Mention your “colic stone” necklace in your jewellery collection and you are unlikely to bring on a grimace among friends. They are both one and the same. Blame it on the Spanish consquitadors who, when observing South American natives using the stone for talismanic and healing rituals, called the lustrous green stone “piedra de tjada” – which is exactly what it means in Spanish. It is from this name that the English word “jade” is derived.
Jade refers specifically to two mineral types that resemble each other in hardness and colour but differ in chemical composition. Nephrite – from the Greek word for kidney in the belief of its efficacy in treating renal disorders – is a silicate of lime and magnesia ranging in colour from light green to bluish. Jadeite, the harder of the two, is a silicate of sodium and aluminium and can be pink, white, blue, orange or the highly-prized translucent green. This is the result of infiltration of chromic oxide – the same stuff that gives emerald its glorious colour.
Distinctly unromantic when you think of jade thus, but jade has been, for centuries, imbued with much mystic and amulet powers.
Nephrite was the main type of jade found in China in vast quantities until the mid-18th century when jadeite sources were found in Upper Burma near the town of Mogaung. These mines still produce jadeite today much in the same traditional way as centuries before, relying on miners’ instinct rather than high-tech excavation methods.
The major producers of jadeite today are California, Guatemala and Japan. Nephrite is mined extensively in China, Burma, Russia, New Zealand and to a lesser extent in Wyoming and Alaska in the US.
It is in the Chinese regard for its spiritual symbolism that jade retains its aura of mysticism and talismanic power. Enough for the great sage Confucius to wax lyrical in almost-epic prose:
“In ancient times, men found the likeness of all excellent qualities in jade. Soft, smooth and glossy, like benevolence; fine, compact and strong like intelligence; angular but not sharp and cutting like humility; when struck, yield a note, clear and prolonged – like good faith, bright as a brilliant rainbow, mysterious, virtuous, esteemed by all under the sky…” and he went on for a book and a half.
The true believers even drink a potion of powdered jade to protect from all manner of earthly ills and the green is supposed to be a symbol of verdance, therefore, fertility. It explains why so many Chinese girls are named jade – “yoke” and “gek” meaning the same in Cantonese and Teochew.
On a more celestial note, the Chinese Emperor, as a sun of Heaven, was believed to be able to communicate with heaven through one of his jade disks. Whatever your penchant towards jade, it makes beautiful ornamentation especially combined with diamonds and platinum.
Outside China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, there are stunning jade collections in the Metropolitan and Natural History Museums in New York, at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, the Chicago Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.