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.
An assortment of poured vintage silver bullion bars in 5 and 20 troy ounce sizes manufactured by SilverTowne, JPM (Jackson Precious Metals) and Johnson Matthey. The SilverTowne bars pictured are actually vintage issues, fabricated before the company resumed pouring new silver bars recently.
Promises, promises, promises. The world is full of promises that aren't kept. Lovers softly coo sweet lies to their partners. Politicians solemnly swear to implement government reforms they know will never happen. Friends cheerfully, if falsely, pledge to reimburse you for their excessively high bar tab after cajoling you into paying. Likewise, the financial world is full of promises that won't be kept either. The city of Detroit's pensions, Lehman Brother's commercial paper and Greece's sovereign debt all are pertinent, timely examples of financial promises broken. And there is undoubtedly more where that came from. The old saying still holds true, "What cannot be paid back, will not be paid back." However, there is at least one investment that will earnestly keep its vows: vintage silver bullion bars.
Possessing many outstanding properties, silver is the quintessential metal. It is not only mesmerizingly lustrous but also extraordinarily reflective. Silver is the best conductor of both heat and electricity among all elements. Its exceptionally high density (10.5 grams per cubic centimeter) exceeds that of both copper (9.0 g/cm3) and iron (7.9 g/cm3). Unlike most metals, silver is extremely resistant to chemical attack, tarnishing only in the presence of highly corrosive substances such as ozone, sulfur or the halogens (like chlorine). These compelling physical properties have contributed to silver's use in a plethora of industrial, scientific and monetary functions. But perhaps silver's most ancient use - as a store of value - is still its best. A vintage silver bar, with its unmistakable heft and soft metallic glow, is the near perfect embodiment of tangible wealth.
There is something truly mesmerizing about vintage silver bullion bars. Their chunky style, rounded corners and slightly irregular surfaces are immediately, viscerally attractive. An old silver bar's finish may be wonderfully patinaed from decades of storage, or as seductively lustrous as the day it left the mint, or even subtly frosted as if coated by a million tiny sugar crystals. Bullion bars evoke time-honored financial traditions, when physical wealth could be firmly held in the palm of your hand. Vintage silver bullion bars gently whisper to be treasured and possessed.
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Silver bars are fabricated in three basic ways; they are struck, extruded or poured. Most modern bullion bars are made via striking or extrusion. Today, smaller bars are usually struck while larger bars can be either struck or extruded. Silver bars created via striking or extrusion typically have very crisp details and a mirror like finish. They are unmistakably machine-made and lack the charming surfaces and mellow patina of older hand poured bars. The striking and extrusion methods, being amenable to automation, have almost completely displaced pouring as a manufacturing method.
In contrast, poured bars are created via casting molten silver into a mold and then allowing it to cool. Finally, the bar is removed from the mold and carefully struck with its weight, fineness and maker's mark. Poured bars are oftentimes hand cast and thus significantly more labor intensive to make than struck or extruded bars. This has resulted in few refineries continuing the venerable tradition of fabricating silver bars in the old style.
One highly coveted type of poured silver bar frequently encountered is the "loaf" shape bar. These loaf-style bars are very thick and chunky with extremely rounded corners. This gives them the characteristic shape of a miniature loaf of bread. Another shape commonly found is the "kit-kat" style bar. These bars, while also thick and chunky, have somewhat sharper corners, giving them the form of an oversized kit-kat candy bar. Some vintage kit-kat style silver bars were extruded instead of poured. However, if genuinely older, these extruded kit-kat bars are still quite desirable.
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The 1960s to the early 1980s were the heyday of poured vintage silver bullion bars. As the global inflation rate started to rise in the early 1960s, people began looking for alternative, inflation-resistant investments. Consequently, demand for small and medium sized silver bars skyrocketed during this period. Private refiners and mints thrived as the inexorably rising price of precious metals translated into healthy demand for their products. However, it all quickly unwound after silver prices experienced a bubble peak early in 1980. The public reacted to the bubble by quickly dumping its collective silver stash on the market. This led to massive amounts of fine sterling silverware, rare silver coins and beautiful vintage poured silver bars being thrown into the melting pot. It is a tragedy that most of these unique, old silver bars ended up exiting refineries as soulless 1,000 troy ounce COMEX good delivery bars.
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A wide variety of reputable refineries, both large and small, manufactured poured vintage silver bullion bars. Some of the old bar makers frequently encountered include Engelhard, Johnson Matthey, GA (Golden Analytical), Star Metals, NCM (Nevada Coin Mart), JPM (Jackson Precious Metals), Academy, CCM (California Crown Mint) and Phoenix Precious Metals. All of these companies are now either defunct or no longer produce silver bars. Engelhard, for example, was the world's leading silver bar manufacturer from the 1960s until the mid 1980s. But the company only made poured silver bars earlier in that period, later switching over to struck/extruded bars. Engelhard completely ceased silver bar production after the mid 1980s.
Due to high demand, a handful of companies have resumed production of poured silver bars. SilverTowne L.P., Scottsdale Mint, Prospector's Gold & Gems, Monarch Precious Metals, Atlantis Mint, Yeager's Poured Silver and Bison Bullion currently (as of 2015) produce poured silver bars. These seven refineries' poured silver bars are recent and should not be confused with genuine, older poured bars. Although they are not investment vehicles on par with vintage issues, these newer poured bars are still an exceptionally beautiful way to own silver bullion and might acquire collector's status over time. Because they are still being manufactured today, pricing is competitive with other modern struck and extruded bars on the market.
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Poured silver bars typically range in size from 1 troy ounce to 100 troy ounces. Common sizes are 1, 5, 10, 20, 25, 50 and 100 troy ounces. 1,000 troy ounce poured bars do exist, but are industrial in size (almost 70 pounds each) and cost (approximately $15,000 with spot at $15 per ounce). These 1,000 ounce behemoths should be avoided due to their limited collectability. Similarly, very small 1 troy ounce bars lack the universal investment appeal of slightly larger sizes. Stepping up to a minimum of 2 or 3 ounce bars easily remedies this minor issue. Occasionally you will come across odd weight silver bars. For example, the bar might be stamped "10.34 troy oz." These odd weight bars are a sure indicator of an older, vintage bar that is both unique and desirable.
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Vintage silver bullion bars have compelling investment potential, especially when considering their impressive appearance and high intrinsic value. Premiums over bullion value range from about 25% on the low end to over 300% for extremely rare types. Larger bars typically have lower premiums than smaller bars, but will cost more because of their higher intrinsic value. Pricing realistically begins around $120 for investment grade silver bars weighing 2 to 5 ounces. Imposingly monolithic 100 troy ounce bars the size of a small brick can easily run from $2,000 to $4,000, depending on rarity (with spot silver at $15 per ounce). Lovers, politicians and even friends may prove unreliable, but vintage silver bullion bars will always remain true.
A group of Australian gold nuggets displaying their characteristic honeycomb appearance. The iron-rich laterite matrix on some of the nuggets also confirms them as Australian in origin.
There is nothing worse than feeling stuck in life. It can be dehumanizing to be flat broke with no social life and a monotonous, dead-end job. But sometimes being stuck in a rut just means you need a new beginning. In times past, Americans had a particularly effective way of dealing with this issue. They moved West. The Great American West represented a new beginning - a chance to reset everything that had gone wrong before. You could simply leave behind all of your disappointments and failures and boldly take a chance on yourself. In the wide open expanses of the sunny American West the sky - and opportunities - seemed to be endless. And few physical objects manifest this pioneering spirit more thoroughly than natural gold nuggets.
Gold nuggets represent the opportunity and freedom of making a fresh start. A man who returned home from the wild American West, his pockets heavy with gold nuggets, had truly arrived. He had struck out to find his fortune and made his own way. Nothing stoked the imagination of the 19th century public more than the idea of a remote, crystal-clear river peppered with glittering gold nuggets. And with good reason too; gold nuggets are nature's depository of raw, unrefined riches. Their organically sculpted lines and warm metallic radiance are aesthetically pleasing at a primal level.
Gold is an extremely rare element, having an occurrence in the earth's crust of approximately 3.1 parts per billion by weight. Gold ore from modern mines contains only microscopic specks of the noble metal; the contained gold is completely invisible to the naked eye. In fact, an open pit mining operation that yields just 2 grams of gold per ton of ore extracted is considered a rich mine. Yet natural gold nuggets easily exceed even this remarkable rarity. It is estimated that only 3% of gold mined today is from alluvial (river) deposits. Most of this gold is in dust or flake form with only a minuscule fraction recovered as nuggets. In addition, gold nugget discovery rates have been steadily declining by 5% to 10% every year for at least the last 30 years. This is despite considerable improvements in mining, dredging and metal detector technology during that time. Simply put, gold nuggets are nature's winning lottery tickets and they are getting scarcer every year.
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We normally think of nuggets as smooth, water-worn lumps of gold. And this is definitely the case when a nugget has been subjected to decades or even centuries of pounding hydraulic action in a swiftly flowing stream. However, not all natural gold nuggets have been through such harsh alluvial conditions. Some examples possess well defined edges, almost giving them the appearance of crystallized honey. A few rare specimens even reveal gold's marvelous cubic crystalline structure. Australian nuggets, often found in dry regions, sometimes display this intriguing, crystallized honeycomb look.
Incessantly scrubbed of impurities by the action of wind and water, gold nuggets are compact, knobby chunks of glistening, concentrated wealth. Gold's incredibly high density of 19.3 grams per cubic centimeter means that nuggets are amazingly heavy for their size. They typically range from 20 to 23 karats (83% to 96%) fine gold with primarily silver and small amounts of copper as alloying components. These trifling purity variances among nuggets generally have minimal impact on pricing. As a point of reference, gold nuggets are substantially finer than 14 karat (58%) or 18 karat (75%) gold used in higher end jewelry.
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Gold was first discovered in Australia in 1851. Today, the arid, mineral rich continent is the undisputed leader in gold nugget production. Not only are more gold nuggets found in Australia than any other gold field in the world, but they also tend to be larger. In fact, in 1869 the largest gold nugget every found was discovered in the state of Victoria, Australia. Called the Welcome Stranger, its total weight was a staggering 241 pounds (109 Kilograms). Australian gold nuggets are also renowned for their extremely high purity, commonly possessing finenesses in the mid 90% range. All of these factors combine to make natural gold nuggets from Australia highly collectible.
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The Alaska/Yukon geographic area is the other great gold nugget region of the world. Gold was first discovered there in 1896, precipitating the famous Klondike gold rush. This historic gold rush conjures up images of grizzled prospectors wading knee deep into ice-cold streams surrounded by inhospitable wilderness in their relentless quest to wrest golden treasures from the unforgiving earth. And this vision is largely correct; prospecting for alluvial gold in Alaska was, and remains to this day, incredibly brutal, dangerous work. Natural gold nuggets from Alaska tend to be more water worn than their Australian brethren due to Alaska's wetter climate. Alaskan nuggets also trend towards slightly lower purities than Australian nuggets, with finenesses commonly in the high 80% range. The slight differences in purity between Alaskan and Australian nuggets do not significantly impact desirability or pricing, however.
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Although Australia and Alaska/Yukon are currently the two major global producers of gold nuggets, certain other historic gold mining districts are nugget rich as well. California, in particular, is inexorably linked with gold in the popular imagination. While large nuggets are rarely unearthed there today, small to medium sized nuggets are still found. Many other states of the American West, such as Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Idaho and Montana also produce natural gold nuggets sporadically. Occasionally gold nuggets come to market from other exotic locations like Venezuela, Russia, Mexico or British Columbia.
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Sometimes gold is found still attached to its parent (matrix) rock. Quartz, with its characteristic milky-white, sugar-crystal appearance, is the most frequently encountered matrix material. Quartz has traditionally been a key indicator to astute prospectors that gold is nearby. The other matrix rock commonly found associated with gold is laterite, an iron-rich mineral that is a rusty red or blackish color. Laterite infused nuggets are commonly of Australian origin. Gold nuggets that have experienced significant weathering or alluvial action typically have either little or no matrix. Due to their tremendous rarity, gold specimens prominently embedded in their matrix can be very expensive. Attractive examples sell for far higher premiums over bullion value than comparable gold nuggets with little or no matrix.
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While all gold nuggets are natural works of art, some are more captivating than others. Larger nuggets are not only more impressive than smaller sizes, but also much scarcer. For example, a 16 gram gold nugget is estimated to be almost 5 times rarer than its 4 gram counterpart. Consequently, only gold nuggets of more than 2 grams in weight should be considered for investment purposes. Another characteristic to look for in a nugget is a rich, deep, golden color. Nuggets with a lower gold purity and high silver content may appear pale or washed out. Shape can also be important, although this attribute is more in the eye of the beholder. Boring or awkwardly shaped gold nuggets are less desirable and sell for lower prices than interesting, attractive specimens. Tragically, before the hobby of gold nugget collecting became popular almost all nuggets were melted down for bullion. Prior to the early 1990s, vanishingly few specimens - usually larger, museum-grade pieces - survived.
To hold a gold nugget in your hand is to possess a great treasure. It represents millennia of relentless natural forces in combination with countless hours of exhausting labor from a shrewd, determined prospector. Gold nuggets are the embodiment of mankind's pioneering spirit, sublimated into a small, gnarled lump of coveted precious metal. Given these attributes, it is no surprise that gold nuggets are worth considerably more than the intrinsic value of the gold they contain. Premiums over bullion value run from approximately 30% for smaller sizes to perhaps 100% for impressively large nuggets. Specimens in quartz or other matrix rock often sell for even larger premiums. Pricing effectively starts at around $125 for investment grade examples with a minimum weight of 2 grams (with spot gold at $1,260 per ounce). If your investment portfolio needs a new beginning, then consider exploring a dazzling collection of exquisite, natural gold nuggets.