A Private Collection of Archaic Jade

from the Neolithic to the Qing Dynasty

Our love of nephrite jade began when we were importing contemporary semi-precious stone carvings through Hong Kong in the early 1980s. Over the next twenty years we visited many times a year due to business, and always looked forward to the opportunities to look for and purchase archaic jades, and acquire more knowledge about our new hobby which had become an obsession.

We discovered archaic jade just by chance, and the long journey to learn about it began with our first foray into jades being those of the Liangzhu culture. Jades from this period in China's history were available at that time, and we found them fascinating. Later on we had access to jades from other periods, and Liangzhu jades became scarce for a few years. Why this happened is another story.

We had no computer and hence no internet to rely on for information for at least twelve years after the first piece of archaic jade entered our collection. This meant that it was up to us to do what we could to learn how to distinguish genuine archaic jade from the multitude of fakes on the market. The only market we knew of at that time was the Hong Kong Jade Market, a trap for young collectors.

The field of study was much wider than we could ever have envisioned; made more difficult by the scarcity of literature in English, and by not knowing any other collectors. The available literature gave us no clue as to what the surface alterations visible on burial jades were all about. The generic term for these alterations was “calcification”, which referred to the whitened areas of the jade. Janet G. Douglas, Freer/Sackler Gallery, refers to other alterations on archaic jade as surface accretions. In her paper, “A Review of Some Recent Research on Early Chinese Jade”, she states that “Surface accretions remain an unexplored area of focused research, probably because it can be difficult to determine the significance and relative age of such deposits. Many jades are heavily cleaned and waxed, which often obliterates any accretions on their surface.” She mentions future areas for research, and her first reference to this is: “1. identification and distribution of surface accretions, weathering, and alteration;”

The surface and finish of genuine archaic carvings made a strong impression on us, compelling us to delve deeper into the study of the stone. The first requisite was to be able to recognize the crystal structure in order to be able to differentiate between nephrite jade and other stones used in ancient times. To this end we took a selection of jades, those that showed different surfaces, colour and texture, to Mr. Gavin Miller, Centre for Microscopy & Microanalysis, University of Queensland. Testing the jade material was done from scrapings, using XRD (x-ray diffraction), which identified each sample.

In our search for non-destructive tests we went to Dr. Llew Rintoul, Queensland University of Technology, who conducted Raman Spectral Mineral Analysis. This was to investigate some of the secondary minerals we saw on the surface of jades in our collection.

In the late 1990s we were introduced to a book which gave us a better understanding of the mineralogy and put names to what we had been looking at. This book confirmed much of what we had thought. A Symposium on the Mineralogical Study of Archaic Jade was organized by the National Taiwan University in conjunction with the Taiwan Museum, in January 1996, and the book, ACTA Geologica Taiwanica, Special Issue No. 32, was produced in order to present the best of these studies. Professor Hsien-Ho Tsien, Paleontology, National Taiwan University, was Guest Editor.

A few years later, in 2002, we began a correspondence with Dr. Frederick A. Cook, Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Calgary. At this time Dr. Cook had studied raw nephrite jade from various localities, over a period of more than 30 years, and was deeply interested in the surface alterations seen on archaic jade. It was good to be able to pick his brains on questions we had. His explanations were always concise and easy for us, with no scientific background, to understand. A year later we sent him a fragment of a jade plate, which we considered to be from the Zhou dynasty. He conducted thin slice analysis of the fragment, and produced a report on the crystals that were raised minutely above the surface of the original carving. These crystals, in many instances, were within and over original engraved lines, making it clear that they had occurred after the jade was first produced and were likely to have been the result of conditions within the tomb. This was the first of several tests conducted by Dr. Cook.

Dr. Cook has published a paper on some of his studies – Cook, F.A., 2013, Raised relief on nephrite jade: Observations, explanations, implications, Journal of Archaeological Science, v. 40, 943-954. One interesting test published in this paper was on a nephrite jade vessel in our collection, which caught his attention because of some absorption visible on the inside of the vessel. He took scrapings in order to have a Carbon-14 test conducted, to see if a dating could be arrived at. As far as we know, this type of test has not been documented to have been carried out on archaic jade before this. The result showed that the vessel was produced at least 3010 years before the present date. The C-14 test is not generally used to date jade, as it requires sufficient organic material to test. However, the result is historic inasmuch as the dating of jade is generally made from making comparisons with documented pieces and a good knowledge of art history.

We owe Dr. Cook a debt of gratitude for his integrity and professionalism in researching a subject so close to our hearts.