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Feature: Jaded Beauty

Jill Newman

The anxiety becomes palpable in the city of Yangon, Myanmar

(formerly Burma), each March and November, when Asian stone dealers convene for

the government-run auctions of rough jadeite. The sales produce revenue for the

country’s government, a military regime with a dubious human rights record. But

politics are not the source of the tension at the auctions. Here, bidders risk

fortunes in the hopes of attaining valuable gems that may or may not be

concealed within the crusty jadeite boulders; a buyer will not know whether his

rocks contain treasure or trash until they have been cleaved.

Jadeite, a more rare and valuable form of jade, is the most

coveted jewel in Asia. If a dealer is fortunate enough to select the right

boulder, he can earn tens of thousands of dollars through a single acquisition.

However, according to the folklore surrounding jade, dealers have suffered

financial ruin, and even committed suicide, because they bid on bad rocks.

"Buying jadeite rough is like gambling," says Vickie Sek,

director of the Jewelry and Jadeite department at Christie’s Asia and department

head for jewelry at Christie’s Hong Kong. "The discovery of a boulder that

yields enough high-quality jadeite to create a single strand of beads is so

slim," she adds, "it’s like winning the lottery."

While jade has been in demand for centuries, prices have

skyrocketed in the past decade. Thirty years ago, says estate jewelry dealer

Ralph Esmerian, a good piece of jadeite sold for $50,000 to $100,000; a

comparable piece today might be worth $1 million. Last November, Christie’s Hong

Kong sold a single jadeite strand for nearly $3 million and a jadeite ring for

more than $800,000. Both prices were far greater than the estimates. Not

coincidentally, the increase in the value of jade coincides with the rapid

proliferation of millionaires in China and other Asian countries.

Sek considers thousands of jade pieces before selecting about

100 for each of her house’s biannual auctions, which take place each spring and

fall. (The next sale is scheduled for November 29.) Unlike diamonds, jade is not

evaluated and graded according to international standards for quality. However,

Christie’s has its jadeite tested at the Hong Kong Gems Laboratory, which

certifies that the color is natural and untreated. Most gem labs can test

jadeite to determine if it has been color-treated.

Discovering a piece of what dealers call "perfect" jade—based

on the stone’s color, texture, translucency, color saturation, evenness of hue,

and purity—is as rare as finding a blue diamond, says Sek. Christie’s Hong Kong

sold one perfect jadeite necklace 10 years ago. The strand of 27 beads achieved

a world-record price of $9.4 million. Another necklace of similar quality, or

even approaching it, has yet to be found.

The highest-quality jadeite is mined in Myanmar. After dealers

purchase rough jadeite at the Myanmar auctions, they distribute the boulders to

a network of Asian stonecutters, who typically belong to lineages of jade

carvers. Families often specialize in carving particular figurines, such as

dragons or Buddhas. The jade dealers then sell the cut stones to gem dealers,

auction houses, and collectors.

The term jade applies to jadeite and nephrite,

both of which are extremely hard, dense, matted aggregates. However, the stones

differ from one another in their chemical compositions and color ranges. Jadeite

comes in an array of colors, including white, black, brown, and violet. The most

desirable form of jade is imperial jadeite, which has a deep green hue and is

nearly as transparent as glass. Nephrite is usually green or creamy white.

Chro-mium, iron, and other trace elements in the rocks account for the color

variations.

Jade has been treasured for centuries in Asia, where it is

believed to have spiritual properties that safeguard its wearers. "In Asia, men

and women, old and young, believe jade can protect you," says Sek. "It is

traditional for grandparents to give their newly born grandchildren a piece of

jade as a symbol of protection." As early as 3,000 B.C., the Chinese referred to

jade as the "royal gem," and it has continued to play a significant role in the

country’s history, art, and culture. Before the Chinese discovered jade,

prehistoric peoples formed weapons and tools from the stone. When the Spanish

conquistadors witnessed Central American natives using ground jade to treat

kidney ailments in the 1500s, they christened the mineral piedra de ijada,

or stone of the loin. The English derivative became jade.

Some of the best jade jewelry, says Esmerian, who owns the Fred

Leighton boutique on Madison Avenue, originates from the Art Deco period, when

Cartier, Tiffany, and other great houses incorporated Asian, Egyptian, and Aztec

influences into their art. Recently, a number of American designers began

featuring jade in their contemporary designs. Among them are Lorraine Schwartz,

James de Givenchy for Taffin, and David Yurman, all of whom have combined honey-

and lavender-colored jade with diamonds and colorful gemstones.

Although these and other American designers have adopted jade

as a favorite new medium, Sotheby’s and Christie’s continue to sell their

top-quality jadeite jewelry only at their Hong Kong auctions, where collectors

have shown no price threshold for premium examples of the stone. Their

willingness to spend so freely on jade might be as much a function of culture as

it is a function of wealth. Americans are not taught the same appreciation for

jade as are people in Asia, says Esmerian. "The ancient Chinese emperors

worshipped jade, usually white nephrite carvings, as a psychological and

spiritual ritual object," he says. "We never looked at any stone in such a way."

Carnet by Michelle Ong
+852.2805.0113,

www­.carnetjewellery.com

David Yurman
212.752.4255, www­.davidyurman.com

Eclat Jewels
212.581.2446, www­.eclatjewels.com

Fred Leighton
212.288.1872, www­.fredleighton.com

Henry Dunay
www­.henrydunay.com; available at Neiman Marcus, 800.944.9888,

www­.neimanmarcus.com, and Bergdorf Goodman,

800.558.1855, www­.bergdorfgoodman.com

Ionescu
available at Bergdorf Goodman, 800.558.1855,

www­.bergdorfgoodman.com

James de Givenchy for Taffin
212.421.6222

Lang Antiques
415.982.2213, www­.langantiques.com

Lorraine Schwartz
available at Bergdorf Goodman, 800.558.1855,

www­.bergdorfgoodman.com

Meriwether
415.359.1111, www­.meriwether.net

Nardi
212.974.9360

Stephen Russell
212.570.6900, www­.stephenrussell.com

Van Cleef & Arpels
800.822.5797, www­.vancleef-arpels.com

Verdura
212.758.3388, www­.verdura.com

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Photo by Agence Pustetto