Jade: Function and Fashion
Beauty and functionality meet in a wonderful way in carved jade. Objects carved from jade stone are some of the most popular items in China. The most typical color associated with jade and jadeite is green; however, it will also appear pure white, celadon, lavender, red, and many others. (Fig 1)
Figure 1: Lot 43, Chinese Red Jadeite Dragon Hook, 19th Century, estimated at $800-1,200. From Oakridge Auction Gallery’s July Fine Asian Art: Ceramics & Works of Art. All photos copyright Oakridge Auction Gallery.
Jade is separated into two different types: nephrite and jadeite. The reason for this separation is the difference in density; nephrite is considered soft while jadeite is hard. Until the Qing Dynasty, the only form of jade that was found in China was nephrite, or soft jade. Once trade started on the Silk Road, jadeite was able to be imported from Burma.
Even before jadeite was imported, nephrite was used and found carved from as early as the Neolithic period. These items ranged from everyday jewelry to more ornate ritualistic objects. Symbolically, jade is meant to signify wealth, nobility, and to act as a protector. Green jade, in particular, is typically used in funerary rites, with carvings placed in the hands or mouth of the deceased. (Fig. 2)
Figure 2: Lot 51, Chinese Jadeite Ruyi, 19th Century, estimated at $2,000-3,000. From Oakridge Auction Gallery’s July Fine Asian Art: Ceramics & Works of Art. All photos copyright Oakridge Auction Gallery.
Green jade was also used to create burial suits. These suits were made from squares of jade that were sewn together with either gold or silver thread; and were supposed to protect the individual in the afterlife. Typically, suits of this nature were reserved for a high-ranking member of society. From this, we can infer the importance of this stone.
Since this stone was used to signify wealth and nobility, many high-ranking officials had desk instruments crafted from jade. While these items were functional, they were also used to show off the wealth of the individual.
At times, an object would lose its usefulness - an item could be damaged, or a new style introduced rendering previous tools irrelevant. When this happened, the jade portion would be repurposed. Here at Oakridge, we have seen Ruyi heads repurposed as backing for mirrors. Many dragon hooks were formerly used to keep robes together, and have transitioned into handles; these are just two examples of many. (Fig. 3)
Figure 3: Lot 68, Group of 5 Chinese White Jade Archer’s Rings, 19th Century, estimated at $1,000-1,500. From Oakridge Auction Gallery’s July Fine Asian Art: Ceramics & Works of Art. From the estate of Albert T. Quon. All photos copyright Oakridge Auction Gallery
Jade is also a popular fashion accessory. Since it can be carved into many different forms, jade can be seen as simple bangles, or more intricate pendants. The delicate care that goes into creating these jewelry pieces allows them to stand the test of time. (Fig. 4)
Figure 4: Lot 104, Chinese Jadeite Goldfish Pendant, Republic Period, estimated at $3,000-5,000. From Oakridge Auction Gallery’s July Fine Asian Art: Ceramics & Works of Art. All photos copyright Oakridge Auction Gallery.
Depending on the intricacy of the carving, some of these objects could have taken years to be finished. Today, artists use diamond drills and wire saws to carve these patterns. In the past, abrasives and lapidary wheels were used. The skill of the carvers can also be seen when looking at multicolored jade. It is common to have a piece that looks as if two parts were merged, when in reality, the carver used the coloring of the stone to craft the different sections of the piece.
Jade is also used for carving sculptures; human figures and animals alike. The animals that we most commonly see here at Oakridge are phoenix, dragons, bats, and double cats. (Fig 5)
Figure 5: Lot 23, Chinese White Jade Dragon Carving, Ming, estimated at $1,000-1,500. From Oakridge Auction Gallery’s July Fine Asian Art: Ceramics & Works of Art. All photos copyright Oakridge Auction Gallery.
With so many different uses and colors, why not take home one of these popular stones?
*The objects featured in this post are available for sale in our upcoming July Fine Asian Art: Ceramics & Works of Art Sale.
1. Shan, Jun. “Importance of Jade in Chinese Culture.” ThoughtCo. ThoughtCo, December 6, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/about-jade-culture-629197.
2. Cartwright, Mark. “Jade in Ancient China.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, October 28, 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1088/jade-in-ancient-china/#targetText=The ancient Chinese considered jade,the Hongshan and Liangzhu cultures.
3. Braid, Fara. “Jade Symbolism and Legends.” International Gem Society. Accessed October 30, 2019. https://www.gemsociety.org/article/history-legend-jade-gems-yore/.
4. Thorp, Robert L., and Yang Xiaoneng. Son of Heaven: Imperial Arts of China. Seattle: Son of Heaven Press, 1988. p. 180.
5. Munsterberg, Hugo. Dictionary of Chinese and Japanese Art. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1981. p. 135.
About the Author
Alison Eubanks joined Oakridge in the fall of 2019. She received her Master's degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester, during which time she developed practical experience working with historic collections at the Hampton Court Palaces in England.