Lofty Guides: All About Jade

Our discussion of Asian art with expert specialist Daphne Lange Rosenzweig continues today in Part II of our interview. (See Part I here.) Today’s topic is jade, one of the most sought-after materials in Asia jewelry and decorative objects.

Many collectors of Asian art and antiques are interested in jade. What makes jade so collectible?

Jade is elegant, it has a mystic [quality], it handles and displays in a pleasing manner (or should), and the designs are intriguing. It certainly is widely accessible, but there are many problems confronting a beginning collector.

Could you explain a bit about the role/importance of jade in Chinese culture?

From Neolithic times on, jade has been a prized material in China, indeed, the prized material. It had a role in prehistoric and early historic burial customs; smaller pieces being placed in body orifices because of jade’s reputed ability to retard putrefication. Bodies were bedecked in jade jewelry and surrounded by larger pieces with unknown ritual significance. The famous Liu Sheng and Dou Wan tomb full-body burial suits have toured and amazed the world, and since their discovery, more such jade suits have been found. Brides traditionally wore a pair of jade bracelets. Respected for its durability, its coolness to the touch, its palette, its ability to fend off deterioration of the body, its toughness, and other associated qualities, jade is not only popular but the most respected substance throughout Chinese history.

What are the key things to consider when looking for a piece of jade to buy?

First of all, is the carving nephrite, the material of traditional jades, or jadeite, a material imported in later centuries? Note that the term “jade” is not a mineralogical term but is used as an overall designation for both nephrite and jadeite. These are the only two materials which can be properly designated as “jade.” Both nephrite and jadeite are carved today, both have unique mineralogical properties, both have certain palette ranges and a distinctive look. Many markets, including mainland tourist shops, today sell what they call “new jade” which in most cases is a bowenite serpentine, glassy green, neither nephrite or jadeite, much less expensive than either of those and a very modern carving material.

Was the source of the jade material only available at a certain period, and could not possibly be associated a period suggested by a dealer?

Second, is the carving well-done, finished under handles, not rough on the foot, and what type of luster does it have (which will vary by period)? Does it have a waxy feel, to the point that a finger could scrap it off, as in a bar of soap? If so, it has been waxed, to create a false luster, not a genuine one.

Third and so on, what is the condition, has it been repaired, and, if so, skillfully, or is the appearance irreparably disfigured? Does the work display well, does it have translucency, is it executed by hand or by modern machinery, and what are the palette parameters? Does it have an inscription, and if so, what does it say or imply. Note that, as in many modern ivory carvings, there is a tendency in modern jade carving workshops to incise an earlier reign mark. Don’t believe any reign mark unless the piece tells you that it might be possible; if you are not sure, consult an expert. Is the subject interesting, is the form pleasingly traditional or daringly modern (rare!), is it in the Mughal or Chinese style, does it feel good in the hand (if it is that size)? Is the work impressive, approachable, boring?

Is it right for its purported age? A jadeite work dated by a dealer to an early historical period is not believable. A literary theme developed in the eighth century A.D. cannot appear on an earlier work unless it has been incised in later. Does the carving look identical to a work from a famous recent tomb discovery—chances are it is a modern copy. Does it look “diseased,” with a distressed surface, implying it is a tomb jade? That can be easily induced in a modern copy with a six month burial in a pig sty or a quicker acid bath. Knowledge is a weapon, essential for collectors whether beginning or advanced.

What is the one thing that most affects the value of a piece of jade?

Today, color. In the last few years, a pure white carving has achieved much greater market value in general than other tones (apart from an “imperial” or am outstanding spinach green). It might appear that a work, perhaps a hand piece, is white, but it needs to be held up to a truly white object such as a piece of paper; if there is a celadon tinge, the value is decreases. The qualities prized in a cabochon ring or other jewelry are somewhat different, and a Google search for the Barbara Hutton necklace recently sold at auction will indicate the qualities associated with the finest jewelry.

What types of jade objects are most collectable? Are there any you would avoid?

Avoid anything that purports to be “ancient,” particularly said to be from one of the genuine, well-known, widely-published Neolithic sites; these carvings are being produced in abundance. Only trust a reputable dealer or a major auction house, preferably with impeccable provenance papers, for ancient material. If the work is identified as “archaizing,” that is probably true, since it means in the style of an earlier work or period. If the work is identified as “archaic”, be cautious.

Once someone buys a piece of jade, how should s/he care for and clean it?

Keep it safely out of the way if it is a larger carving, clean it only with a bit of Ivory soap and water, rubbing gently and drying instantly. Also, since some modern jades have induced colors via a dying process, the work probably should be kept of direct sunlight! If there is some translucency, as in some of the more elegant, genuinely translucent, jades, a cabinet light behind the work or somehow highlighting it, would be attractive.

What’s one of your favorite jade discoveries?

An advanced collector, an old friend, has a wonderful hand piece (about 2 inches high) of black-and-white jade that I covet. The way that the carving brings out the white patches in the otherwise dark jade is masterful, and the work just feels good in the hand! I have a shell form created from Korean nephrite, with its natural brown inclusions in its rich celadon, beautifully done in a Taiwan jade workshop owned by a Chinese friend. My late husband was a mineralogist and self-collected or otherwise gathered jade samples from around the world. We put together a collection of nephrite and jadeite rough, which has been on display at various gem and mineral shows and used for club talks on jade. The hands-on experience is invaluable. Book learning and museum viewing cannot be underestimated, but touching and rubbing the material is what jade is all about!