“To understand jade is to understand the cultures of China and of Asia.”
J ade is a stone so emotionally and culturally rooted to Asia, in particular China, that to the distinguished collector even the most flawless diamond may seem incomparable. Prized as the “stone of heaven” and cherished by Emperors and Empresses, the cultural significance of jade or yù (玉) – a term encompassing both nephrite and the far rarer jadeite – dates back some eight millennia to prehistoric China. Over the centuries, jade became attributed to the five virtues – wisdom, courage, justice, purity, and benevolence – inspiring the Confucian saying that a noble man is like jade, bearing its same moral and spiritual characteristics. Inheriting this revered status, jade in modern times has come to be further regarded as a symbol of good health and wealth. A gem once reserved only for Emperors and the Imperial court, jadeite found new appreciation and demand beyond Asia when early 20th century French jewellers began to incorporate it into their creations at the apex of the Art Deco period. More recently, with contemporary designers bringing a fresh perspective to jadeite jewellery, and a younger generation finding deeper resonance with its cultural significance, this crown jewel of Asia is experiencing yet another renaissance.
50 Years New in Asia: The Emperor's Treasure
“It is the rarity and the beauty of jadeite, and because it’s always highly sought after by Chinese and Asian culture in general, that jadeite naturally became the crown jewel in Asia for people to collect.”
The Market Boom of Jadeite Jewellery
Nearly four decades since the landmark November 1985 Hong Kong sale that saw jadeite jewellery catalogued and sold separately from Chinese Works of Art for the first time at Sotheby’s, demand for jadeite jewellery has grown remarkably, with perceptions evolving alongside the changing tastes of contemporary times.
The historic sale saw a spectacular jadeite bead necklace with a matching ring and earclips – reputedly belonging to the Imperial collection of Dowager Empress Cixi – sell for a staggering HK$2.86 million at the time, setting precedent for Hong Kong to become the premier city for finding the best jadeite at auction, with Sotheby’s the clear leader in the market. The years immediately following witnessed a meteoric rise in the popularity of jadeite jewellery at auction, mainly in the form of necklaces, rings and bangles, many of them family heirlooms consigned by overseas Chinese sellers. As a result, the heyday era of the 1980s to early 1990s saw significantly more Qing Dynasty period pieces at auction than one might encounter nowadays.
Jadeite also found a following outside of Asia. The charisma of jadeite lies in its understated beauty. Rays of light are diffused as they penetrate the translucent stone, creating an enigmatic and magical glow that seems to exude soul from its very core. Compared to the dazzle of diamonds or the sparkle of rubies and sapphires, the exquisite qualities of jadeite can be easily overshadowed. Quiet, patient and never craving attention, jadeite waits to be discovered. “I love jadeite because it’s really subtle, not aggressive, and reserved.” When looking at jadeite, Yu explains, “It’s three elements that come together. It’s always our eye, the light, and the stone.”
These charming qualities were not overlooked by French jewellers and iconic houses such as Cartier, who were influenced by Orientalism. In the 1920s and 1930s, jadeite saw itself being used to create striking Art Deco jewels that amalgamated East and West through the juxtaposition of jadeite against gems such as rubies and diamonds, set in geometric styles that were defining of the era. When such Art Deco period pieces surfaced at auction, they proved particularly popular in Hong Kong’s salesrooms, often selling for more than jewellery from the same period incorporating the equivalent in other gemstones. One such example would be a rare, twisted rope design jadeite bangle from the esteemed collection of American socialite and heiress Barbara Hutton, which fetched just over HK$7 million in a 1988 Sotheby’s sale. Also hailing from the same collection and equally memorable is the Hutton-Mdivani jadeite necklace, originally a wedding gift from Hutton’s father on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Mdivani. The exceptional necklace of 27 jadeite beads dates back to the Qing Dynasty and sports a custom-made ruby and diamond clasp. Offered by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2014, the necklace sold for HK$214.04 million and to this day still holds the world auction records for jadeite jewellery, and the most expensive Cartier jewellery. The final twist to this astonishing tale is that after 20 minutes of heated bidding among seven contenders, the Cartier Collection themselves won the winning bid, bringing home this necklace and its extraordinary chapter in the history of Cartier.
The Imperial Legend of Jadeite, Nature’s Work of Art
Hailing from the mines of Myanmar, legend has it that jadeite was introduced into China in the 13th century when a Yunnan trader passing through what is now northern Myanmar picked up a boulder to help offload the packages on his mule, but the boulder cracked open, revealing a gem of exquisite emerald green glowing within. Intrigued by its majestic glow and saturated colouring, the Imperial court quickly fell in love with jadeite, giving it utmost royal status as a gem reserved only for Emperors and the Imperial court. A jadeite bangle in the tomb of Li Laoruren, dating to the 17th year of the Chongzhen reign, is believed to be the oldest existing jadeite artefact discovered in China, while one of the earliest known collectors of jadeite was Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799) who, during his reign, benefited from an extension of the Qing court’s jurisdiction into northern Myanmar that granted the Imperial family access to Hetian – known to be the best source for nephrite – and to this new gem, jadeite. As recorded in the Emperor’s poems, the stones were mined and shipped to Peking where only the Imperial artisans of the palace workshops were permitted to craft with this treasured material. Subsequently, jadeite was soon given its new name: fei tsui (翡翠).
Owing to its complex mineral properties, the beautiful aqueous quality sought after in the finest quality jadeite is best delivered through smooth, rounded shapes such as the cabochon, the bead, and the bangle, all of which accentuate the light-refracting quality of the stone and demand the greatest craftsmanship. The domed shape of cabochon, introduced into China during the 18th century, is the classic cut for jadeite, requiring proportional length and width in its round contours. Beads, on the other hand, require absolute symmetry and identical colouring. The most challenging to achieve and the rarest of the three cuts to find perfect uniformity of hue and saturation, bangles possess an all-over rounded shape and are carved from a single rough, involving the highest amount of wastage. For these reasons, rings and bangles continue to be the most revered and traditional cuts, while jadeite bead necklaces remain the ultimate statement piece for understated chic.
“For more than a century now, Hong Kong is a city of East meets West. It’s a very international city where you can see the two different cultures influencing one another.”
Contemporary Jadeite, a Tale of Two Cultures
Just as jadeite flourished during the Art Deco period and found favour among Western jewellers, contemporary jewellery designers and major houses are increasingly gravitating towards this unique stone. In 1997, Chanel unleashed a glorious suite of jewels that featured Coco Chanel’s signature camellia flower carved in jadeite and set against diamond-encrusted leaves. Meanwhile, as part of a design collaboration with Sotheby’s, Victoire de Castellane of Christian Dior Joaillerie created an ultra-feminine collection of jewels for auction in October 2000. Named “Promesse”, diamonds were scattered among jadeite leaves like dew drops, emphasising the pure green colour of jadeite. Each piece was sold individually, with the necklace alone fetching HK$3.56 million. Just a couple of years later, Sotheby’s collaborated with Fawaz Gruosi of the Swiss luxury house De Grisogono, who juxtaposed cognac diamonds and rubies with cabochon jadeites in what was deemed “a bravura statement in haute joaillerie.”
More recently, we are seeing a rise in celebrated contemporary designers experimenting with new designs incorporating jadeite – Cindy Chao, Wallace Chan, JAR, Carnet and Nicholas Lieou, to name but a few. “We are seeing jadeite mounted in diamond, in white gold, in a totally Western manner,” says Yu. “Design is becoming more important.” But the challenge remains: reinventing how jadeite is incorporated while still bringing out its truest qualities is no easy feat. Nonetheless, with contemporary design comes a growing new audience for this translucent gem. “To have new jadeite collectors find their love in this category, that’s really something very exciting, and I always feel rewarded. I think that’s really the best part of it.” says Yu who has been a passionate advocate for jadeite appreciation and has encouraged industry standardisation through a global grading system for Imperial Green jadeite led by world-renowned gemological institutes such as Switzerland’s Gübelin Gem Lab and Swiss Gemmological Institute SSEF. The pure, deeply saturated hue of Imperial Green jadeite is deemed equivalent to international colour standards set for the highly revered “Pigeon Blood” ruby and “Royal Blue” sapphire.
All of this aside though, Yu says, “What I really hope to see are more designers using jadeite with an international or even global perspective and taste, perhaps pairing it with new materials such as titanium, ceramics, or even copper.” He believes the market for jadeite jewellery is yet to reach its peak: “It is a market that deserves a lot of appreciation, but also more transparency, so it can obtain international recognition and understanding like other gemstones.”
Passionate about fulfilling what he believes is the untapped potential of jadeite jewellery collecting, Yu has been striving to offer more lots at auction without reserve, meaning that an item does not have a set minimum bid to surpass. It seems a gamble at times, but one that can pay off significantly and reflect true interest levels in the jadeite jewellery market. “We want to show that everybody can become a collector of this category, so we often have no reserve in the auction,” says Yu. “The best way is to take a little risk, it’s the kind of excitement that comes from trying something new.”
“So as long as we keep showing the best of the best, the greatest quality jadeite, I’m very confident that the market will become more and more international,” says Yu. “As long as you see the beauty of the gemstone, that’s the life, that’s the market, that’s the future.”
Special thank you to Blanc de Chine for the generous support for our themed photoshoot. All photo credits: Egill Bjarki.