In many ways, the value of jade far surpasses any monetary value western culture attaches to it, especially in cases of personal adornment. In this edition of The Enthusiast, we will explore and learn about jade beyond its use in jewelry.
The human connection to jade is ancient, multi-cultural, and wonderfully multi-faceted. Anthropologists document that lake dwelling people of Switzerland and western France used deposits of jade as early as the Neolithic period.[i] Chinese, Maori, and Meso-American cultures also prized jade, and artifacts confirm that before Spaniards landed in Mexico, the Aztecs valued jade more than gold.[ii]
People of several cultures consider jade as an embodiment of profound, spiritual values. For Confucius (551-479 BCE), jade symbolized virtue. Personal pieces of jade were worn to purify one's soul. The Chinese ritual object called a bi, pictured below, is a pierced disk you can see in displays of art and jewelry, and symbolizes heaven and eternity.[iii]
Jade carvings have occupied a special place in Chinese culture from 18,000 BCE to the present.[iv] To offer sacrifices to heaven and earth, Chinese artisans carved jade in round and square shapes, and in the likenesses of dragons and the phoenix. Jade carvings were added to tombs to honor ancestors, exorcise evil, and protect against disasters.
During the Han imperial dynasty in China (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD) "jade suits" were woven for deceased nobles to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. Bodies were encased in jade squares and then the squares were sewn together with threads of gold.[v]
Because jade is a strong mineral, Neolithic people (as early as 4,700 BCE) carved jade for brushes, swords, and various utilitarian tools.[vi]
Later, Chinese scholars carved jade for personal objects, like holders for calligraphy brushes, seen in the picture above, and mouthpieces for opium pipes. The mouthpieces were thought to bestow longevity to smokers.
When sliced thin, jade produces incredible musical sound. “Artisans have created chimes, xylophones, and gongs from melodically resonant jade (nephrite). They're not only meant for pleasant listening. Some also use these instruments to produce “heavenly” tones for ritual practices. Chinese poets have compared jade's melodious sound to the voice of a loved one. They've called jade “the concentrated essence of love.”[vii]
The next issue of The Enthusiast explores jade as a human adornment. “(Jade is) considered pure and enduring enough to inspire the wearer’s highest spiritual aspirations, yet sensuous and luxurious enough to satisfy down-to-earth cravings.”[viii] I will also describe simple ways we can maintain the gem’s fabulous qualities. See you next time, and I hope you enjoyed this issue of The Enthusiast as much as I enjoyed writing it. Best, Peggy