Jadeite, also known as feicui, has long been regarded as the king of all gemstones in traditional Chinese culture. It exemplifies the beauty of the Orient since as early as the Qing dynasty (1636-1912), in which Empress Dowager Cixi was said to show immense fondness for jadeite.
Sotheby’s has taken the patrician appreciation for the precious stone to the auction world as “Imperial Green,” for it being as revered as an emperor. This year, despite the turmoil of the market across the board, Sotheby's Imperial Green jadeite pieces fetched a total of HK$243m (US$31.3m), that’s a 727% increase compared to the previous year, which shows a burgeoning interest among collectors.
To find out more about such a venerable gem, we talked to Wenhao Yu, Sotheby’s Deputy Chairman, Jewelry, Asia.
An Imperial Green jadeite bangle
Wenhao Yu, Sotheby’s Deputy Chairman, Jewelry, Asia
The term “jade” is often used interchangeably when one refers to both nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite is the softer type of jade. It rates a 6 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness - slightly softer than jadeite, which is a 6.5 to 7. Hence nephrite is often carved into different shapes and is more commonly seen.
It was also mainly used for ceremonial and ornamental purposes until jadeite was imported from Burma (now Myanmar) in the 18th century. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Gold has value, but jade is priceless.” While that highlights the value held by jade, in particular, jadedite, the appreciation for the precious stone’s beauty travels far and wide.
Late American debutante and socialite Barbara Hutton, also a jewelry connoisseur herself, was seen wearing a jadeite bead necklace back in 1933. It was said to be a wedding gift from Hutton’s father when she got married to a prince. The stunning jewelry, later dubbed the Hutton-Mdivani Necklace, was sold for HK$214m (US$27.6m) in 2014 in a Sotheby’s sale, billed as the highest record for any jadeite jewelry to date.
Barbara Hutton wearing the Hutton-Mdivani jadeite necklace, photographed in 1933, with her first husband, Prince Alexis Mdivani
The Hutton-Mdivani Necklace, featuring a total of 27 jadeite beads. Sold for HK$214m (US$27.6m) at Sotheby’s, 2014
“In 2013, we came up with a jadeite-grading standard to make it more transparent and less intimidating for collectors who are just starting out,” said Wenhao Yu, Sotheby’s Deputy Chairman, Jewelry, Asia.
The grading system for Imperial Green jadeite lacked an internationally-recognized standard until 2011 to 2013, according to Yu. Now both Gübelin Gem Laboratory and Swiss Gemmological Institute (SSEF) are moving in the direction, to establish the Imperial Green standard, like “Pigeon’s Blood” for rubies and “Royal Blue” for sapphires.
Imperial Green jadeite authenticated by SSEF
Details of the jadeite, such as weight, shape & cut, and origin listed on the certificate
While the price-per-carat standard for Imperial Green jadeite can somewhat serve as an indicator, though generally speaking, the standard only applies to three classic shapes: cabochon, bead, and bangle, according to Yu.
He went on to explain how the lustrous green hue is best presented in the gemstone’s mere simplicity, and why jadeite is polished without facets, unlike other gemstones.
“The smooth domed shape like a cabochon captures how light defuses in the translucent stone. From certain angles, you’ll see the aqueous glow from within. Jadeite bead necklace, appears simple, yet cutting and polishing identical beads from the same rough is an art combining quality boulder and fine craftsmanship. The bangle is the rarest of the three, for the amount of skills and luck it takes, having to cut such a large surface area from the boulder.”
Some of the Imperial Green jadeite jewelry pieces set to go under the hammer in Sotheby’s next season
The timeless beauty of top-quality jadeite, according to Yu, should have a subtle luminosity to its magnificent green shade. Compared with other jewels that dazzle and sparkle, jadeite is all about that understated charm that comes from its translucency and the way light bounces off. Some other attributes include texture, clarity, cut, and color saturation.
“Fine jadeite should be unctuous and penetrating. One should look for a medium green hue that's evenly distributed throughout the piece. The color and translucency almost rival fine emeralds. Ideally, it should be free from veins, clouding, mottling, and blotches,” he said.
An Imperial Green jadeite bead and diamond necklace, sold for HK$62.9m (US$8.1m) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this July
The quest for that luxurious tonality and luminosity also explains why, on average, less than 10 pieces of jadeite jewelry go under the hammer in Sotheby’s every year.
“One could be mistaken by the massive size of a rough boulder, though after all the carving and polishing works are done, jadeites that are able to reach that jewelry-quality are indeed quite rare,” added Yu.
A jadeite necklace to appear in Sotheby’s next season
Aesthetics value aside, in "Shuowen Jiezi" (說文解字) - one of the earliest Chinese dictionaries published in the Han dynasty, the gemstone is associated with five virtues of benevolence, honestly, wisdom, integrity, and courage.
What Yu also envisions is the exemplification of cultural importance jadeite holds and how its legacy translates to the appreciation of the gemstone worldwide.
“Jadeites are also works of art. The enigmatic glow tells stories that harken back to centuries ago,” said Yu.