AUCTION UPDATE:  The Hutton-Mdivani necklace, which once belonged to Barbara Hutton, was sold for HK214.04 million, setting the world auction record for any jadeite jewellery.

As Sotheby's Hong Kong prepares to sell the Hutton-Mdivani Necklace – the most admired and revered jadeite necklace in history – Vivienne Becker explores jadeite's mysterious qualities, both material and spiritual, that have captivated connoisseurs for centuries.

Jadeite, known as the stone of heaven, has been living up to its name – prices have soared steadily over the past few years, reaching stratospheric levels for the finest specimens. Last year in Hong Kong a two-row jadeite bead necklace sold for an astonishing HK$42.6 million (US$5.5 million). This bodes well for the superlative jadeite necklace of divine dignity and splendour that takes pride of place in Sotheby's Hong Kong sale in April. The necklace, known as the Hutton-Mdivani necklace, was once owned by the jewel-adoring, much-married Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. According to Stefano Papi and Sotheby's expert Alexandra Rhodes in their new book, 20th Century Jewelry & The Icons of Style, Hutton had a penchant for jade jewels and works of art, having been introduced to them by the owners of Gump's, the San Francisco store specialising in works of art from the Far East. She owned a number of jade necklaces, but this piece was by far the most important and was one of the dramatic jewels most closely associated with Hutton, who was often photographed wearing it. The ruby and diamond clasp was added by Cartier in 1933 and the following year, the jeweller made a ring to match. 

Barbara Hutton wearing the Hutton-Mdivani Necklace, accompanied by her first husband Alexis Mdivani in 1933.

Provenance aside, two further elements add to the current surge in popularity for top-quality jadeite. On a purely material level, escalating demand generated by China's new wealth and the accompanying lust for luxury has conspired with a limited supply from the mines in Myanmar to push values ever higher. Added to that is the demand from connoisseurs and collectors in Asia who clamour for rare, antique or period jadeite jewels that bring with them the full weight of history and heritage – the rich cultural associations and the aura of mystery and majesty that are all part of jadeite's enigmatic allure. The Hutton-Mdivani Necklace, with Qing Dynasty jadeite beads reputedly from the Imperial court, has all of these, making it the ultimate object of desire. 

Jade, the generic term for two different minerals, nephrite and jadeite, has been prized and revered in China for thousands of years. Both are among the strongest, toughest minerals on earth, and since the 3rd millennium BC, nephrite was used for tools, weapons and burial ornaments, including the celebrated royal Han Dynasty jade burial suits, which were believed to preserve and protect the body from evil spirits in the afterlife. Jadeite, on the other hand, which is far rarer, far more precious and lustrously beautiful, only found its way to China from its main source in the mines of Burma in the early 18th century. The finest specimens, of a deep, intense pulsating green, with a silky, glossy tactility and otherworldly translucency, were appropriated by the Emperor and his Royal court, used for ritual objects and refined dress ornaments, such as belt hooks and scabbard hilts. The association has given rise to the emotive term Imperial Jade. 

Formerly in The Collection of Ms Barbara Hutton. An Exceptional Jadeite Bead Necklace of Extreme Importance, 27 beads approximately 15.4 to 19.2 mm with ruby-set clasp by Cartier. Estimate upon request. Photography by Ernest Yiu.

Assessing jadeite demands experience, expertise and the instinctive gift of the passionate connoisseur. Neither standardised nor formulaic, jadeite's most important qualities are colour, transparency and texture. First and foremost, colour is crucial, the prime value factor, with the best denoted as "emerald green," a vivid, vibrant green, pure and penetrating. The next criteria is translucency, the finest jadeite being almost transparent, or semi-transparent; some experts test this by trying to read through the jadeite. Next, the unique texture of jadeite comes from its crystal structure, the property that also delivers its intense hardness, and the best material, classified as "old mine" – as shown to perfection in this necklace – has a glossy, glassy, almost luminous finish, as if lit from within. Finally, the evenness of colour, consistency of saturation, intensity and brightness, come into play and are especially important for beads, which demand the greatest precision of carving, polishing and colour-matching. Jadeite is most often cut en cabochon to maximise its colour, crafted into beads, or carved into traditional, stylised naturalistic forms, or into bangles. The jade bangle, a spectacular example of which will appear in the Hong Kong sale, is immaculately carved from one piece of jadeite, and signifies eternity, unity and protection. It is one of the most potent and auspicious objects in Chinese culture.

A Highly Important Jadeite Bangle. Estimate HK$40,000,000–50,000,000. Photography by Ernest Yiu.

The colour, light and sheen, the sheer physical beauty and extraordinary properties of jadeite are almost inseparable from its powerful spiritual dimension and the deep-rooted position of awe and reverence that it occupies in Chinese culture. Traditionally a sign of the highest rank in Chinese society, yet also with the power to ease the path into the next world, jade was seen as a link between heaven and earth. It embodied Confucian virtues of wisdom, justice, compassion, purity, modesty, was associated with music, from the bell-like sound it makes when struck, and was believed to attract love. Today, the legends linger, and jadeite is still regarded as powerful and protective, promising prosperity and longevity, imbued with energy and vitality, which will, hopefully, be transferred to the wearer. Fulfilling its virtue of modesty, jadeite taps into today's mood of low-key luxury, with a certain Eastern inscrutability enveloped in an irresistible aura of timeless romance, myth and mystery. As the Chinese saying goes, "Gold is valuable, but jade is priceless."

Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian, contributing editor for FT's How to Spend It and author of Assouline's Impossible Collection of Jewellery. 

The Hutton-Mdivani Necklace and the Jade Bangle will be offered in the Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite sale on 7 April in Hong Kong.