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Eurojade - Le Spécialiste du Jade - The Jade Specialist


When the Spanish conquistadors entered the territory of the declining Maya civilization in search of gold, they overlooked what the Maya considered a more valuable resource, their jade mines. Along with the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican groups inhabiting Mexico and Central America, the Maya were avid users of jade, sculpting and polishing the rare, hard, usually green rock into ornaments, figurines, and other treasured objects. But the material was new to the sixteenth-century Europeans, who had yet to appreciate the riches of Asian jade. In some cases they excitedly mistook jade artifacts for emeralds.

Spanish conquerors adopted the Mesoamerican Indian belief that the bright green material could cure kidney disorders. So Spaniards began wearing the talisman too, calling it "piedra de ijada"—stone of the loins. The name stuck and should have been translated into French as "pierre de l'éjade" ; but through what some think is a printer's error, it appeared as "le jade". And the name stuck.

Mayas jade of Guatemala, Paul & Dora Janssen-Arts, loan from Flemish Communauty to Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, Belgium

Jade was prized by Mesoamericans as far back as 3,500 years ago. Prominent among the earliest craftsmen were the ancient Olmec of southern Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, who were unequaled at cutting and polishing jade rocks. Judging by the quantity and quality of their artifacts made of blue-green rock, the Olmec apparently preferred that color over others. Maya jade artifacts, many of which have been unearthed at important sites and graves of the Classic period (roughly A.D. 250 to 900), are more often a mottled green and white, while their choice pieces were of an emerald green variety.

The Mesoamericans and Chinese worked jade in the same basic ways. Slices were cut using abrasive saws moistened with a slurry of quartz or garnet or sand, mixed with animal fat such as pig grease or milk. Holes were drilled by spinning bamboo, hollow bird bones, wooden or metal points coated with a wet abrasive. Carvings were polished with jade powder or sand. Months or years were often required to fashion a single piece. The abrasive was applied to the area to be cut by rubbing it with a thin piece of obsidian or wood in the form of a blade. Vegetable fiber was also used in the form of a string to apply the abrasive. Drilling holes was made with a bamboo point attached to a drill. The Indians of Central America also fashioned jade as cooking implements. After the heated jade rocks were red hot, they were placed in a pot which brought water to a boil in seconds.

Mesoamericans and the Chinese also used jade amazingly alike. They even developed comparable beliefs regarding the stone's influence on health and honored dead chiefs with mosaic jade masks and ornaments. Moctezuma, the Aztec ruler who confronted the Spaniards, pinpointed the difference between his Indian values and those of metal-crazed Europeans. After his first meeting with Cortés, Moctezuma reportedly told his advisers the equivalent of : "Thank God they're only after the gold and silver. They don't know about jade."

Jade was venerated by the Mayas as the stone of eternity, the stone from the sky or as the stone symbol of eternal love. Dental pieces have been found with inlaid jade. Jade was considered more valuable than gold itself. Jade was revered as a supreme god, for example : when a king or someone of the nobility died, they buried him with masks and necklaces of jade. When a person of a lower social class died, a piece of jade was placed in their mouth because the Mayas thought that the spirit would always leave the body through the mouth, and when leaving, take the piece of jade as the passport to heaven.

For that reason, almost all masks have the mouth open with a piece of jade within. Jade was also worked as jewelry, elaborating necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and other itmes such as funeral glasses or glasses for divine offerings.

Knowledge of the source or sources of Mesoamerican jade was lost following the upheavals of the European conquest and remained a mystery as late as the 1950s. Since jade artifacts are distributed widely in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, for a century or more people have searched for sources over a large area, even speculating that the raw material originated in Asia. Finally, in 1952 a sample rock found near the small town of Manzanal, Guatemala, in the central valley of the Rio Motagua, was identified as jade. Further investigation revealed a nine-mile-long zone on the north side of the valley, paralleling the highway leading to the Atlantic coast, that was mined for jade in prehistoric times and can still yield commercially useful amounts.

But jade in Central America is often not what it appears. In recent years, it has been brought to light that most of the Mesoamerican pieces on the market are fakes. Many museum pieces have also been detected as "not-genuine" jade. Some items have been tested to show that only parts are true jadeite, the rest is made of another green-colored stone. However, there are many examples of Mesoamerican art which are crafted of genuine jadeite.