Why jade is as popular as ever in modern jewellery design

Investigating the invaluable history of this prized gemstone

The jade stone has been part of British jewellery Asprey's collections for more than 100 years. Photo: Asprey
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The jade stone has an aura of mystery like no other. It has been prized by Chinese people for millennia, both for its rarity and its powerful talismanic properties. They call it the “stone of heaven”, perceiving it as more precious than diamonds and gold.

Jade has a long history that dates back to ancient China and Confucian philosophies cemented its popularity, turning it into a symbol of virtue, kindness, wisdom and justice. As celebrated Hong Kong jewellery designer Michelle Ong explains: “Gold has a value, whereas jade is invaluable.:

Jade is a generic term encompassing two separate minerals: nephrite and jadeite, both admired for their hardness and smooth glossy lustre. Nephrite is a more opaque stone found in the Kunlun Mountains of western China. It was first appreciated in scholarly circles and about 5,000 years ago, was carved into weapons, ceremonial objects and much later, sculptural ornaments.

Jadeite is more translucent and can be polished to a high sheen, making it more suitable for jewellery. Its colours include green, lavender, red and white. Jadeite was first discovered in the remote mountains of upper Burma (now Myanmar), in 1784, and by the beginning of the 19th century, was widely sought after. Its popularity was boosted by Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty’s enthusiasm for the finest specimens of emerald-green-hued stones, which became known as “imperial jadeite”.

Military officers and nobles amassed as much jadeite as possible so that they could gift it to the royal household, or wear it themselves, hence its astronomical rise in value.

While historically cherished by the Chinese, this stone is now cropping up in contemporary jewellery in unexpected ways and is even proving to be attractive to Middle Eastern consumers. Recently, British luxury accessories brand Asprey launched a collection of jewellery and objects made solely in high quality imperial jadeite, hand-carved by Chinese master craftsmen from a stock preserved in a private archive.

The collection of lush green bangles, pendants, earrings and objet d’art was presented earlier this year at the Ataya Exhibition in Abu Dhabi and has proved popular with royal families in the region. Asprey has long had an association with British and Middle Eastern royal families.

However, finding such a characteristically British brand linked with jade is unexpected. Nonetheless, as chairman John Rigas explains, Asprey has been working with jadeite for 100 years. Similar to Parisian maisons such as Cartier, who began incorporating jade in their Art Deco designs, Asprey was creating jade pieces during the 1920s.

Asprey spent years researching the subject before sourcing the large pieces of uncut stone that it is fashioning into jewellery and other items “to showcase the beauty and importance of imperial jadeite in the western world", says Rigas.

This preserved private collection of jadeite comes with handwritten records more than 100 years old, which ensures its ethical sourcing, as ethical supplies of new imperial jadeite are hard to come by due to Myanmar’s political and geological situation.

Jadeite cannot be carbon-dated and, until now, no one has been able to prove its purity, hence trading has become a notoriously opaque market. However, Asprey has worked with the University of Oxford earth sciences department to provide an expert mineralogical certification system to ensure security and confidence in their jadeite products.

Traditionally, jade is carved into exquisite plaques that are set in gold with gemstones or smoothed to a tactile cabochon shape and set in rings. Necklaces, with each bead of a uniform size, are especially valuable. This was proved with the sale in 2014 of American socialite Barbara Hutton’s jadeite bead necklace, which was bought for $27.44 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong by Cartier, who incidentally initially made the necklace for her.

At Asprey, where jadeite is now the number one selling stone, it is going a step further, with plans to facet the jadeite for a ring or pendant to create an interesting new aesthetic for the stone.

“The effect is mesmerising and a bit confusing because while there is no fire [light] in the stone, it does draw you in,” says Bobby Gill, Asprey’s retail director.

Elsewhere, at Geneva-based Boghossian, which has a rich history of jade and the expertise of Edmond Chin, its creative director and a renowned jade specialist, it was inevitable for them to explore and utilise this captivating material.

“Initially, jade was primarily used alongside the more conventional gemstones like diamond, ruby, emerald and sapphire,” says Roberto Boghossian, whose ancestors originally traded gemstones on the Silk Road. “However, it quickly became evident that the presence of jade resonated deeply with a broad audience, as its unique qualities added a distinctive element to our jewellery creations.”

Recent designs include an imperial jadeite bangle with a white jade flower and a sautoir that reimagines the styles worn by high-ranking officials of the Qing dynasty, incorporating seven jadeite beads linked by diamonds and emeralds to a pair of gourd-shaped jadeite elements.

High-quality traditional forms of Burmese jadeite, such as bead necklaces, cabochons and bangles, command exceptional prices at auctions in Hong Kong, where the client base is predominantly Asia and the US.

However, the Middle East is a market that Phillips auction house is developing. Louisa Chan, head of sales for jewellery at Phillips in Hong Kong, has observed in the past five years “a trend in the market to rejuvenate jadeite jewels, such that jadeites, sometimes even antique carvings or plaques, are incorporated in modern and whimsical designs,” she says.

“These modernised jadeite jewels are appealing to younger generations of collectors from all kinds of cultural backgrounds.”

Young Chinese designers such as Austy Lee in Hong Kong are certainly modernising jadeite with very contemporary Chinoiserie settings, while Taiwanese artistic jeweller Anna Hu uses imperial jadeite cabochons in her lotus rings.

One of the most respected artistic jewellers working with jade is Hong Kong’s master carver Wallace Chan, who is drawn by the mesmerising effect of the imperial jadeite.

“The stone itself is attractive, but the stories that come with it are part of its identity and fascination,” he explains. “Be it a cicada, peapod, dragon, or whatever it appears to be, its form almost always indicates deeper meanings and is never just an ornament.

"Each piece of jadeite also comes with its destiny, and it takes an expert years of experience to resolve the mystery, whether it is meant to be a cabochon, a carving, a pendant, a bangle, a pair of earrings or something else.”

Updated: October 27, 2023, 5:46 PM