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Hong Kong: China’s City of Jade

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At almost all hours of the day or night, Hong Kong’s millions of people are out and about their business. Whether wealthy or working class, Cantonese or from Shanghai, short or tall, they seem to have one thing in common: a love of jade.

A large percentage of the population wears a bracelet, beads, pendant or ring of jade. The stone is everywhere. It never goes out of fashion.

For more than 3,000 years, the gem has had special significance in Chinese civilization. In antiquity it was rare and was thought to have magical powers. It was placed in the earth at planting time to guarantee a good harvest, and was buried with the dead to prevent physical decomposition and assure passage to heaven. And jade is still a symbol of beauty and grace. The stone is said to bring good luck to the wearer.

Jewelry dealers say most of the world’s fine jade passes through Hong Kong. The city’s abundance of traders keeps the competition high and prices relatively low. It’s a good place to buy, but buy carefully. It’s also a good place to be taken.

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Jade comes in a surprising array of colors: milky white, lavender, yellow, red, brown and black, as well as the gamut of greens.

Legitimate Jade

But only two types of mineral can legitimately be called jade. Nephrite ( yu in Chinese, or “soft jade”) from Chinese Turkistan is the kind of jade used in ancient China; most jade antiques are nephrite. Jadeite ( tzui or fei tzui in Chinese, or “hard jade”), the more precious of the two, is found in limited quantity and inferior quality in China. It is relatively abundant and of superior quality in neighboring Burma, where the government strictly controls export.

Jadeite takes a higher polish and has broader color variation. The finest-quality jade, often referred to as “imperial jade,” is jadeite of a deep, rich, velvety-looking emerald, Kelly or apple green hue. It is rare. It is exquisite. And it is often more expensive than diamonds or other precious colored gemstones.

Valueless glass and plastic are too frequently passed off to unsuspecting customers as jade, as are certain types of dyed quartz, most notably Australian chrysoprase, which is naturally an apple green color with white and gray streaks, and is referred to as “new” or “Australian” jade.

How do you know the real stuff? Here are some guidelines. Hopefully, they’ll prevent your paying a premium price for an inferior item or, even worse, a fake.

Jadeite and nephrite have a waxy or greasy appearance. Both take a high polish (especially jadeite). Hold the object up to reflect light off its surface and you should see slight, barely visible “dimples” caused by the stone’s crystallization and uneven resistance to polishing. Glass, plastic and other stones have smooth surfaces.

The color should be fairly even. If there are veins of darker green, the piece has probably been dyed. Jadeite and nephrite are hard stones; they can’t be marred by a steel blade. Other substances will be scratched by steel. That is a sure test of genuineness.

Resonant Sound

Also, you can tap two pieces together. Jade has a more resonant clink than glass, plastic or the other stones. Take a careful look at a really good piece of jade, just to get a feel for the stuff. Then shop around before you buy. If you have any doubts, consult an expert and follow the advice given.

Hong Kong’s intriguing Jade Market, at Reclamation and Kansu streets in Kowloon, is great fun and a challenge. More than 350 licensed dealers sit under umbrellas behind small tables upon which they display their wares.

It’s a fabulous sea of jade: loose stones, bangles, trinkets, small bowls and statuettes, beads, rings both old and new, of all descriptions. You’ll see things similar to those carried in souvenir shops and some jewelry stores and they’re likely to be less expensive here.

Stop at various stalls and bargain to the best of your ability. The price first quoted is often marked up four times the value of the item. You can pay a lot for a better piece, or get cheap jade rings for as little as $3, bangles for $10-$15. Nobody controls quality or honesty in the Jade Market. You have no recourse. Unless you know jade well, best not to trust your judgment exclusively on expensive items. In other words, it’s a gamble.

Don’t play with more than you can afford to lose. That way, even if your beloved beads turn out to be glass, the money spent is worth the good story about the acquisition.

The Jade Market is frequented as much by dealers as by shoppers. You can see an unusual type of bargaining going on. The traders will make offers and counteroffers by hand signals--under a towel. That way, all the neighbors know a deal is being made, but they don’t know for how much.

Reputable Jeweler

If you’re serious about buying jade of fair to top quality, patronize a reputable jeweler. In general, you’ll be safest with those recommended by the Hong Kong Tourist Assn. (HKTA), which has resident gemologists who check member stores regularly for consistent quality and fair prices in jade and other gems. Phone numbers for HKTA are readily available through your hotel reception desk.

HKTA also has a complaint bureau that adjudicates disputes. All HKTA dealers display a red junk sticker in their windows.

When you’re buying, be sure to get certification of your stone, piece of jewelry or objet d’art, specifying weight, dimensions, color and, if antique, date and place of origin. Without detailed certification, you have no recourse.

An excellent medium-priced shop is Sunny Tsui Jewelry on the M2 mezzanine floor of the Golden Mile Holiday Inn on Nathan Road in Kowloon. Tsui will take time to explain to prospective customers what makes value in jade, pearls, diamonds and colored gemstones.

He has a thick accent, but stick with him. He’s an entire education in gemology. He’s also a fair trader, and open to bargaining.

Tsui says the price of jade depends on the quality of the stone, the carving and the age. His shop carries good to high quality jade jewelry, mostly of traditional and classic design. Rings and bangles range from several hundred to thousands of dollars; better stones, adorned with diamonds, are more expensive.

Top quality jade in spectacular designs is sold at Trio Pearl Co. Ltd. on the balcony of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. Trio, one of Hong Kong’s priciest jewelry shops, has a long list of celebrity clients, including American Presidents and international film stars.

Trio offers fabulous jewelry that is very expensive. Top-quality jade beads sell for about $400,000. There are also strands of rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

Jimmy Chow, one of the team of brother-owners, says there’s no such thing as “imperial jade.” The term only indicates that a piece would be up to the standard of the royal court. Much of Trio’s jade is that. Lovely jade rings, earrings and pendants are beautifully set in 18-carat Swiss gold.

Trio is more than a cut above the rest. Ask to see the family’s private jade collection--not for sale, but a feast for the eyes.

The most unusual jade jewelry is in the collection of Kai-yin Lo, Hong Kong’s prima designer. Kai-yin is famous for beaded, sequined capes, belts and bags (included in French and Japanese designers collections), and her costume jewelry line is carried in Saks, Neiman-Marcus and other top boutiques.

Her distinctive design sense is magnificent when applied to restringing antique jade, ivory, coral, lapis and pearls into chunky, asymmetrical necklaces. Put together with hand-braided silk ropes, they’re exciting sculptural adornments. One-of-a-kind and expensive (necklaces average $50,000), they’re available at Kai-yin’s showroom (4-6 On Lan St., Central District) or the Peninsula Shop (mezzanine of the Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon).

Chinese Department Store

A fairly reliable and reasonably priced place to shop for standard, simple jade bangles, rings and beads is Chinese Arts & Crafts Ltd., the Chinese department store chain with locations throughout Kowloon and in Shell House, Central District. A plain jade band sells for about $10 and up; plain bangles of light green jadeite sell for about $20 and up.

You’ll pay more for white jade (called “mutton fat,” but attractive nonetheless) and for naturally tri-colored jade bangles (called fook luk sow ), both considered to bring good luck.

Chinese Arts & Crafts also has a substantial selection of jade statuettes, vases and bowls, not antiques, not of investment quality, but attractive and reasonably priced.

All prices quoted in this article reflect currency rates of exchange at the time of writing.


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