A figurine of Jade(1) , even more precious than silver (2) would
only be found in the most aristocratic homes. More common would
be figurines in ivory and soapstone. I haven’t seen them in
other materials although they must have existed. That is
because the surviving ones are collectables and figurines of
baser materials would have long been discarded or rotted.
Plastic and ivory ones are still made as “tourist” curiosities.
(2) In traditional China Silver was the premium precious metal
and when the Chinese would not take anything other than silver
in payment for “all the tea in China.” The exhaustion of the
silver reserves in England caused the British to resort to
exporting and later forcing Indian opium on China, the only
other goods the Chinese would accept. That resulted in The
Opium Wars and the series of humiliating impositions that almost
destroyed China starting 250 years ago.
I had always thought gold more precious than silver but after
reading Chinese history on the role of silver, gold does come
across with a value as jewelry but none or little as a monetary
item. National and personal wealth was measured in silver.
(1) I had always associated Jadeite as the only true Chinese
Jade. Nephrite which often can in other colors than green was
looked upon as a "fancy’ best used for carvings of lesser value.
But then I have only a general and passable knowledge of this
subject and work in quite a totally unrelated field.
However, there is an excellent article in the September 1987
issue of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC on Jade (pgs 282-315) which
contained more on the subject that even professional
minerology and gemnology publications had not mentioned, not the
occassional ones I have read anyway.
(pg 293) If ever there was a case of the tail wagging the dog,
it is Burmese Jadite… Virtually unknown in China before 1784,
when a shipment arrived in Beijing following a Burma trade
treaty, the flashier jadeite in 200 years effectively displaced
nephrite for jewelry and commerce, much to the consternation of
serious collectors, who view the import as a young upstart.
After all, any culture that considers everything after the Han
dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) to be modern history might well
expect to venerate a glorious 5,000-year tradition of subtle
nephrite carvings before directing much attention to shiny green
(pg 290) In Chinese the word ‘yu’, which we translated as
"jade," actually refers to any rock being carved. Some 30 to 40
kinds in China are called yu. To complicate the matter further,
there are actually two chemically distinct materials that the
world legally accepts as jade: nephrite(‘lao-yu’, old jade, or
’bai-yu’, white jade). Both aretechnically rocks, since they
are mineral aggregates.
The more plentiful nephrite, a silicate of calcium and magnesium
(usually with some iron), is the jade from Hotan. It is also
found in British Columbia, Australia, New Zealand, The U.S.S.R.,
South Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Taiwan, California,
Alaska, Wyoming, and in small amounts at a few other sites.
With the same Chemical composition, a white stone with regular
crystals is tremolite and a green one, actinolite. It is
nephrite only when its needle shaped grains are tightly
interwoven in a felted, fibrous structure-aphysical state
produced during its underground formation. Nephrite (5.55 to
6.5 on the Moh’s scale) is harder thean most steel (5.0 to 6.0)
and reputedly the toughest of all rocks, a measure of resistance
to breaking. Depending on trace elements, nephrite occurs in a
variety of colors, including “mutton fat” white, which the
Chinese long favored.
Jadeite, a silicate of sodium and aluminium, has the bright
green associated with jewelry, though it is also found in a
rainbow of less valuable colors: lavender, black, white, duller
greens. Commercially it comes only from Burma, Guatemala, and
the U.S.S.R., though small amounts have been found in
Swiutzerland, Japan and California. Jadeite (Moh’s 6.5 to 7.0)
is slightly harder than nephrite but is not as tough.
As usual the National Geographic publishes first class research
and pictures and that article should be read.
Kelvin Mok (email@example.com)
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