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Romancing the Stone
Why Chinese pay huge sums for jade

It should come as no surprise that the world's two major international auctioneers, Christie's and Sotheby's, held jade auctions in Hong Kong only a day apart in October. Jade has always held a special attraction for Chinese, who associate it with longevity, power and academic achievement. What we commonly refer to as jade is in fact two very different minerals: jadeite is composed of microscopic interlocking crystals, whereas nephrite is made of fibrous crystals. Both are stronger than steel and are similar in appearance. But jadeite is rarer, with deep green stones known as Imperial Jade the most sought after. Other jadeite colors are white, yellow, pink, orange, brown and violet. Nephrite is usually green and creamy white. Sotheby's Nicholas Kwan, an expert on jade carvings, and Joanna Chan, a jadeite jewelry specialist, spoke with Asiaweek's Yulanda Chung.

Why are collectors paying big money for jade items?

Kwan: Traditionally, jade is something that interests Chinese scholars. It is a symbol of leisurely pursuit and connotes power. Jade is found in the tombs of the ruling elite [of ancient China]. The durability of the stone is also associated with long life. Most top carvings are bought by collectors from Taiwan. Hong Kong is another large market, with a few keen collectors with great resources. But you have Western jade collectors too.

Chan: Chinese also believe that jade can protect you [against misfortune]. It gives you peace of mind. And good, well-proportioned jade is very hard to find. In the past, Myanmar, where most jade is from, was closed to outsiders. Now that source is relatively more open to overseas buyers.

So is jade a good investment?

Kwan: I wouldn't encourage anyone to buy it solely for investment purposes. You buy it because you like the texture, the presence of the piece and the style of carving. The real strength of the jade market came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when prices soared to unexpected highs. We haven't witnessed this phenomenon since that time. But we do expect prices to go up again with the economic recovery in Asia.

Chan: You should buy it for your personal pleasure. But if it is in the very top-end market and is extremely rare, a piece could fetch millions. There is a [green] jadeite bead necklace that was sold for $2 million in 1988. When it re-emerged in 1994, it was auctioned for $4.23 million.

How do you know if a jade piece is the real thing?

Kwan: The focus is mostly on the color of the stone, whether the shade is extremely even, or whether it is as white as possible. Then you look at the quality of craftsmanship and the lack of inclusions such as patches or fissures.

Chan: You should always look for good color and translucency when buying. If you come across jade jewelry in stores in China, you should be aware of artificial colors. Sometimes polymer is injected into the stone to make it look better. But you would have to be quite experienced to tell if this is the case. It's best to buy from reliable merchants.

Does a jade piece's provenance and history count?

Kwan: The fact that it was part of an Imperial collection would add more value. But that is difficult to trace. With some pieces, however, you would see an Imperial seal of the Qianlong period [1735-1795] or an inscription. The quality of the carving sometimes suggests that it could have been done in the Imperial workshop.

You mentioned color. Is white jade, for example, considered more valuable than green?

Kwan: White jade has always existed in China. Carvings using this stone have been done since the Sung Dynasty [960-1127]. So most historic works of art are made from white jade [nephrite]. China started importing jadeite from around the world only around the 18th to 19th century. It is, however, much more expensive [than nephrite]. We sold one carving [in green jadeite] six months ago for HK$6 million [$769,230]. If the same piece were in white jade, it would have commanded only HK$1 million to HK$2 million.

How do you take care of jade?

Kwan: It is one of the hardest materials you can find in nature. You can't actually carve it, you have to sort of grind it. So you don't have to go to great lengths to maintain it.

Chan: Jade doesn't need special care. You can polish it a bit after wearing it and then can put it back in your safety box.

There is a belief that jade improves its appearance through constant contact with the skin.

Kwan: The surface will get smoother as the oil of the hands get into the piece. Some people also rub it against their noses. Pieces that are carried around and handled generation after generation are wonderful to touch.

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