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Feature: Jaded Beauty

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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 variations.

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

+852.2805.0113, www­.carnetjewellery.com

David Yurman

212.752.4255, www­.davidyurman.com

Eclat Jewels

212.581.2446, www­.eclatjewels.com

Fred Leighton

212.288.1872, www­.fredleighton.com

Henry Dunay

www­.henrydunay.com; available at Neiman Marcus, 800.944.9888, www­.neimanmarcus.com, and Bergdorf Goodman, 800.558.1855, www­.bergdorfgoodman.com

Ionescu

available at Bergdorf Goodman, 800.558.1855, www­.bergdorfgoodman.com

James de Givenchy for Taffin

212.421.6222

Lang Antiques

415.982.2213, www­.langantiques.com

Lorraine Schwartz

available at Bergdorf Goodman, 800.558.1855, www­.bergdorfgoodman.com

Meriwether

415.359.1111, www­.meriwether.net

Nardi

212.974.9360

Stephen Russell

212.570.6900, www­.stephenrussell.com

Van Cleef & Arpels

800.822.5797, www­.vancleef-arpels.com

Verdura

212.758.3388, www­.verdura.com

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