Jadeite: Carving the Shape of Water

Jadeite: Carving the Shape of Water

W hen light passes through jadeite, the effect is a muted, enigmatic glow that is both indescribable and can fill volumes. This allure has inspired mythologies and a cultural reverence, especially in China, that stretches back centuries. A gemstone of unsurpassed beauty, jadeite is different from other gemstones in aesthetics. Unlike diamonds or emeralds, which possess highly reflective transparent crystalline, jadeite is a mineral with a more complex chemical composition. Top-quality jadeites possess a dense structure, fine crystals, even color, high translucency and a depth that evokes a sense of tranquility. That soft radiance is one of the reasons why jadeite remains the most sought-after gemstone in China, by far. Compared with jewels that dazzle and sparkle with brilliant fire, jadeite possesses a cool, watery luminosity suited for those who value a more understated aesthetic. This is the reason why, as a rule, jadeite is polished without facets, to best display its almost aqueous quality.

“Approach jadeite jewelry not as a commodity, but rather as a work of art created by nature and shaped by human hands.”
Wenhao Yu, Sotheby’s Hong Kong Deputy Chairman of Jewelry, Asia

The properties of jadeite are shown to greatest effect when cut into smooth and rounded shapes. The approach to cutting jadeite differs from the art of cutting diamonds, which perhaps might be chalked up to history and culture. Understanding the process of how a piece is crafted from rough boulder will enhance the collectors’ appreciation of fine jadeite jewelry. This process is best understood when in context of three classic shapes: the bangle, beads, and cabochon.


Bangles can take various forms, but the round shape symbolizes the harmony of heaven and earth. Rings, buckles, bracelets, and other round adornments are very popular. The rarest and most valuable of these is the jadeite bangle, because a lot of material is wasted in the carving process; this is especially true in round jadeite bangles. The coveted part in jadeite runs as a rare vein through a host boulder, which is considered precious even as it is often intersected by the mottling of inclusions and colorless zones. The only way to assess the quality of the vein is to cut open the rough boulder. Similar to graining in wood, the texture of the stone appears different when viewed along the length of the shun wen (even grain) versus the ni wen (end grain). Hence, the angle will change the appearance of this stone, meaning visual inconsistency would normally be expected.

To fashion forms such as a bangle involves immense wastage, and as the cutting of a bangle requires a large surface area of the precious green vein, it is most common to find bangle forms with varying textures, opacities and colors. For a bangle of Imperial Green, imagine the amount of skill and luck involved. First, one would have to find a boulder, a marvel of nature, large enough to accommodate a large hololith, and then, much of the precious material must be expended in the process. It is the highest achievement to transform any top quality stone into a large single piece of uniform translucency, perfect distribution of hue and saturation, and showing no clouding or mottling.

Bangles can be round in three ways – it has a rounded interior, rounded exterior, and rounded overall shape – which symbolize good fortune. As a result, round bangles are also called "lucky bangles." Because of the labour and materials involved, such bangles are prized by collectors. The jadeite bracelet offered this season is made from the best Myanmar jadeite; the piece has a pure, dark green colour that suffuses the entire piece, a sleek texture, and excellent translucency, making it extremely rare.


For the same reason, jadeite bead necklaces are also highly coveted and luxurious. Ideally, each bead will match uniformly in color and texture, and this effect can only be achieved by carving from the same rough. Over half of a material’s rough can be lost in the attempt to cut out a presentable sphere. Color and texture are the most important factors for matching jadeite beads. Craftsmen also match transparency, size, and symmetry of cut. Because of the extraordinary difficulties in matching, especially for color, longer strands or larger beads can command extremely high prices.

In the early 20th century, Cartier and other jewelers from the West were inspired by Chinese culture and began to incorporate nephrite and jadeite in their designs for snuff boxes or vanity boxes. In the 1930s Cartier sourced 27 magnificent jadeite of highly translucent bright emerald green color, and with a clasp set with calibré-cut rubies and diamonds, created a legendary jadeite necklace for the heiress Barbara Hutton, given as wedding gift from her father. In 2014, Sotheby's had the privilege of selling the Hutton-Mdivani necklace, which achieved $27.4 million and stands as the auction record for any piece of jadeite jewelry and for a piece of Cartier jewelry.


The classic cut for jadeite is the cabochon; the smooth domed shape is a perfect celebration of the material. The intricate beauty of jadeite is best seen in their mere simplicity, the finest jadeites are always polished as a cabochon spared of superfluous embellishments. The technique for cutting cabochons is very particular and detailed, akin to sculpture. The contours of the cabochon must be round, its length and width must be proportional, and symmetry is essential. When cutting a pair or a set of cabochons, significant amounts of stone must be wasted to achieve the optimal visual effect.

The jadeite cabochon earrings and ring in this season’s sale feature large pieces of the best Imperial Green jadeite with excellent color, texture, and translucency. The designation of “Imperial Green” can be considered a parallel to the international color standards set for other gemstones – i.e.,“Pigeon's Blood” for rubies and “Royal Blue” for sapphires. It refers to jadeite that is richly saturated with a deep medium tone, slightly more yellow than a fine emerald green without any off-tones such as brown or gray, and no inclusions. The cabochons are beautifully and evenly matched with a rounded, full shape. These pieces represent the perfect union of beautiful materials and human artistry.

Beyond these three standard shapes, jadeite jewelry can take many forms, and the variety is part of the delight in collecting the majestic gemstone. The proportion, shape and polish of jadeite call for the highest level of craftsmanship in the world— possessed of supreme artistry, keen judgment and meticulous precision.

Carved Jadeite

Beyond the physical beauty of the gemstone, it is important to remember that for hundreds of years, jadeite has been a symbol of supreme status and extreme wealth. Collecting jadeite jewelry has a long tradition history in Asia, famously prized at the Qing Imperial court. Because of this reverence for the gemstone, which had in China become emblematic of noble scholarly virtues, jadeite would often be carved into auspicious objects of great cultural significance.

Growth of the Fine Jadeite Market


Although jadeite has obvious associations with Asia its cultures, the success of jadeite jewelry at auction the gemstone’s broad appeal. Throughout history, jadeites have been highly prized for its timeless beauty and worn by the rich and famous, many of whom were legendary female figures from the ruling class and notable fashion icons of all times.

Seasons upon seasons of auction show clear evidence that the appetite for collecting jadeite has only continued to grow. In Sotheby’s Hong Kong 2020 spring auctions, the sale of a remarkable jadeite bead necklace, the largest to receive a special Gubelin certificate for its Imperial Green quality, went under the hammer for a stunning HK$80.7 million (US$10.4 million) and after a bidding war between five determine phone bidders. This is evidence of renewed international interest in fine jadeite, with collectors from not only Asia but all over the world. Of course, jadeite has always been in fashion in Asia, however in recent years that appreciation has surpassed cultural boundaries.

Wearing Fred Leighton carved jade and diamond earrings, Jessica Chastain arrives at the "Interstellar" - Los Angeles Premiere at TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on October 26, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage via Getty Images) Steve Granitz/WireImage


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