HISTORY OF JADE IN CHINESE CULTURE
Jade has long been treasured in China, bearing a cultural significance that dates back 8,000 years. The Chinese have honored and cherished this mystical gem like no other, and throughout the ages it has become an integral part of Chinese civilization, known as the ‘stone of heaven’. The ancient Chinese attributed the beauty of jade to its five virtues: benevolence, wisdom, courage, justice and purity. Jade is a generic term for both nephrite and jadeite – however, jadeite is far rarer, with the best specimens boasting a deep green hue and lustrous translucency, and was therefore reserved only for Emperors and their royal court in the past.
Both nephrite and jadeite are one of the toughest minerals on earth. This was discovered and applied by the Chinese early on, who used nephrite as tools, ornaments and weapons for thousands of years. Jadeite, unlike nephrite, was introduced later in history. Local lores from the 13th century say that a Yunnan trader travelling through an area now known as northern Myanmar casually picked up a boulder to help ease the balance of packages on his mule – and when that boulder was cracked open, a vivid emerald green gem appeared within. With a toughness like nephrite but a colour and translucency far superior than the gem they knew, the Chinese were fascinated.
One of the earliest well-known lovers of jade from the imperial family was Emperor Qianlong (1711 – 1799). As an avid art collector, Emperor Qianlong was especially fond of the rich colours that came from jadeite. The gem was soon called fei cui (翡翠), as the saturated colours of the stone were seen akin to the bright blue feathers of a kingfisher bird. The Palace Museum holds two jadeites from the Qianlong period, both truly remarkable treasures from the past.
HISTORY OF JADEITE BANGLES IN THE IMPERIAL COURT
Jade bangles, among various forms of jewellery, are an indispensable part of China’s historic culture. They have been appreciated as a symbol of wealth and power for thousands of years. In the past, nephrite bangles were worn with various intricate designs as adornments – however, the discovery of jadeite led to jadeite bangles being highly sought after by the wealthiest and most powerful individuals.
Jadeite bangles of emerald green colour were greatly admired by the imperial court, and have adorned the arms of various empresses throughout history. The Empress Dowager Ci’an (1837 – 1881) was seen in her portrait wearing a pair of green jadeite bangles as she rests in a beautiful garden.
The Empress Dowager Cixi (1861 – 1908) had a lifelong admiration of the finest jadeites. She was known to surround herself with jadeites everywhere in the Palace of Eternal Spring – using jadeite bowls for tea, jadeite chopsticks for her meals, jadeite rings, bangles and hairpins for jewellery, and even held jadeite cabbages in her hands as playthings. A portrait of Cixi dressed in casual garments also reveal a pair of deep emerald green jadeite bangles on both of her arms, said to be a gift from Emperor Xianfeng when she was first named the imperial concubine (Fig.1). This pair was estimated to be worth 420,000 teals at the time, which would be about 70 million yuan today. Cixi kept these pair of stunning jadeite bracelets on her arm for the rest of her life in fond remembrance of the emperor.
The Palace Museum collection includes a stunning jadeite bracelet of exceptional quality – perfect in proportion and shape, with lush hues of green. Outside the imperial court, fine jadeite bangles were extremely scarce. One can imagine an empress of the royal court enjoying the deep saturated hues of the jadeite bangle, a symbol of great authority and privilege.
Compared to various forms of jadeite jewellery, bangles command one of the highest values due to the extensive wastage of the rough material. This involves a sizeable investment and risk because the centre of jadeite bangles needs to be hollowed out from a single boulder. This is called a hololith, indicating that the bangle was crafted from one gemstone.
The standards when grading jadeite are as follows: colour, translucency, texture, shape and size. Because the green colour of the jadeite is usually saturated around a vein, the possibility of the vein growing or overlapping with another vein to form a green zone that is suitable for a whole bangle to be carved out without colourless areas is extremely rare. It is even rarer for this saturated area to be of fine translucency over an area wide enough for the whole hololith to be carved. Usually jadeite bangles may enjoy the privilege of having a strong colour or a glossy translucency; but to have both in a single boulder is an impeccable feat of nature that is almost impossible to find.
When a boulder has the perfect colours and translucency, the other three criteria still need to be met for a bangleto be formed. As a natural mineral, jadeite has an infinite variety of inclusions such as blotches, spots, clouds, veins, and a combination of any of these. While carving, natural fissures may also be found within the jadeite boulder, making it extremely difficult to complete a wholesome piece of jewellery. Therefore the texture of jadeite has to be clear and evenly distributed, and free of any blemishes that may hinder the appearance of the bangle.
In terms of size and shape, it is extremely difficult to carve a bangle that is thick and sumptuous. As fine material is now very scarce, most modern bangles are thinner and therefore lighter than the jadeite bangles from the past. A jadeite bangle with uncompromising thickness and a full, round shape is exceptionally rare, as jadeite boulders rarely have even texture, translucency or colour distribution in a size great enough for a complete bangle to be formed without flaws.
Despite such rarity Lot 1771, the ‘Circle of Heaven’ boasts a solid thickness with superb proportion, alongside perfect colour, translucency and texture. This is truly a sight of magnificent splendour. For a jadeite bangle to enjoy a brilliant, green hue throughout its whole piece, with a clean texture and water-like translucency could almost be considered a miracle of nature. Then, to create a bangle of fine polish and such ideal shape celebrates the outstanding workmanship of humanity.
FAMOUS JADEITE COLLECTIONS
Jadeite has been highly prized by the most affluent and powerful, and numerous female figures who were leading icons of their time were great patrons of the gem. In recent history, notable women such as Barbara Hutton and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek have enjoyed outstanding jadeite collections of their own.
Barbara Woolworth Hutton was the famed heiress to the retail tycoon Frank Woolworth - which made her one of the wealthiest women of the world. She was well known for having an exquisite eye for jewels, which was evident by her extraordinary collections. In acquiring the finest jewels of the world, Barbara was highly distinguished in her selection when it came to jadeite. Sotheby’s Hong Kong auctioned the Hutton-Mdivani Jadeite Necklace by Cartier in 2014, which holds the world auction record for any jadeite jewellery and for any Cartier jewellery at 214,040,000 HKD – higher than twice the amount of the initial estimate. Barbara also owned a fine carved jadeite bangle as well – which was also sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1988 for 7,040,000 HKD.
Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who is also famously known by her maiden name Soong May-ling, collected fabulous jadeite jewelleries throughout her time. As a leading style icon of her time, Madame Chiang was influential in bringing the charms of Chinese culture to an international audience. One of her treasured pieces of jadeite jewellery includes a stunning pair of jadeite bangles, engraved with a twisted pattern. Jadeite bangles of such design are very difficult to make, as the twisting curve of the design has to be carved out seamlessly from beginning to the end. This pair was described to be ‘of bright intense green colour and sumptuously translucent’. She can be seen wearing this very pair of jadeite bangles on her 100th birthday party in 1998.
From Barbara Hutton to Madame Chiang Kai-shek, it is apparent that the captivating beauty of jadeite jewelleries enchanted the most beautiful, influential, wealthy and well-dressed ladies of all eras.
THE CIRCLE OF HEAVEN
The ‘Circle of Heaven’ is a truly a sublime gift from nature. Its vibrant emerald green colour is sumptuously saturated throughout the entire hololith, with a glowing, glossy translucency of the finest jadeite. And the symbolism behind the name is rich and potent - as the concept of both circle and heaven is intricately woven together for jadeite in Chinese culture.
The circle as a symbol has long held intense values throughout Chinese history, signifying a perfected unity and wholesome fulfillment. It was heightened by the fact that a perfect circle cannot be produced by unaided human skills, and therefore was revered as a transcendent symbol in the old ages. In gai tian (蓋天) theory of cosmography, the heaven is portrayed as a round, full circle. A poem by Song Yu written in 300 BC states: The square earth is a chariot; The round heaven is its canopy. As the heavens were synonymous to immortality, round jadeite bangles have long symbolized unity and eternity.
Jade as a gemstone has long been admired as a ‘stone of heaven’. There are many theories as to why it is called so; some think it’s because the remarkable toughness of the gem made it extremely difficult to break, but the relatively lower hardness allowed the stone to be malleable in the hands of craftsmen. Throughout the ages, jade was crafted to take various forms, including tools and weapons. When these items were used, they realized that the jade was extremely durable – which led them to think that the gems had innate power given by the heavens.
Yu (玉), which is jade in Chinese, is one of the oldest characters in the language. The pictograph is known to have originated in 2,950 BC, and symbolizes the linking of heaven and earth. It is also very similar to the Chinese word wang (王), which signifies king, or ruler. Throughout history, jade became associated with two major concepts, which are represented by 吉 (Ji) and祥 (xiang). Ji is a representation of serene harmony; xiang is a state of serenity, and peace of mind. Both concepts merge together harmoniously in the full form of a jadeite bangle. Therefore the ‘Circle of Heaven’ is rich and potent in its symbolism, made with the ‘stone of heaven’ to represent the heavens in its perfect form.
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