Collectors are paying millions for jadeite. Why is it becoming more valuable?
Jadeite is incredibly difficult to come by, yet its popularity has only risen in recent years. Wenhao Yu, Deputy Chairman, Jewellery of Sotheby’s Asia, explains this phenomenon and shares his tips on how to start collecting this valuable stone.
There’s an old Chinese saying that goes: “Gold has a value; jade is invaluable.” Throughout history, this mystical green gemstone has held a very special place in Chinese culture. Other than the beauty that it emits, jade was believed to bring good luck and protection to its wearer.
For several centuries, jade jewellery was also revered as a symbol of wealth and privilege, reserved only for imperial families. So deep was this love for jade that during the Han dynasty, members of the royal family were buried in jade suits, made out of small jade tiles meticulously shaped and sewn together with gold thread.
Jade suits, of course, no longer have a place in modern society, but the fascination with jade jewellery has only grown stronger, even extending outside of Asia and attracting a new group of Western admirers. Jadeite jewellery – the rarer form of jade – in particular has drawn increased international interest, selling for record-breaking prices at auction houses.
In 2014, a jadeite bead necklace formerly owned by Woolworth heiress and prominent jewellery collector Barbara Hutton sold for a whopping US$27.4 million (S$37.4 million) at a Sotheby’s auction, setting a world-record for a jadeite jewel that still remains unbeaten today.
The Hutton-Mdivani Necklace, acquired by The Cartier Collection, was billed by the auction house as “the greatest jadeite bead necklace in the world”. It comprises 27 gigantic, vivid green and translucent jadeite beads, completed by a clasp set with calibre-cut rubies and baguette diamonds, mounted in platinum and 18K yellow gold.
More recently, a necklace with 37 jadeite beads sold for US$10.4 million at Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels auction held in July this year.
So what’s drawing this interest? And what exactly determines the value of jadeite?
In a sum, jadeite is essentially the more valuable form of jade, the latter being an umbrella term that encompasses both jadeite and its more common sibling, nephrite. Jadeite differs from nephrite in a myriad of ways, including in its origin, chemical composition, crystal structure, hardness, and translucency.
“Because of its different chemical structure, jadeite is much harder and less susceptible to scratches, and can take a higher gloss polish which brings out its translucency. In terms of colour, nephrite typically comes in shades of green, white and sometimes black, but jadeite can be found in varied hues due to a rich mineral composition, including green, lavender, red, white and grey,” explained Wenhao Yu, Deputy Chairman, Jewellery of Sotheby’s Asia.
While jadeite colours can range through the colour spectrum, the most prized variety possess a vibrant emerald green shade that’s almost translucent, known as “imperial green”.
The translucency and vibrancy of the imperial green jadeite is a result of the presence of chromium. “Chromium is typically found in the finest green jadeite from northern Myanmar, which have outstanding translucency with very fine and densely interlocked texture, thus resulting in a glowing effect through scattering of light when illuminated by a light source,” Yu said.
“Sotheby’s works with world-renowned gemological laboratories such as the Swiss Foundation for the Research of Gemstones (SSEF) and Gubelin Gem Lab to distinguish the top grading of imperial green jadeite,” Yu shared. “The grading of imperial green helps the market place top quality jadeite within an understanding similar to the calibre of 'pigeon blood' rubies, 'royal blue' sapphires and 'Type IIa' diamonds.”
Like these gemstones, top quality jadeite is extremely rare in nature, adding to its soaring prices. “There’s also a lack of offering in the auction market, so when exceptional jadeite pieces do appear, great prices are achieved,” Yu added. “You simply don’t know when the next top quality jadeite will appear.”
“You simply don’t know when the next top quality jadeite will appear.” – Wenhao Yu
A MODERN TAKE
As a historic gemstone, jadeite jewellery designs in the past were rather traditional, oftentimes fashioned with oodles of gold. But these days, designs have taken a more youthful turn in a bid to suit contemporary tastes.
Dramatic designs have also emerged, as jewellery designers discover increasingly creative ways to bring out the beauty of the stone.
In July 2020, a unique jadeite brooch, designed as a parrot, sold for HK$562,500 (S$99,066) at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction. The brooch was set with an emerald green jadeite stone, decorated with various coloured gemstones, brilliant-cut diamonds and black diamonds.
Similarly, another jadeite brooch, just as dramatic, caught the eye of bidders, selling at HK$200,000. Designed as a vase of sunflowers, the brooch was set with translucent jadeite cabochons in bright green, accented with red jadeite cabochon petals, then decorated with rose- and brilliant-cut diamonds, along with circular-cut emeralds.
At the same auction, a jadeite earring, decorated with brilliant-cut diamonds and shaped like an arrow, went under the hammer for HK$43,750.
Such designs have captured the attention of a younger generation of jadeite buyers. Providing insight into Sotheby’s customer base, Yu divulged, “There is a group of mature buyers who have been our loyal followers for years, but there’s also an emerging group of younger buyers who that tend to have a different preference. The younger generation is more receptive to modern designs, rather than classic jadeite styles.”
The proportion of non-Asian customers buying into jadeite jewellery has also grown steadily in the last decade. “Over the last three years, non-Asian buyers account for almost 30 per cent of jadeite lots sold at Sotheby’s,” Yu shared.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
As with other types of gemstones, picking out high-quality jadeite can be a pretty overwhelming experience, especially if you’re unsure of what to look out for.
Like diamonds, jadeite can be evaluated through the 4Cs – namely Colour, Clarity, Cut and Carat. Of this four, colour is often the top consideration for buyers. Keep an eye out for strong, vivid, and even colours. The most valuable jadeite is, without a doubt, those graded imperial jade.
On top of the 4Cs, translucency is also a key factor in distinguishing the quality of jadeite. The more translucent the stone, the higher the value.
It would certainly help to keep this piece of advice from Yu in mind as well. “Always buy the best quality jadeite that you can afford. Study the market and compare available options,” he shared.
For those acquiring their first jadeite, Yu also recommends starting small – instead of going for larger stones, buy smaller-sized, top quality jadeite “as a sample gem for collecting reference”.
While a perfect jadeite with no inclusions or clarity effects may be hard to come by, natural flaws, however, only add to its beauty.
“Jadeite stones are art creations gifted by Mother Nature, and certain imperfections make each piece unique and beautiful. It takes a lot of love and passion to appreciate the uniqueness and the beauty within,” Yu believes.
“Jadeite stones are art creations gifted by Mother Nature, and certain imperfections make each piece unique and beautiful. It takes a lot of love and passion to appreciate the uniqueness and the beauty within." – Wenhao Yu