AROUND HOME : Getting Jaded

FOR 5,000 years, jade has been an essential part of Chinese religious ceremony, the most desirable kind of home decoration, a personal ornament, a charm against misfortune and a harbinger of good luck. Called the “jewel of heaven,” jade formed a symbolic bridge between heaven and earth. In ancient China, as in modern China, virtually all important occasions were celebrated by the giving of a piece of jade: marriages, births, business meetings (a “contract stone” consisted of two pieces of jade that fitted together when a deal was completed). “Baby jade” refers to small pieces sewn into swaddling clothes to ward off sickness and disease. Jade was valued for its appearance, the appealing sound it made when struck, its cool smoothness to the touch.

Jade is actually a name given to two quite different types of stone: nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite is the more ancient, a pale waxlike stone from Sinkiang in western China, generally gathered by women wading in icy mountain streams. Jadeite, smoother and more often found in shades of green, comes from Burma and has been mined since the middle of the 18th Century.

Both stones are extremely hard and durable. Jade is not carved--it is too hard--but ground. Green is only one of the many colors. There is yellow, red, lavender, brown and black; the rarest is mutton-fat colored with vermilion spots or spinach green flecked with gold.

Chinese artistry in jade is distinguished by excellence of workmanship and subtlety of design, often incorporating favorite symbols: the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix and the tortoise. The range of jade artifacts is almost unlimited: bowls, cups, incense burners, wine pots, bridal cups, snuff bottles, beads, buckles, garment clasps; jade flutes, jade trees and jade screens; figures of Buddha; spoons, even chopsticks--and, naturally, jewelry of all kinds. There are many unusual pieces: the enormous slab used to close the tomb of Tamerlane in 1404, for example, and suits of jade, each consisting of more than 2,000 pieces sewn together with gold and silver thread, found on royal corpses in Han Dynasty tombs that were excavated in 1968.


Antique jade pieces can be found at Gump’s and Frances Klein in Beverly Hills; I.M. Chait in Santa Monica; Warren Imports in Laguna Beach; China Terrace in Orange; Oriental Arts in Coronado; the Collector in La Jolla; S&F; Jackson, Al Deade in San Diego; Eastern Accent, Susanne Hollis and Osborne Gallery (Pacific Asia Museum) in Pasadena.