Many wealthy Chinese today drape themselves in European luxury-brand jewelry made of gold, platinum, diamonds and other glittering gemstones.
By contrast, ancient Chinese of means and taste often preferred creamy white hard jade that did not advertise wealth but symbolized beauty, purity, nobility, perfection, constancy, durability, power and immortality.
Jade was the ultimate understated symbol of luxury.
It is said by Chinese that “gold has value but jade is invaluable.”
The medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were set in white jade mined in the Kunlun Mountains of Qinghai Province.
Hard jade (jadeite) is difficult to carve and chisel and must be worn away by abrasion, a laborious process. Thus, it was the symbol of power. Jade ornaments and items were used and worn by royalty and nobility.
The history of jade is as long as Chinese civilization; archeologists have found jade objects from the early Neolithic Period (around 5000 BC).
Jade was carved into sacrificial vessels, ornaments, utensils, tools and many other objects. Also a symbol of immortality, jade was buried with the dead and believed to hasten the passage to the next world.
Many funerary objects have been unearthed, including a royal jade burial suit composed of 2,498 pieces of jade, sewn together with gold thread. It encased the body of Liu Seng, ruler of Zhongshan State (113 BC) in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24).
Jade flutes and jade chimes were said to make especially heavenly music.
Confucius (551-479 BC) said jade has 11 virtues. “Its shine and brilliance represent purity and its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence.”
Because jade stands for beauty, grace and purity, it has been used in many Chinese idioms, such as bing qing yu jie (pure and noble 冰清玉洁) and ting ting yu li (fair, slim and graceful 亭亭玉立). The Chinese character for jade (yu 玉) is often used in women’s names.
Jade was said to have health benefits, such as balancing yin and yang energies and curing disease.
It is generally classified into hard jade or jadeite ying yu (硬玉) and soft jade or nephrite ruan yu (软玉).
Jade’s basic color is creamy white, opaque and waxy. Mineral elements, such as iron, chromium and magnesium, create colors including shades of apple and spinach green, violet, yellow, orange, red, white, brown and black. Generally the value of the mineral is determined by color, intensity, luster, clarity and translucence or transparency.
Jadeite is also called emerald (fei cui 翡翠) because some pieces are deep emerald in color and translucent.
This kind of intense green jade is rare, extremely valuable and coveted today.
Jade carvings as works of art tend to be traditional and stereotypical in shape and subject, such as animal signs of the Chinese zodiac, but some artists are trying to create new jade art.
One of them is jade artist Wang Junyi, who is challenging conventional approaches to jade jewelry and art.
Born in Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Wang graduated from a jewelry art school at the age of 16. Four years later, he decided that his career would be jade.
“I have an emotional link with jade,” says 38-year-old Wang, recalling that his mother inherited a jade bracelet from her mother and treasured it. “She kept it in locked drawer and wouldn’t even let me see it, so jade remained mysterious in my heart.”
As a boy, Wang decided that one day he would be able to “play” freely with jade. “It seems that my hope has come true,” he says.
Wang says that compared with nephrite, jadeite is harder and more suitable to shape. He uses abasion tools.
“The natural brilliant colors are like a ready-made palette where my knife is the brush,” he says.
Wang is not satisfied being simply a craftsman.
“Sometimes I wonder why so many young Chinese would rather pay a lot of money to buy jewelry from Cartier, Tiffany or Bvlgari,” he says. “It’s time for jade to have a new look, catering for the urban aesthetic.”
Society is changing so fast that new shapes and subjects are needed; repeating ancient versions is no longer enough, he says.
One of his highly praised works is a butterfly shaped from a piece of jadeite that gradually “changes” colors. The body is green, while the delicate wings are a pale, translucent orange with intricate details.
“This is not the traditional butterfly that you would find on jade,” Wang says. “I practiced a lot to master traditional carving skills, while at the same time I tried to forget conventional shapes.”
Wang attends many art, gemstone and jewelry exhibitions and reads widely about contemporary art.
“If you want to break all the shackles, you have to dig deeper,” he says.
He aims to fuse a contemporary flavor into the ancient stone craft.
Wang is a pioneer in creating contemporary jade works or “installations.”
His one-meter-tall work “The Unlimited Power of Buddhism” combines jade with a titanium alloy. The Buddha is made of deep green jade attached to a titanium tree-shaped structure dotted with colored beads and tiny LED screens.
“I am very interested in titanium and jade, one is a new material and the other is an ancient one. The striking contrast broadens the cultural meaning of jade,” he says.
In 2012, Wang was the first jade artist to hold a solo exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing. Chen Lusheng, the museum’s vice director, said, “I don’t regard Wang as a traditional jade craftsman, but an artist filled with creativity and ideas.”
In 2011, Wang cooperated with Italian jewelry designer Fulvio Maria Scavia to combine jade with European jewelry.
“I want to spread the appeal of jade to people outside China, because jade is the Chinese jewelry that merits an international stage,” the artist says.