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A Cut Above the Rest

The jade deposits found in Myanmar’s northern regions occupy a privileged place in the world of gems. Burmese (Myanmar) jade or jadeite is the highest quality jadeite in the world. Most of the jadeite mined in Myanmar is not cut for local use; instead it is transported to other nations, primarily in Asia, for use in jewelry and other products. The name ‘jade’ is a generic term applied to two different materials: jadeite and nephrite. Initially they were grouped together due to very similar appearance and characteristics. But later, it was discovered that jadeite is slightly harder, tougher and rarer than nephrite, making it the more valuable of the two.

Roughly, Myanmar supplies seventy per cent of world’s high quality jadeite. Recently Myanmar’s jadeite industry has expanded substantially in response to increasing demand for the stone in Chinese markets with jade export revenues rising from 150–300 million USD in the early 2000s to 1.75 billion USD during the 2010-2011 which accounts for a fifth of Myanmar’s total export revenue. According to Ministry of Commerce trade data jade was the country’s second-biggest source of revenue after natural gas in 2011-2012, valued at about $780 million. Though, it remains unclear how much revenue the government generates from the gemstone trade. However, a July 2013 report by the Ash Center at Harvard University in the United States put the value sales of Burmese jade as high as $8 billion in 2011 Asians have long worshipped jadeite as a symbol of good luck, good health and evil spirit destroyer. The stone also has a long and revered history in its usage by man- kind. Jade’s antiquity contributes an aura of eternity to this gem. Confucius praised jade as a symbol of righteousness and knowledge Worked by the Chinese since the Neolithic period, its legendary toughness has allowed it to be employed in the widest range of purposes. Its beauty encouraged decorative objects, such as jewellery, amulets and carvings, while its physical properties and rarity promoted ceremonial, ritual and utilitarian functions, such as knives, daggers and even scepters. The Chinese belief in jade as a link between the physical and spiritual worlds meant that it was an intrinsic part of burials of the imperial family, and in ancient texts, was directly referred to as an aid to immortality. It has been, and still is today, so highly valued that it is known as the ‘Stone of Heaven’.

Despite the fact that the Chinese have had a love affair with jade for the last several thousand years and jade deposits are found in many parts of the world – in USA, Guatemala, Italy, Japan, and Russia- the most important jadeite deposits are not in China, but in upper Myanmar. Hpakant in Myanmar’s Kachin state is the recognised source for the finest green stone or the Imperial Jade.

In Hpakant, located about 220 miles north of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, the world’s highest-quality jade is mined. About 100 jade mining companies operate in the Hpakant area. Surrounded by hills and mountains that produce jade and gold, the area is so rich in mineral wealth that residents say they would find jade even when they were building foundations of new houses or while digging wells. In addition to Hpakant, there are also notable mines in the towns of Nasibon and Natmaw in the neighboring Hkamti region. According to a leading jade mining company in Hpakant, that residents say they would find jade even when they were building foundations of new houses or while digging wells. In addition to Hpakant, there are also notable mines in the towns of Nasibon and Natmaw in the neighboring Hkamti region. According to a leading jade mining company in Hpakant,the amount of jade transported overland to China is huge compared to the official amount of raw jade sold at the government trade fairs. Jade companies prefer not to sell their wares at the emporium as they would be subject to high government tax rates that could add up to 30 percent of the value of their sales.

Precious translucent jade occurs in a variety of delicate colours. Jadeite, specifically, can range from white, pink; lavender to black, but it is the green variety that is perhaps the most well-known and valued. Various green shades are created by the substitution of iron impurities within the structure, but the presence of traces of chromium produce the finest and most valuable Imperial Jade: a deeply saturated emerald green colour, and evenly translucent to transparent.

Artistic cutting and carving on jade is a time honoured skill. Myanmar’s largest jade market is in south Mandalay, a city that is said to operate on the three “lines” – white (heroin), red (ruby), and green (jade). Mandalay has many small workshops dedicated to cutting all types of jade. Trading is con- ducted in several places along 86th Street. Here, every morning, hundreds of people can be observed haggling over jadeite. Traders classify jadeite rough first according to where it was mined. River jade, the jadeite recovered from alluvial deposits in and along the Uru River, occurs as rounded boulders with a thin skin; in contrast, mountain jade (found away from the river) appears as rounded boulders with thick skins. Because weathering usually removes damaged or altered areas, the best qualities are usually associated with river jade.

Most stones are ultimately crafted into jewellery in China, meaning the financial benefits of the artistry go to foreign craftspeople. The making of beads and jade bangles which are the most popular jewellery item, like carving, is a specialty which involves considerable skill and risk and it is mostly done in China. The boring of holes in neck- lace beads, buttons, cuff-links, etc., is a specialty and is generally done by skilled artisans. It is noticed that the harder the stone the more difficult the cutting, and the more brilliant the polish it is capable of acquiring. So great is the difficulty of carving jade that sometimes an elaborate piece may represent a lifetime of labour. Mandalay craftspeople say they need to be more familiar with modern techniques to compete with Chinese carvings. Despite the toughness of jadeite, many cutters in Mandalay still shape cabochons on boards that have been coated with carborundum and hard wax, and then polish the jadeite on bamboo lathes. The green stone has been a rich source of livelihood for many in Mandalay.