If you think I’m an expert on jade, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I covet it. I own it. But I will never claim to have anything more than an amateur’s eye for it. My husband once asked a gemologist to advise him on jade, and the gemologist said: “I’ve spent my entire life learning about colored stones. Learning about jade would take another lifetime, and I’m not going to start now.”
What I do know is that this un-flashy stone, with its sometimes almost greasy luster, has inspired devotion bordering on lust for thousands of years. The oldest Chinese ritual objects, dating back to Neolithic times, were jade—the bi, for example, a flat disc with a hole in its center, or the cong, a hollow cylinder. These shapes reappeared over the centuries even as their original meanings remained obscure.
Riding the New York subways, I still see many a Chinese-American woman wearing a disc or cylinder of green-and-white jade on a gold chain, or a green or lavender jade bangle bracelet. Such pieces are passed down from mother to daughter and are traditionally worn for protection and healing.
Jade (as I’m sure you know) is actually two different rocks: jadeite, which has about the same hardness as quartz, and nephrite, which is slightly softer but more resistant to breakage. Both words, via their French and Latin roots, refer to the kidneys, because jade was reputed to cure kidney ailments. How do you tell nephrite from jadeite? Generally speaking, jadeite is glassier and comes in purples and clear greens.
The most expensive jadeite, called Imperial jade, is emerald green. It’s a serious gem, and worn as such. I own a pair of Imperial jade earrings, at left. The stones were my mother’s; they’d been prong-set in earrings I never wore. My jeweler friend Nan bezeled them in gold, and now I wear them often.
Nephrite, the jade with the almost-greasy luster, comes in greens, browns, yellows, whites, reds—lots of colors. Nephrite can be just as sought-after as jadeite, and not just in jewelry. I have a number of fanciful 19th Century carvings in the translucent white nephrite called Mutton Fat jade. They’re elegant things that seem to proliferate on their own.
The lust for jade sneaked up on me. Every form of it is satisfying to wear. Hell, it’s satisfying just to hold. I can’t think of any other kind of stone that’s as varied, versatile and beautiful as a jewelry material. A few examples:
The pendant above is an oval-shaped piece of translucent green nephrite, one of the jade colors you see most often, which inspired a goldsmith to create an Art Nouveau setting in carved rose gold. It doesn’t look Chinese to me. But…
The nephrite bracelets above are definitely Chinese. The green one, of so-called Spinach jade, belonged to my late friend Juliette, who rarely wore it but loved to hold it. And the funky brown one is the opaque nephrite called Chicken Fat jade. I think it’s very old, though I’d need an actual jade expert to verify that.
The large carved beads at left and at the top of this post are green nephrite shot through with reddish brown. They’re spectacular. I bought them on eBay when I should have been doing something constructive. And I’m not sorry, because the seller, Atara Fobar, is someone who really knows her jade beads (here’s a link to her shop). Atara, it turns out, lives uptown from me, close enough that we can meet for lunch. Her designs have appeared in many major museum catalogs. Once I had these beads in my hands, I knew Atara would know what to do with two large Chinese jade medallions I’d bought long ago, one of which was the same green-and-brown color. And boy, did she.
She just happened to have some carved carnelian and red jade beads that set off the medallion perfectly. The strand is long enough to layer with the large carved beads I first bought from her. It’s more of a statement than I usually make, but I suppose I’m old enough to make grand statements now.
The other medallion, above, is carved with morning glories. I think it’s jadeite because of its gorgeous purples and greens. But it doesn’t matter which kind of jade it is, because Atara had huge beads that matched. I think there’s a lot she can teach me. I also think—being weak when it comes to resisting jade—that she’s going to be dangerous to know.