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Jade And Other Stones

Stones from comparatively hard jade to the aptly named soapstone have always presented a challenge to the craftsman. Whenever they were to be found in suitable size and shape it was an invitation to the lapidary to attempt to fashion them into works of art. The comparison between a rough natural stone and the result of careful carving and polishing never ceases to surprise and delight the onlooker. The finest specimens barely indicate the skill and patience that contributed to their finished form, but a brief study will show why the Chinese and others revered jade and why Europeans attempted to rival rock-crystal with glass.


The Oriental mind has woven a wealth of legend into this stone, which varies in colour from pale grey-green and light lavender to a deep green that is almost black in some lights. It is divided by geologists into two distinct types: jadeite and nephrite. The latter is slightly less hard and under a microscope it will be seen that `in cross-section the fibres have cleavage cracks intersecting, not at approximately 90, as in jadeite, but at 120, and there are numerous other differences . . .' However, few, if any, collectors attempt to distinguish between the two, and describe them both as jade.

The stone is alleged by the Chinese to have been forged from a rainbow in order to make thunderbolts for the God of Storms, and it is also the traditional, although surely unpalatable, food of the Taoist genii. By most of the nations of antiquity it was regarded as possessing magical and curative properties; not only was it looked on also as a symbol of virtue, but it was supposed to be of value in the cure of diseases affecting the kidney.

Ancient jade objects of various shapes were used for ceremonial purposes and many of them have been excavated in modern times. They have received much attention from scholars and are rarely to be seen outside museums. The Chinese jade that is most likely to be found by the collector is seldom older than the eighteenth century. Being a hard stone it acquires few signs of wear, and with the Chinese habit of copying the designs of earlier days it is not easy to determine the age of many specimens. Large pieces of undoubted age can be very costly, but small examples of less certain vintage may be found for no more than a few pounds apiece.

The so-called 'Mogul' jade is usually of a pale grey-green colour, carved very thinly and often with pierced decoration. Some was inlaid with gold and precious stones, which seem to acquire an added fire against the background of the limpid stone. The Mogul jades were made in India, but were esteemed sufficiently by the Chinese for the Imperial workshops to have a department where work in this manner was produced.

A green nephrite found in New Zealand was used by the natives to make axe-heads and ornaments. Of the latter, the `Tiki', a ferocious-looking distorted human figure, represents the Maori Creator who `took red clay, and kneaded it with his own blood'. These pendant talismen are flatly rendered, and usually about three inches high and one and a half inches wide. Specimens some nine inches in height are known but are very rare when so large, and collectors should beware of modern copies of them in all sizes.


After jade, the principal stone carved by the Chinese is soapstone, a very soft material varying in colour from a light brown or pale green to a distinctive rich and deep red. It is easily scratched with a pin and reduces to a white powder, it breaks without much difficulty, and in spite of these obvious differences is sometimes mis-called jade by optimistic owners of specimens. In the eighteenth century it was often carved in the form of figures of the Immortals of the Taoist religion; more recently it has been used for vases with carved and pierced ornament, and for wine- and tea-pots.

Old pieces of soapstone will be found to have been neatly and carefully finished, and to have a high polish that is lacking in modern specimens. Many old examples have a subtlety of colour that is worthy of a more durable material.


A pale pink-coloured or a green-coloured variety of quartz was carved by the Chinese into decorative vases and figures. Most examples are clumsy in appearance and not very carefully carved; few are very old.

Other stones

Many other decorative stones, both large and small, have been used by lapidaries in both East and West; the list of them is too long and their descriptions too involved to be included here. However, mention must be made of two of the more important.

Derbyshire Spar, known also as Blue John (surmised to be a corruption of the French `bleu-jaune' from the prevalent colours of the stone), an unusually vividly marked variety of fluorspar mined in Derbyshire, and made into vases and other ornaments from about 1770. Some of the finer eighteenth-century examples have ormolu mounts which were made by Matthew Boulton in Birmingham.

A transparent variety of quartz is rock-crystal, which was carved with consummate skill in both Classical and Renaissance times. Examples of European work are seldom seen outside the principal museums, and the magnificence of most of the surviving specimens is a clear indication of why they were, and are still, so highly valued.

Specimens of Chinese carved rock-crystal are sometimes to be seen. They take similar forms to jade, and both vases and figures were made.

Hardstones of many kinds were used for the making of decorative panels, known as Pietre Dure or Florentine Mosaics, for table-tops and other purposes by the Italians. A workshop for this purpose was started by the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the end of the sixteenth century and, apart from specimens in museums and collections all over the world, there is a museum in Florence devoted to the art (the Museo dell' Opficio delle Pietre Dure). In addition to making panels to form pictures in the manner of marquetry, but using coloured marbles and stones instead of wood; other panels were made with the inset stones carved in relief: bunches of highly polished cherries were a popular subject.

The Japanese family of Shibayama introduced the inlaying of coloured shell and other material into their ivory carvings, and from this spread the inlaying of hardstones, mother-of-pearl and anything else considered suitable into panels of lacquer. All this inlaid work is known as Shibayama, although it only faintly resembles the original work of the family.