Under the spell of jade: The wonder gem of fine jewellery
"Gold has a value. Jade is invaluable," goes an old Chinese saying. Years of steady price increase — the highest among coloured precious stones — and auction bids beating expectations by even 32 times the pre-sale estimates prove that jade still holds a special place within Chinese culture, seducing even the younger Asian generations. In addition, appreciation and market for its discrete beauty is also growing in the Western world.
Originally, all jade objects were thought to be made from the same material. However, in 1863 French mineralogist Alexis Damour discovered that the material known as "jade" could be actually divided into two chemically different substances: Jadeite — also known as imperial jade — which comes exclusively from Myanmar, and nephrite which traditionally comes from western China and was in use long before jadeite became popular. The former is the most translucent substance and comes in a variety of colours from deep greens to lavender; it is also the hardest and often most valuable form of the stone, and usually turned into jewellery. Nephrite on the other hand is a softer, cloudier stone that comes in an even greater array of colours and is more commonly used for carvings.
Mr Chin Yeow Quek, Sotheby's deputy chairman of Asia and the chairman of international jewellery, elaborates that although the jade market remains a niche, a continuously increased demand for the most valuable variety of jade is linked to China's economic growth in the past 10 years, and in conjunction with dwindling supply from Myanmar has seen jade's prices multiplied by 14 times in the last decade. This is a unique, phenomenal growth among coloured gemstones. Indeed, by comparison sapphires and rubies only saw their prices increase by about 50 per cent and emeralds grew by two-and-a-half times, whereas diamond prices have remained very stable over the same period.
High prices have also been commanded at recent auctions by Sotheby's and Christie's in Hong Kong where most creations containing jade go under the hammer. In 2015, the jewellery collection of K'ung Hsiang-Hsi — China's most prominent banker and politician in the '40s — sold for seven times its pre-sale estimate at Christie's Hong Kong. Within this lot, an octagonal jadeite plaque of vivid green set on a diamond ring fetched over USD two million, beating its pre-sale estimates by 28 times.
And while the value of diamonds is almost scientifically based on the famous four Cs, Mr Shiu-Fung Chiang, the associate vice president and specialist of the jewellery and jadeite department from Christie's Hong Kong, explains that jade's value is assessed by colour, translucency, texture and cut, plus the unquantifiable overall perceived beauty of the stone — as is the case for all coloured gemstones.
While green is the colour for which it is most commonly known, jadeite can also be found in lavender, red, orange, yellow, brown, white, black and grey. The translucency of jadeite, which is the degree to which light penetrates the stone, ranges from opaque to semi-transparent and that alluring brilliance is the factor that makes it the most coveted. Jadeite's texture refers to the ground, size and the type of crystal structure within the material, with the best stones displaying an extremely fine texture through which light can pass more evenly.
As for the cut, jadeite is fashioned into a handful of distinctive, traditional jewellery forms, ranging from beads for necklaces to cabochons for rings. Some are hololiths, carved entirely from a single piece of rough. Common hololiths include bangles, rings and pendants, which wastes more rough during the cutting process, thereby making these items the most expensive ones. "Jadeite is such a precious material and it is often simply cost prohibitive for some designers to work with it. It's not a material that one experiments with and for that reason, only experienced masters dare utilise top quality jade in their pieces," explains Jean Z. Poh, fourth generation high jewellery professional and collector, as well as the founder of fine jewellery e-tailer swoonery.com, who also elaborates that serious collectors may buy a piece of rough and commission it to be carved if they have a favorite master's work they collect.
Specifically, jadeite of high translucency and vivid emerald colour is rare and considered to be the best quality, commanding the highest bids at auction. One such piece is the iconic Hutton-Mdivani necklace belonging to the famous heiress of the Woolworth fortune, socialite Barbara Hutton. The necklace was designed by Cartier as a row of 27 large jade beads of beautiful translucency and brilliant green colour on a ruby and diamond clasp. Reported by Mr Quek: "The Hutton-Mdivani Necklace was the object of a fierce and extended bidding war among multiple contenders. Eight bidders in the room and on the phones competed for 20 minutes, driving the price to double the estimate and achieving a world record for any jadeite jewel with USD 27.44 million."
This exceptional necklace is currently on display at the Musée Guimet in Paris in an exhibition titled Jade: From Emperors to Art Deco, which showcases some 330 pieces inspired by jade from the Neolithic era until the 1920's. This exhibition, alongside The Art of Jade held at the Flint Museum of Arts in Michigan, show that the Western world is slowly but surely being seduced by jade's understated charm. And if red carpets are anything to go by, there are many signs that the gemstone is definitely gaining momentum. Nicole Kidman wore a pair of vintage jeweller specialist Fred Leighton nephrite and black jadeite pendant earrings at the CMT Awards, while previously Karlie Kloss wore a pair of carved jade and diamond earrings also by Fred Leighton at the MET Gala, and Jessica Chastain also debuted an exquisite pair during the premiere of Interstellar.
Auction giants Christie's and Sotheby's note that clients interested in jade jewellery are mostly Asians who are considerably younger as compared to 20 years ago. Similarly, jade has sparked the imagination of a younger generation of designers. Annoushka — a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge — has recently released a pair of limited edition fan-shaped drop earrings in which rays of finely cut jadeite are interspersed by baguette-cut diamonds. Avant-garde jewellery designer Kavant & Sharart are also set to launch intriguingly crafted earrings featuring jade, diamonds and white gold, while vivid green jadeite is the soul of the Nara necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels in their Les Jardins High Jewellery collection wherein ten beads of uniquely wave-round shaped jadeite are sinuously embraced by white gold and round diamonds.
"Known since prehistoric times as 'the stone of heaven', jade is believed to have a mystical power to bring peace and protection and to inspire the highest spiritual aspirations in its wearer."More audaciously, Cartier encrusts green nephrite jade crescents into vertical rows of diamonds on a yellow gold cuff for its Étourdissant High Jewellery collection, and Bulgari exalts the beauty of a single pear-shaped vivid green cabochon jadeite held by a diamond necklace with matching earrings in its haute joaillerie collection. Another contemporary jade jewellery masterpiece includes the cicada brooch conceived by master jade jeweller Wallace Chan. Valued at approximately 30 million Euros, the wondrous cicada — the Buddhist symbol of rebirth and immortality — is made of bright green imperial jadeite, coloured diamonds and rubies. Presented at the 2012 Biennale Des Antiquaires in Paris, the cicada propelled the Hong Kong-based jeweller to international acclaim and put jade back in the spotlight of gems.
As the fascination with jade grows ever stronger, the recent discovery of a large 175-ton jade stone in Myanmar earlier in October has surely made hearts throb as the stone gets cut and polished on its way to be sublimated by jewellery designers. And it'll probably not be long until we hear another astonishing story on the spell cast by the subdued beauty of jade.