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Jade, Ancient Jewel And Good Luck Stone

In Chinese palaces long ago dainty girls, with fingers as tender as peach blossoms, played a game by putting various jades in a bowl of water and identifying each by the feel of their fingers. For the qualities and colors of this precious heaven's stone or Yu of the Chinese, are many and varied. China valued a single fine piece so high it would ransom more than a dozen cities. The Chou dynasty, 1000 years B.C. had rules for the use of jade to honor the living and the dead.

Tools of Chinese Turkestan jade have been found in the caves of neolithic Swiss Lake Dwellers and in the peat bogs of Europe. Excavated Crete of 3000 B.C. gave up jade from Burma. In Pliny's time "the whole East" was "wearing emerald-like stones as amulets."

It was called Kash by native Turkestan and Western Mongols, Yeshfer by the Hebrews, and Jaspis by the Latins. The modern word Jade was coined by the French after the Spanish conquest of Mexico and from the Spanish "ijada" meaning loin or colic stone because of its medical use. Cortes got these "emerald like stones" each "worth more than two loads of gold" from "Montezuma whose people called it Chalchihuitl.

This chalchihuitl of Mexico is the same "yu" found in Burma whence comes modern China's "imperial jade." Scholars call it jadeite. It is made up of granules, harder, more translucent and more vivid in color than Chinese Turkenstan yu which scholars call nephrite. Nephrite is made up of felted mineral fibers, so it is tougher to cut, though softer, than the granular jadeite.

The rare chloromelanite, generally called black jade, though slivers of it have a green tinge, often is classed as a third type of jade.


Both jadeite and nephrite jades are white when pure. Metals, chemicals and weathering give the colors. Often two or more colors occur in the same jade piece. Iron gives the colors of green, yellow, brown, red, gray or black, to jade.

Chromium gives black flecks and gray tintings. But mainly chromium adds blue to make the "blue of water emerging from ice" the almost mystical "sapphire blue" of India's jade, and the "indigo blue" of Mexican jade. Chromium puts 'the blue in the prized emerald green jewel jade - China's "imperial jade," and in the "quetzal chalchihuital" or emerald green of the Aztec's imperial jade. Manganese adds black fleckings and green stainings, makes purple jade, and that collector's rarest reality, "pink" jade.

Besides "clouding," "flecking," and "staining," the Chinese have other descriptive phrases for the coloring and markings of jade: White jade may be the jade of rice grains, ice crystals, camphor, rice water, cream and whey, or mutton fat. Mutton fat jade is the age old precious white "yu" of China, which, tinged with pink throughout, is very valuable.

Besides sea green, apple green, sage green and spinach green which last dark leaf green is least prized, the greens include the "bluish green of kingfisher feathers," and the green of "moss in melting snow" as seen in Chicago's Art Institute. Greens with black fleckings, and the pale greens are less prized in China.

Yellows run from pale beeswax, through sulphur, to greenish lemon. The "sweet yellow of chestnuts" is valued above "smoky yellow." Reds vary from rust brown, through lacquer red, to the precious "red of a cock's comb." Chicago's Museum of Natural History has a black, gray and red jade with the red the "color of blood" and so called bloodstone by the Chinese.


Until recently jade workers of Khotan, Peking, Canton and Soochow used the bow drill of all primitive men. By this drill Babylonians cut their seals and jewel stones, and the Greeks and Romans cut their cameos and intaglios. All cutting, shaping, smoothing and polishing required abrasive sands which the Chinese bought in the chunk and pounded and ground down to size. Their black stone, an impure kind of corundum, we call emery. They used too, crystal, garnet, and for finest polishing, ruby or sapphire sands, fixing each in proper turn to the cutting edge with, some say stiff fat, others say clay and water.

First they cut the jade free from its crust, then sawed the jade with wire or toothless metal band into oblong or square according to the shape of the object to be made. With the shaping wheels they cut off the edges and corners and gave shape to the jade. Next they ground and gouged and chipped out the vases and bowls or other vessels with borers and abrasives, chisels, hammers and corkscrew gimlets.

When the vessel was hollowed out, and the shape completed, grinding wheels smoothed the surface. Polishing wheels of wood then leather, with finest abrasives, smoothed the jade for carved and pierced decor ation. Fine jewel wheels, frequently changed in size, and used with the proper abrasives, did the carving.

Open work patterns were marked out with drilled holes, then joined into completed pattern by use of a wire bow saw, with the wire put through each hole to enlarge it or join it to the next in the design. A covered incense bowl in Chicago's Natural History Museum has un-numbered openings in its elaborate allover design.

A final polishing was done with leather wheels, and to get into the undercut work, with tiny wheels of dried gourd skin. Each wheel was aided with the finest of abrasive ruby dust to gain the smoothness, luster, soft appearance, and that "wet look" common to all polished jade.


Ancient jades were mostly surface carved. Later jades were more deeply and elaborately cut. Symbolic fruits, flowers, and animals, such as the immortal peach with its blossom, the butterfly or the crane of long life, the bat of happiness, the deer of immortality, the pair of ducks symbolizing wedded happiness, all wished good luck.

The carved jade pigeon topping an old man's walking stick wished him the "spryness and virility of a pigeon." A cicada in the mouth of the dead wished rebirth and immortality. Flowering trees wished the bride married success and happiness.

The toughness and strength of jade made it ideal for lapidary, astronomer and scholar's tools. Its rareness and value made it honor the emperor's person as girdle pendant, cap beads, and scepter. It made palace ornaments as carved fruits and flowers, incense burners, water jars, musical chimes, and flowering trees.

The banquet table had its rice bowls, wine cups, sweet meat dishes and chop sticks. Religious symbols included prayer beads, the statues of Buddha and Kwan Yin, the eight Immortals, and the 18 Yohan. Chinese women treasured combs, hair pins, bracelets, necklaces and fan handles of jade among many other lovely personal and house ornaments.

Jeweled jades from India favored the whites and pale green jades. These pale backgrounds showed off in full richness the inlaid ruby, sapphire and turquoise flowers with their emerald leaves and thin gold stems. Many covered bowls, mirror backs, and dagger handles displayed this epitome of Oriental lavishness, credited to India's Moguls.


Jade is rarely transparent, often translucent, and sometimes opaque. It is heavy, cold, and waxy to the feel. It rings beautifully but stops abruptly. Polished jade is shiny and looks wet-China's nephrite looking oily, Burma's and Mexico's jadeite looking watery.

Imitations include serpentine or "muckden jade," which, like jade, has a waxy feel; stained or painted steatite or soapstone; and paste or jewel glass with much lead. All scratch easily. Jade is tough, hard to scratch. Quartz, of equal scratch-hardness, will scratch it, as will a knife.

Silica, heated and cooled to crack it to a fibrous look, then dyed, is a tricky imitation. So are the fake tomb jades which are colored by soaking in acids and burying with animal matter or with iron or copper, then weathered. Scholars can detect these fakes.

The yu of China, once spread by hunting belt, medicine kit, and trader's pack over long lost trails or by camel caravan over the old Sill: Road of Asia, still comes West. But the finding of jade in the United States, Canada, and Alaska, plus Mexico's white, green, emerald, and indigo blue jades, have made jade jewelry a household word in America.

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