Jade, and particularly Chinese jade, can be a very difficult item to purchase wisely, unless you are an expert or deal through a reputable dealer. The confusion starts because there are actually two minerals (nephrite and jadeite) which we, in the West, call jade. These range in colour from white through brown to green, and even black.
To add to the confusion, the Chinese word for jade actually refers to any stone worthy of carving – not necessarily either neophyte or jadeite.
True jade is a very hard stone. Only diamonds, rubies and quartz will scratch it. In ancient times, craftsmen could spend a lifetime carving just one piece.
During the Warring States period (475 to 221 B.C.), the carving of jade reached a peak. At the time, Confucius extolled the virtues of jade as “soft, smooth and glossy like benevolence; fine, compact and strong like intelligence; angular, but not sharp and cutting; and (when struck) like music. Like loyalty, its flaws do not conceal its beauty, and, like virtue, it is conspicuous in the symbols of rank.”
Curiously, although jade has long been regarded by the Chinese as the most precious of stones, almost no jade is found in China. Until the end of the eighteenth century, nephrite jade was imported from Turkestan. The most highly prized colours were white and “mutton fat”.
Green (jadeite) jade was unknown in China until it was brought from Burma in 1784. Since then, green jade has surpassed white in popular taste. But many connoisseurs still prefer the white neophyte to the “vulgar” green.
The earliest Chinese jade carvings come from the 4th millennium BC when jade was used to make masks and various implements. Some of these were decorated with elegantly incised designs, most commonly depicting animals.
Decorative patters became more complex until, by the Warring States period (475 to 221 BC), the surfaces are, for the most part, covered by complicated geometric patterns. By the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) these had been simplified into rows of smooth protuberances. Over the last 2000 years, naturalistic shapes of real and imaginary animals have vied with the ancient geometric patterns for popularity. The Tang Dynasty (950 to 1269 AD) represents the peak of naturalistic jade carving.