by Stephen Poulin
True jade, that precious stone revered by many cultures but especially the ancient Chinese, has and continues to provide the skilled artisan with a unique medium in which to express his skills, both artistic and technical. Yet, not all jade carvings deserve to be classified as works of art. How can one objectively decide whether any given jade is good enough to be considered ‘choice’ or indeed a masterpiece of the lapidary’s craft? Perhaps the following can assist the collector in making an informed choice when considering an acquisition.
IS IT REALLY JADE and HOW OLD IS IT?
Undoubtedly the most challenging question that a collector confronts, with the possible exception of “Is it really jade?”, is whether the item under scrutiny is actually old or period as claimed, or whether is it a clever and even devious copy. To determine if a carving is actually jade (eg. nephrite, jadeite), one must learn the subtle characteristics of the stone through experience, but as a general rule jade cannot be easily scratched by a steel blade. Archaeological jades recovered from burial however, can exhibit surface deterioration which renders the stone softer. Various geological tests conducted by a qualified gemologist should answer the question. Recall however that in China, both ancient and modern, many types of stone are classified as ‘jade’, so this debate may be mute and not worth dismissing a good carving for this reason alone. It is wise to be flexible bearing in mind however that the ‘asking price’ is often but not always a good indication of the genuine article.
Most so called fake jades will immediately reveal themselves to be awkward or crude attempts at imitating ancient forms and styles. They often exhibit rough workmanship, have contrived artificial coloring and surface treatment that simulate burial, as well as combine disparate styles and features characteristic of different Chinese dynasties and cultures. Common fakes can also be overly ornate and excessively large. This inevitably results in a bogus pastiche, a fake. A growing number of modern jade carvings that copy the ancient Chinese forms and styles however, do in fact give the experts ‘a run for their money’. Indeed it can be said that there is often one more expert opinion on any given ‘ancient jade’ than there are experts in the room! As of this writing (2020), the author is unaware of any definitive scientific, quantitative test that can accurately and reliably determine when a jade carving was produced, (i.e. its age). Certain X-ray diffraction and specialized fluorescence analytical techniques have in the past been proposed as a way to measure true versus manufactured ‘antiquity’, but further study has revealed that these tests prove unreliable. It may be possible to determine the approximate age of a tomb jade for example if it is associated with adhering organic components or fragmentary metals through other scientific analyses, but this combination of ‘prerequisites’ is a rare occurrence. Experience in handling old jades and comparing them with accepted ‘genuine’ and published examples using a stereo-binocular microscope is still the ‘gold standard’.
If we ignore the question of age for a moment and avoid becoming bogged down in this debate, but instead focus on the jade piece in hand, we can at least go a long way in evaluating the ‘worth’ of a jade carving. Once assessed, we can always circle back to the question of age; if in fact one can ever really determine 100% if a jade is a genuine period piece or a copy.
FOUR SUGGESTED CRITERIA FOR JUDGING THE QUALITY OF A JADE CARVING
PURITY OF STONE: A flawless, even colour without inner opacity and cloudiness is the most desirable jade. The colours found in jade, both nephrite and jadeite are almost endless; from transparent and colourless to opaque black with every tone in between. Colour in jade is dependent on the presence and concentration of diverse trace metals and other inclusions in the matrix. Every shade of white and green, mauve to blue, brown to red, yellow and grey are found. Today the most popular colours for carvings in the East and those fetching the highest prices are the flawless whites; sometimes referred to as ‘mutton fat jade’. The imperial emerald green jade (jadeite sourced in Myanmar/Burma) is reserved almost exclusively for expensive jewelry with the best specimens measured by the carat similar to precious gems. With carvings, a clever artisan incorporates colour variations in the stone that highlight or accentuate a theme or subject. The reddish brown ‘skin’ of a jade pebble is often used in a carving to advantage to enhance a particular feature (eg. the mane of a mythical beast). In general however, the purer, more even the colour of the stone, the more valued. A good surface finish or shine of the completed carving is also important and further enriches the depth of colour in the jade. Nephrite carvings tend to have a more waxy polish, while jadeite carvings achieve a glassier polish. Jade stone, both nephrite and jadeite are found throughout the world today. Quality jadeite largely originates from Myanmar/Burma while nephrite is still quarried in China proper, as well as in North America (eg. British Columbia), Siberia and New Zealand to name a few. In ancient China, jade sources were quite widespread ranging from northeast China to the extreme western desert regions with localized areas in between. Many of the ancient sources have been exhausted. Scientific tests are now available that can determine where a particular jade carving/specimen originates by identifying and measuring trace elements and inclusions in the stone.
QUALITY OF CARVING: Every art-form or craft has its maestros as well as its less skilled workers. Jade working is no exception. An absolutely flawless jade stone can be ruined by crude, rough carving. As such, a good jade piece must be skillfully carved with the lapidary interpreting the stone’s subtle colour variations and exploiting every nuance hidden inside the stone. As relates to fashioning the hard stone for example, parallel lines must be evenly spaced and close together, features realistic, well proportioned and flawlessly executed. Sloppy irregular carving with awkward angles and unfinished sections become very obvious. The surface must be smooth and free of rough patches and exhibit a fine polish or sheen that also reaches into even the most inaccessible places.
INSPIRED SUBJECT MATTER: Although difficult to describe or classify, a jade carving, to warrant outstanding status should be clever, imaginative, even playful and humorous. Innovative subjects, a departure from the ‘same old’ subject matter, as well as creating a combination of traditional themes can make a jade that stands out from the crowd. A carving that twists and turns and challenges the handler to marvel and wonder how the craftsman was able to manipulate the carving tools so accurately is enchanting. The seasoned collector will also note that select jades displaying specific subjects or items from the ‘scholar’s table’ for example, are far more sought after than other jade subjects and themes, and consequently more valuable. This certainly relates to the status and mystique the Chinese attribute to specific animals or objects for the scholar’s desk. Auspicious attribution, good fortune and luck, rebus word puns, myth and legend, association with poets, famed scholars and the upper class or royalty will all increase a jade’s importance over and above the standard measures of desirability outlined above. With animals, elephants for example seem to be very popular. The jade sceptre or Ruyi often presented on formal occasions as a gift or token of good fortune, made from the purest stone carved with auspicious symbols can fetch the highest prices far exceeding those realized for other fine jade carvings of similar quality and skill, but of a less popular or auspicious theme, form or subject .
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS: The ‘Intangibles’: The above described categories that classify a jade carving as ‘good’ can be considered the ‘tangibles’. To this list one could also add a few so called ‘intangible’ criteria. The subject of antiquity or age was touched on in the beginning of this article. Arguably, an exquisite four thousand year old jade carving has a certain attraction or cache and easily trumps a modern copy carved from the same material and in the same style, especially if the latter was carved on an electric lathe with laser-guided drills operated by a computer program technician. If antiquity is what you cherish and value, then an authentic archaic jade is perhaps the most important criterion for evaluating your jade. Provenance or pedigree of the carving is undoubtedly the most important consideration in the current high end jade market. Provenance has become a more critical assessment criterion in recent decades as clever reproductions (eg. fakes) have flooded specialist Asian galleries and prestigious international auction houses. The modern jade carver continues to use essentially the same methods and techniques as the ancients with the sole difference being the speed of the drills and the hardness of the abrasives. Traditional forms, designs and subjects repeatedly copied through the centuries further complicate assessment making dating even more problematic if style alone is the only criterion used to judge and date a jade carving. The ‘value’ given a high end jade carving in the market therefore is significantly enhanced if the jade comes from an old established collection, especially published jades. If an old jade collection was formed by a celebrity, royalty or the like, then all the better. Provenance from well known exclusive dealers in London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong also can’t hurt. Similar to almost all items for sale in the art world, the ‘snob factor’ is alive and well. Fortunately for the jade collector of more modest means, yours truly included, this reality permits one to acquire fine jade pieces of equal or better merit for reasonable sums because the jade was not ‘anointed’ by specialist art gurus simply because they are associated with and connected to the above described ‘intangibles’!
Fang Gu & Hongjuan Li, “Chinese Jade – The Spiritual and Cultural Significance of Jade in China”, Better Link Press, Shanghai Press and Publishing Development Company, English Edition, 2013. ISBN: 978—1-60220-129-3.
Rawson, Jessica, “Chinese Jade – From the Neolithic to the Ching”, The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-7141-1469-3.Salviati, Fillipo, “4000 Years of Chinese Archaic Jades”, Edition Zacke, Vienna, 2017, ISBN: 978-3-9503553-9-0.
Shen, Chen & Fang Gu, “Ancient Chinese Jades from the Royal Ontario Museum”, Cultural Relic Press, 2016, ISBN: 978-7-5010-4772-7.
Stephen Poulin 2020 – Stephen Poulin is a Fine Art and Paper Conservator working in private practise in Toronto for the past forty years. He first became drawn to Chinese jade during a trip to Vancouver Chinatown with his parents in 1968. Given twenty dollars to spend on his holiday, he inexplicably purchased a green jade egg! So it began, and the rest they say is history.