An approximately 1 pound (454 gram) block of very high quality, rough nephrite jade from British Columbia. Notice the bright, evenly distributed green color and the obvious translucence near the edges where the material is thinner. These are both indicators of good quality jade.
We like to think we have it all figured out these days. The disciplines of science, engineering and computing have all converged to give us wonders beyond comprehension. And while the advances of modern technology are truly amazing, they do tend to bleed a bit of the color from the world. When science presents an answer for every conceivable question, doesn't that rob the universe of just a little of its beauty and mystery? Maybe, but mystery still abounds for those who seek it. For example, jade - an exotic green hardstone venerated for millennia by a multitude of pre-modern cultures - still retains all the complexity and enigma of untamed nature.
There is simply nothing like holding a block of fine, rough jade in your hands. Its softly mottled, translucent colors mesmerize the eyes even as your fingertips dance across its dense, glassy surface. Jade reflects light in a unique way, giving its surfaces a slightly diffused, almost dreamy appearance. And yet jade's ethereal appearance is really a clever deception; the cryptic stone is actually harder than steel. Jade is perhaps nature's most perfect material, a thing that man in all his centuries of striving has still not equaled, much less surpassed. Is it any wonder that it has been revered in East Asian cultures for thousands of years?
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The Chinese, in particular, have an affinity for the precious material that is truly legendary. A telling ancient Chinese proverb states that "Gold is valuable, but jade is priceless." The Chinese believed - with some justification - that jade embodied heavenly perfection on earth. Other sophisticated Pacific Rim cultures, including the Korean Silla Dynasty, the great pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations and the New Zealand Maori, have also revered jade over the centuries. The Chinese Qing Dynasty, in particular, was renowned for creating prized masterpieces in jade. But it was Mughal India that arguably produced the very finest jade carvings of all time - foremost among them the wondrously delicate and fanciful Shah Jahan Cup.
Surprisingly, jade comes in a multitude of different colors in addition to its well-known green - everything from white to black to blue to lilac. The term jade also actually refers to two different, mineralogically distinct varieties - nephrite jade and jadeite jade. Both of these types have very similar physical characteristics and are considered true jade. Technically, nephrite jade is a calcium magnesium-iron hydroxyl silicate while jadeite jade is a sodium aluminum silicate. These characteristic chemical compositions give nephrite and jadeite slightly different micro-crystalline structures. But these differences are largely inconsequential to everyone except for gemologists; all jade possesses amazing physical characteristics.
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Jade's tenacity or toughness - its ability to resist breaking, chipping or cracking - is legendary. It is substantially tougher than steel; a blow strong enough to deform steel might leave a similarly sized piece of jade undamaged. This mythical attribute was widely exploited by pre-historic and ancient peoples who carved jade into highly functional axe heads and knife blades. The treasured material's fabled toughness has also allowed delicate jade carvings from distant cultures to survive centuries of time without so much as a single chip.
As if its extreme toughness were not remarkable enough, jade is also exceptionally hard. On the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, jade registers between 6 and 7, versus just 5.5 for most types of steel and glass. It also compares favorably with quartz, which has a Mohs hardness of 7. In fact, jade is so hard that the term "jade carving" is actually a misnomer. Jade is simply too hard and tough to carve effectively. Instead carvers slowly and painstakingly abrade rough jade into the desired shape using ultra-hard garnet, corundum or diamond grit.
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Historically, the nephrite jade used in ancient and medieval Chinese art was found in the Xinjiang province of western China. Jade from this source was known as Khotan or Hetian jade. In the 18th century China began to import jadeite jade from adjacent Burma (now renamed Myanmar). Today, most good quality nephrite jade originates from the imposing mountains of British Columbia, Alaska, Wyoming, New Zealand and certain parts of California and Russia. Some fine jadeite jade is also found in Guatemala, a source once exploited by the ancient Mayan civilization.
Jade is usually found in the river valleys of remote, rugged mountains, rendering mining a frustrating, backbreaking endeavor. A substantial amount of heavy equipment is used in jade extraction, such as industrial-sized hydraulic spreaders and diamond saws. Jade, in the form of water-worn pebbles or rocks, has traditionally been mined from alluvial (river) deposits. Sometimes jade boulders weighing several tons are found, but they only rarely contain fine material. Intensive mining activity due to the insatiable global demand for jade has exhausted many alluvial deposits of first-rate material. Therefore, jade mining has recently begun to switch over to primary, in-ground deposits. This development has driven up exploration and extraction costs considerably, but is necessary to maintain adequate supplies of high quality jade to the market.
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Considering that it is possible to buy good quality rough jade by the pound or kilogram, the uninitiated may conclude that jade is a common material. This would be a woefully incorrect assumption. Jade mining powerhouse British Columbia - currently the world's major source of nephrite jade - only produces around 400 tons (362 metric tons) of the coveted stone per annum. This amount might seem impressively large until one learns that global annual gold production is close to 3,000 tons (2720 metric tons) per annum. In addition, China's traditional source of jade - the remote Xinjiang province - is nearing exhaustion today. And jadeite jade has traditionally been even rarer than nephrite jade, with Myanmar and Guatemala the only significant producers today. Good jade is astonishingly difficult to find and only getting rarer as time passes.
Predictably, jade prices have exploded over the last decade, increasing by approximately 10-fold between 2005 and 2015. This is largely due to skyrocketing demand from China's burgeoning middle class and nouveau riche. Jade has always been central to Chinese culture and the country's recent prosperity has translated directly into massively increased demand. As an unfortunate side effect, the supply of China's native Khotan/Hetian jade has begun drying up, leading to its counterfeiting on a truly grand scale. But this presents the alternative asset investor with a unique buying opportunity. North American, Russian and Australian/New Zealand jades have been somewhat overlooked in the marketplace, leaving them underpriced relative to traditional Chinese and Burmese jades.
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When investing in rough jade it is advisable to pass on pieces that are thinner than 3/8 inch (10 millimeters) in any one dimension. It is difficult for an artist to carve a thin jade slab into a desirable statue, cabochon or bangle. Avoid purchasing specimens with prominent or numerous fractures. These flaws are not only unattractive, but may also indicate durability issues. Keep in mind that although jade can be dyed, waxed or bleached, most North American rough jade is not treated. This is one of the major benefits of buying North American rough jade. However, don't make the mistake of believing that no North American rough jade is treated. If it looks too good to be true, especially at a bargain price, then it probably is.
For superior returns, avoid purchasing jade that has unappealing or lackluster colors. However, it is important not to confuse poor color with unpolished surfaces. Rough jade is often not given a smooth, finely polished surface because it is assumed it will be further processed in the future. Most rough jade sellers will wet their specimens with water before photographing them in order to convey a truer sense of the stone's final appearance when fully polished. This is perfectly acceptable if properly disclosed.
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Jade pieces with evenly distributed, attractive colors or pleasing mottling are most desirable. Look for specimens that are at least 3 or 4 ounces (about 100 grams) in weight, although this rule can be relaxed for exceptional pieces. Don't be scared away by irregular or asymmetrically-shaped rough; these odd shapes are often an asset to the skilled jade carver. Although jadeite jade is rarer than nephrite jade, don't let this be the sole, or even primary, criterion that drives your decision making. Don't feel the need to limit yourself to only green jade. Other colors may have similar, or even better, investment potential compared to the more traditional, green-hued jades. Most importantly, look for jade that is at least somewhat translucent. Translucency is a reasonable proxy for overall quality in jade. The more translucent a piece of jade, the finer - and hence more desirable and expensive - it is.
Rough jade is at once alluring and mysterious, yet also eminently tangible. It is also surprisingly affordable, if sourced from North America. A small 3 to 5 ounce (85 to 140 gram) block of medium quality rough jade can be purchased for only $40 or $50. Prices escalate with both size and quality with multi-pound (one kilogram and heavier) specimens costing $200 to $500. Truly gargantuan pieces can exceed $1,000. Exceptionally transparent or unusually colored blocks of jade are rare and will command whatever price the market will bear at that time. A judicious investment in rough jade may be a savvy way to participate in the extraordinary economic growth of China. A stone of unusually fine properties, jade is definitely an asset worth owning.