The power of jade
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Jade has been treasured in China for millennia, both as a rare gem considered more precious than gold or diamonds and as a store of wealth believed to possess powerful talismanic properties. Now the Stone of Heaven is making its presence felt in western jewellery.
Jade is a generic cover-all term for two distinct minerals: jadeite and nephrite. They are among the toughest, strongest minerals on earth. About 5,000 years ago, nephrite, the more common and more opaque variety, was used for tools, weapons, ritualistic objects and burial ornaments. Jadeite, which is far rarer and lustrously translucent, only arrived in China in the 18th century, making its way there from the mines of Burma (now Myanmar). It took until 1863 to be recognised as a separate mineral, designated jadeite. The finest specimens, with their mesmerising emerald-green hue, were the prerogative of the emperor and his royal court, resulting in the term “imperial jadeite”.
Cool to the touch, sometimes with electromagnetic properties, and a musical resonance when struck, jade is thought to be infused with spiritual power. Once seen as a link between heaven and earth, the stone was believed to soothe the path into the next world and embody Confucian virtues of wisdom, justice, compassion, purity and modesty. Today, jadeite is still thought to bring good fortune and prosperity.
Recently, Asprey launched a collection of jewellery and objects made exclusively from imperial jadeite – unexpected perhaps, for such a quintessentially British brand. Yet, as chairman John Rigas explains, Asprey sold fashionable jade jewels in the late 1920s and ’30s, during the orientalist craze. This was the time when the great socialites of the west lusted after jade jewels and objects – Barbara Hutton’s famous jade bead necklace, with a ruby and diamond clasp, was made for her by Cartier in 1933 and sold for $27.44mn at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2014. “Jade has huge historical and cultural significance,” Rigas says, adding that he sees jadeite as the next must-have for collectors who already possess rarities such as coloured diamonds or natural pearls. “Our clients have always searched out luxuries they couldn’t find elsewhere.”
With his team in London, Rigas spent several years researching the subject, but it was only when he was offered a stock of imperial jadeite, preserved in a private archive, that he could start working on a collection. (Ethical supplies of new imperial jadeite are hard to come by, due to the political and geological situation in Myanmar.)
Asprey’s rough jadeite is fashioned by skilled carvers in China and then set in Asprey’s London workshops into jewellery, including tactile bead necklaces; a circular pendant of lavender jadeite, symbolising heaven and eternity; and a necklace and bracelet of vanishingly rare luminous red jadeite.
Rigas is on a mission to establish jadeite as a rare and storied resource for collectors globally. To bring transparency to a notoriously opaque market and to standardise evaluation, Asprey has joined forces with University of Oxford earth sciences department, using the most advanced equipment to instigate the brand’s own expert certification system. Each of the jadeite jewels comes with a comprehensive certificate, identifying and describing the material. “We want to set a new, western-based standard for jade, an enhanced level of expertise to bring security and confidence,” says Rigas. “We’re trying to disrupt an industry.”
European brands and maisons are adding impetus to jade’s journey. Boghossian, the Geneva-based jeweller known for its coloured gemstone expertise, and with a history of trading along the Silk Route from China, has created a jade necklace that reimagines the styles worn by high-ranking officials of the Qing dynasty. With historical authenticity, the necklace is composed of seven jadeite beads connected by carved gourd-shaped jadeite elements and linked by diamonds and emeralds.
At Chopard, creative director Caroline Scheufele has also added jade to her palette, on dramatic earrings that combine the gem with titanium, enhancing its translucency, as part of her high jewellery collection. “It’s an intriguing contrast between a historic, traditional stone and a contemporary state-of-the-art material,” Scheufele explains. “The stone presents many different opportunities of style and colour. Green jade represents wisdom and peace, white jade embodies purity and serenity, blue jade loyalty and truth, while black jade is associated with strength and power.”
In Cartier’s latest high-jewellery collection, Le Voyage Recommencé, the ever-present and iconic panther appears as a sculpted black-nephrite jade, set as a brooch, in white gold, adorned with a single pear-shaped rubellite and diamond eyes.
Moussaieff, too, has a long history of trading in the east, and Alisa Moussaieff herself often wears a strand of jadeite beads. On one bracelet, exceptional jadeite cabochons are alternated with old-mine cut diamonds, while in a more traditional style, Moussaieff also offers a set of three rare child’s jade bangles. She describes the fine quality material she uses as fei cui – the Chinese name for a brightly coloured bird and often used as a term for imperial jadeite.
Meanwhile, individual designer-jewellers are exploring creative possibilities. At Carnet, Michelle Ong enlaces a jade bangle with triple hoops and arabesques in a French 18th-century spirit, while a lavender and green gourd-shaped jade pendant/brooch is set with coloured gems in European dégradé style. Taiwanese-born Anna Hu pays homage to her roots while playing with arresting colour schemes, as in the Celestial Lotus ring, which has an imperial jadeite cabochon flower centre nestled among yellow-diamond and diamond-lined petals and a diamond and tsavorite-garnet band. In London, designer-jeweller, Ming, who grew up in Hong Kong, adds smooth carved nephrite-jade links to a handmade gold chain necklace. And in the US, master goldsmith Sean Gilson creates theatrical earrings with carved openwork jadeite in white or orange, both paired with vibrant gemstones.
As master carver Wallace Chan says: “The stone itself is attractive, but the stories that come with it are part of its identity and fascination. Be it a cicada, peapod or dragon, a jadeite jewel is never just an ornament. Each piece of jadeite comes with its own destiny, and can take an expert carver years of experience to resolve the mystery – to know if it is meant to be a cabochon, a carving, a pendant, or something else entirely.”