The anxiety becomes palpable in the city of Yangon, Myanmar
(formerly Burma), each March and November, when Asian stone dealers convene for
the government-run auctions of rough jadeite. The sales produce revenue for the
country’s government, a military regime with a dubious human rights record. But
politics are not the source of the tension at the auctions. Here, bidders risk
fortunes in the hopes of attaining valuable gems that may or may not be
concealed within the crusty jadeite boulders; a buyer will not know whether his
rocks contain treasure or trash until they have been cleaved.
Jadeite, a more rare and valuable form of jade, is the most
coveted jewel in Asia. If a dealer is fortunate enough to select the right
boulder, he can earn tens of thousands of dollars through a single acquisition.
However, according to the folklore surrounding jade, dealers have suffered
financial ruin, and even committed suicide, because they bid on bad rocks.
"Buying jadeite rough is like gambling," says Vickie Sek,
director of the Jewelry and Jadeite department at Christie’s Asia and department
head for jewelry at Christie’s Hong Kong. "The discovery of a boulder that
yields enough high-quality jadeite to create a single strand of beads is so
slim," she adds, "it’s like winning the lottery."
While jade has been in demand for centuries, prices have
skyrocketed in the past decade. Thirty years ago, says estate jewelry dealer
Ralph Esmerian, a good piece of jadeite sold for $50,000 to $100,000; a
comparable piece today might be worth $1 million. Last November, Christie’s Hong
Kong sold a single jadeite strand for nearly $3 million and a jadeite ring for
more than $800,000. Both prices were far greater than the estimates. Not
coincidentally, the increase in the value of jade coincides with the rapid
proliferation of millionaires in China and other Asian countries.
Sek considers thousands of jade pieces before selecting about
100 for each of her house’s biannual auctions, which take place each spring and
fall. (The next sale is scheduled for November 29.) Unlike diamonds, jade is not
evaluated and graded according to international standards for quality. However,
Christie’s has its jadeite tested at the Hong Kong Gems Laboratory, which
certifies that the color is natural and untreated. Most gem labs can test
jadeite to determine if it has been color-treated.
Discovering a piece of what dealers call "perfect" jade—based
on the stone’s color, texture, translucency, color saturation, evenness of hue,
and purity—is as rare as finding a blue diamond, says Sek. Christie’s Hong Kong
sold one perfect jadeite necklace 10 years ago. The strand of 27 beads achieved
a world-record price of $9.4 million. Another necklace of similar quality, or
even approaching it, has yet to be found.
The highest-quality jadeite is mined in Myanmar. After dealers
purchase rough jadeite at the Myanmar auctions, they distribute the boulders to
a network of Asian stonecutters, who typically belong to lineages of jade
carvers. Families often specialize in carving particular figurines, such as
dragons or Buddhas. The jade dealers then sell the cut stones to gem dealers,
auction houses, and collectors.
The term jade applies to jadeite and nephrite,
both of which are extremely hard, dense, matted aggregates. However, the stones
differ from one another in their chemical compositions and color ranges. Jadeite
comes in an array of colors, including white, black, brown, and violet. The most
desirable form of jade is imperial jadeite, which has a deep green hue and is
nearly as transparent as glass. Nephrite is usually green or creamy white.
Chro-mium, iron, and other trace elements in the rocks account for the color
Jade has been treasured for centuries in Asia, where it is
believed to have spiritual properties that safeguard its wearers. "In Asia, men
and women, old and young, believe jade can protect you," says Sek. "It is
traditional for grandparents to give their newly born grandchildren a piece of
jade as a symbol of protection." As early as 3,000 B.C., the Chinese referred to
jade as the "royal gem," and it has continued to play a significant role in the
country’s history, art, and culture. Before the Chinese discovered jade,
prehistoric peoples formed weapons and tools from the stone. When the Spanish
conquistadors witnessed Central American natives using ground jade to treat
kidney ailments in the 1500s, they christened the mineral piedra de ijada,
or stone of the loin. The English derivative became jade.
Some of the best jade jewelry, says Esmerian, who owns the Fred
Leighton boutique on Madison Avenue, originates from the Art Deco period, when
Cartier, Tiffany, and other great houses incorporated Asian, Egyptian, and Aztec
influences into their art. Recently, a number of American designers began
featuring jade in their contemporary designs. Among them are Lorraine Schwartz,
James de Givenchy for Taffin, and David Yurman, all of whom have combined honey-
and lavender-colored jade with diamonds and colorful gemstones.
Although these and other American designers have adopted jade
as a favorite new medium, Sotheby’s and Christie’s continue to sell their
top-quality jadeite jewelry only at their Hong Kong auctions, where collectors
have shown no price threshold for premium examples of the stone. Their
willingness to spend so freely on jade might be as much a function of culture as
it is a function of wealth. Americans are not taught the same appreciation for
jade as are people in Asia, says Esmerian. "The ancient Chinese emperors
worshipped jade, usually white nephrite carvings, as a psychological and
spiritual ritual object," he says. "We never looked at any stone in such a way."
Carnet by Michelle Ong
www.henrydunay.com; available at Neiman Marcus, 800.944.9888,
www.neimanmarcus.com, and Bergdorf Goodman,
available at Bergdorf Goodman, 800.558.1855,
James de Givenchy for Taffin
available at Bergdorf Goodman, 800.558.1855,
Van Cleef & Arpels