Pity lavender jade, that pink-to-purple member of jadeite’s rather extensive color family. Far rarer than this gem’s much-coveted green and white varieties, lavender jade is still denied the veneration and value of its sister shades by jade’s chief patrons—the Chinese, Japanese, and British.
Indeed, the only people with whom lavender jade has found wide favor are Americans, mostly since World War II. This has robbed many superb examples of this gem of an important sales ingredient—provenance, the documented history of any crafted object. “In auction catalogs, you are used to seeing green and white jadeites with high provenance such as ownership by royalty,” says Daphne Lang Rosenzweig, adjunct associate professor of Oriental art at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “But with lavender jade the provenance is usually far less, often a note that reads ‘From the collection of a Palm Beach lady.’”
The rub of belated and mostly backhanded recognition is aggravated by the painful fact that green and white jadeites have enjoyed the stature of being the most prized cabochon and craft stones since their introduction to China from neighboring Burma around 1750. Until then, nephrite jade (a tremolite-actinolite mineral different from jadeite, a pyroxene) had been the chief mainstay of Chinese artisanship and statuary for 3,000 to 7,000 years, according to various educated guesses. For an interloper such as jadeite to win, in a matter of decades, regard equal to that accorded nephrite from China’s fastidious jade lovers was the supreme tribute to this latecomer’s greens and whites.
It was also the supreme snub to jadeite’s pinks and purples.
The Two Faces of Jade
The term “jade” is one of the gem world’s most confusing, applied in the past to diverse carving stones including serpentine and soapstone.(For more on ancient-versus-modern meanings of jade, see Paul Desautels’ discussion of “true jade” in his fascinating 1986 book, “The Jade Kingdom.”) While gemology has narrowed the number of minerals worthy (in Western eyes) of what Desautels calls “The noble name of jade” to two—nephrite and jadeite—nephrite has first claim on it in terms of seniority. But jadeite has won equal—some would say top-billing as a jade in terms of value. Today’s fine jewelry market uses jadeite almost exclusively. Nephrite is generally valued for its antiquity and carving excellence, rather than its intrinsic value.
Jadeite, on the other hand, has so much more intrinsic than extrinsic value that dealers now feel it worthless to preserve in artifact form. As a result, masterpieces are seen as little more than rough material from which to extract cabochons. “You can imagine how upset museum curators feel when they see Hong Kong dealers at auction viewings measuring magnificent jadeite incense burners and statues for the amount of retrievable fine color material in them,” a dealer says.
By “fine color,” he means, of course, the highly translucent emerald-green for which jadeite is famous. Nephrite’s most common hue—a dull, waxy green—never gave it competition. Indeed, the color variety of nephrite most prized by the Chinese was a faint almond-white called “mutton-fat” from Turkestan that was no longer found when Burma’s jade appeared. Fortunately, Burma provided a delicate bone-white color that has become the second most revered of jadeite’s many hues in the Orient. Yet, except for the very finest pieces, its pinks and purples failed to find general acceptance. Perhaps it was their novelty. After all, pinks were practically unknown in nephrite.
But continuing neglect in Asian connoisseur circles is only one of lavender jade’s problems.