The resurgence on interest in jade proves the ancient stone’s eternal appeal
This past April in Hong Kong, a Cartier jade necklace that was once owned by Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton was acquired by the Cartier Collection for US$27.44m at a Sotheby’s auction. Even as the hammer came down, the ripples of astonishment spread quickly from the stunned audience of bidders—none of them strangers to astronomical prices—out to the greater jewellery world.
The necklace, set with a platinum gold clasp inlaid with baguette-cut diamonds and buff-top calibre-cut rubies, had been presented to Hutton as a wedding gift from her father in 1933, though its provenance was considerably older with some speculating the 27 perfectly spherical, extremely rare imperial jadeite beads (ranging in size from 15.4 to 19.2 mm) were cut in the 18th century. A year after her marriage, Hutton commissioned Cartier to create a matching jade, ruby and diamond ring, which is also part of the Cartier Collection today.
Following the purchase of the Hutton necklace, the question on everyone’s lips is whether we are witnessing the renaissance of jade. Because it seems as if this most ancient of precious stones is suddenly showing up everywhere, from a jewel-encrusted cuff by Giampiero Bonido to chunky black jade pieces by Lisa Eisner.
Watchmaker Ulysse Nardin’s Jade collection features four green jade horns that flank a bezel aflame with a ring of emeralds and diamonds. Hublot’s Classic Fusion Stone rose-gold watch sports a shimmering jadeite dial. Cartier’s ‘Luxuriant’ platinum ring features a cockatoo’s head whose crest is a single piece of carved, highly polished white jade.
As any jeweller will probably tell you, jade that is of the best quality could easily hold its own against its more popular rivals like emeralds and diamonds. And while it’s certainly true that the stone has been revered and prized for nearly two millennia, especially in Central America and the East, it’s equally true that jewellery collectors in the West are only just beginning to be reacquainted with it.
It’s easy enough to think that this modern resurgence of interest in an ancient stone may have had its roots in the Beijing Olympic Games where the medals cast for the occasion were inlaid with white jade (for the gold medal), a darker jade (silver medal) and green jade (bronze medal).
However, Pierre Rainero, the director of Image, Style and Heritage at Cartier, seems almost amused by the talk of a renaissance, even as he acknowledges the Hutton necklace as one of the most important pieces of jade jewellery in the world. The truth is, he says, jade has always been an important stone for all the major jewellery houses, especially in Asia. In fact, Cartier has been working with jade since at least 1910.
Similarly, Bulgari has long incorporated jade into its most beautiful pieces. In the mid-60s, its jewellers mounted teardrop-shaped cabochon jadeites onto gold Tubogas bracelets, and more recently, the sinuous coil of a diamond encrusted Serpenti necklace was capped in the head and tail with delicately carved jadeite.
“As a jeweller, our nature is to work with the most beautiful stones and we’ve always liked jade,” Rainero says simply, by way of explaining why Cartier decided to buy the Hutton necklace. “The material is magic, somewhere between a pearl and a stone.”
What makes jade particularly prized is that its tough, fine-grained composition makes it ideal for carving, and when polished, it emits a pearly, lustrous glow. Indeed, the luminosity of the stone is matched only by the virtuosity of its palette. Jadeite occurs in a range of colours including lilac, white, pink, brown, red, blue, black, orange, yellow and, the most prized colour, imperial green, which owes its rich emerald hue to chromium. Nephrite jade, on the other hand, varies from a dark green to a creamy shade.
This wide colour palette goes some way towards explaining why jade is often used to provide an unexpected counterpoint to the “harder”, more popular stones. Case in point: As far back as the 1960s, Bulgari had used jade as a background in advertising campaigns to frame its flashier collections of bracelets, brooches and necklaces.
Meanwhile, the Hutton necklace originally featured a clasp set with a single navette-cut diamond. This was later replaced with the current gold clasp set with rubies and diamonds on the aesthetic ground that the new gems would boost the intense green of the jade.
While there are jade mines all over the world, including Guatemala, New Zealand, Japan and California, the best jade in the world, says Rainero, comes from Myanmar. The value of the latter’s jade trade is more than US$8 billion a year, with most of it being sold to China which is still one of the world’s most important jade-cutting centres. Because a Western ban on jade trading with Myanmar has been in force since 2007, Rainero says that every piece of jade Cartier uses must either hold a certification that’s dated before that year, or it must come from antique pieces of jewellery from which the jade can be repurposed.
Like any coloured stone, the appreciation of jade is a subjective one and Rainero is quick to insist that it’s important to be personally invested in jade not because it’s a market trend, but because of a genuine connection with it. “It’s emotional. It seduces you.”
If Barbara Hutton were still alive, she would certainly agree.