvings. As was noted early in the paper, most of the carved jade objects produced in China historically were made from nephrite and not jadeite. From the late eighteenth century onwards, however, carved objects made of jadeite began to appear in China. Today it is common practice to use lower quality jadeite for carvings. Small carvings may be used as pendants. The value of carved jadeite is determined by such factors as the intricacy of the design and the skill with which it is executed.

Mesoamerican Jadeite Jewelry. The above discussion focuses on Chinese practices. Mention should also be made of the types of objects made in ancient and modern Mesoamerica. In ancient Mesoamerica all of the items known appear to have been used by elite members of these societies either for personal adornment or for religious purposes. As Hirth and Hirth (1993: 173) note: "Objects carved from jade, jadeite, and a variety of other semiprecious materials, highly valued... and widely circulated in Mesoamerica... were used by high-ranking individuals to distinguish themselves and express their exalted social position, ability, and linkage to superior social networks." Among their functions was as a form of "'currency' used in establishing and regulating social relations within and between societies."

Hirth and Hirth (1993: 178-187) and Garber, Grove, Hirth, and Hoopes (1993: 226-229) mention that the following objects were made of jadeite by the ancient Maya (in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize): beads (plain and carved), pendants, pectorals (Hirth and Hirth, page 182, "sawn into thin flat plates prior to shaping"), earflares, buttons, celts, spangles, inlays, mosaics (e.g., mosaic masks), and plaques (see Andrews 1986). There are also a variety of more esoteric items. Adams (1977: 87), for example, mentions pieces shaped like "letter-openers" that were "probably used for blood-letting in religious ritual" (also see Grove 1987). Lange (1993: 270-286) lists the following items made by jadeite in Costa Rica: whole celts, half celts, and split celts (all three commonly used as pendants); tubes (use uncertain, possibly placed in pierced septums; see Garber, Grove, Hirth, and Hoopes 1993: 229); beads; ear spools; and miniature vessels (possibly for storing narcotics for ritual use). The practice of making imitations of these pieces for purposes of deception is long-standing. More recently imitations have been made legitimately as well. The Aztec, too, made a variety of items for personal adornment out of jadeite. Among the more unusual items, Vaillant (1965: 231) mentions Aztec nobles wearing "lip ornaments" made of jadeite. He also describes (page 236) a large stone statue of the god Huitzilopochtli being "covered with a paste in which were set jade, turquoise, gold, and seed pearls."

Modern Guatemalan lapidaries make two types of item from jadeite: replicas of ancient pieces and modern jewelry. The modern items mainly consists of oval cabochons and beads. The cabochons are set in gold, silver, or gold-plate as rings, earrings, and pendants (a vareity of such items are illustrated in the Jades, S.A., Catalog 2000).

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