Today we will dive into the peculiar and mysterious world of jade with legendary gemologist, and author of the ruby and sapphire Bible: Ruby and Sapphire: A Gemologist’s Guide, Lotus Gemology’s Richard W. Hughes.
With him we will explore his passion for this material and the world that surrounds it. We will try to understand the difference between the various type of jades, what they are used for or what different nations consider jade to be. Whether it is the famous Burmese jade or the sublime and delicate Chinese nephrite sculptures, we hope to learn about them all today.
Without any further delay, we interview one of the only “gweilo” (white foreigner) mainlanders ask to speak about jade: Richard Hughes.
AsiaLounges: First of all, we would like to thank you Richard for being with us today. If you don’t mind, we will start with our traditional opening question. Can you tell us more about yourself?
Richard W. Hughes: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. While it was a university town, the area was essentially monocultural and, frankly, I had little intellectual curiosity about the world outside my bread plate. I enjoyed skiing and music, and that’s about it. Fortunately I had an elder brother who was much more broad-minded and a bit of that rubbed off on me. But my real awakening to the world occurred as a result of a friend, Seth Pollack, who invited me to join him after graduation on a gap year visit to Europe and Israel. We took off a few days after graduation in 1976 and the mayhem began. What I saw, what I learned, exploded my previous world view in every possible way.
AsiaLounges: You mentioned in past interviews that you used to travel a lot as a young adult, but I never fully understood what drove you to study gems and gemology. Could you tell us more about that?
Richard W. Hughes: When Seth and I set out for Europe, our original plan was to spend the winter in Israel. Seth was Jewish and that was his personal pilgrimage. At one point, I met an Australian who had just come from Asia. He described Europe as “a bit tame” and started spinning yarns about his trip overland from Australia. It sounded so exotic, so exciting, and when he mentioned Nepal, I was hooked. I had seen documentaries in school about “marching to Everest” and the thought of walking in those footsteps was extremely exciting to me. Seth and I parted in Greece, he to Israel and I to Asia. Seth completed his quest and I, mine. He’s now a professor at the University of California in Monterrey.
It was on the road to Nepal that my interest in gems was first kindled. The British Crown Jewels in the Tower of London had previously sparked my interest, but in Iran, Afghanistan and India, I was exposed to gems as a business. It seemed both fascinating and exotic. Later, after trekking to the base camp of Everest, I continued East to Burma. In Mandalay, I saw my first fine ruby, and my first piece of jade.
AsiaLounges: You have been considered to be a kind of “Rock Star” in the world of gems and gemology, in part because of your vast experience, but also, because of your huge body of published work, particularly your book series: Ruby & Sapphire, which started in 1993. I would like to understand what initiated your shift to the jade market, when most of your competition would rather focus on emerald? What drove you to take this secondary area of study. Was it a shift at all, or simply the continuation of a secret love for jade?
Richard W. Hughes: Eventually I settled in Bangkok, and began studying gemology at AIGS. When I finished, they offered me a job. The Thai gem trade existed almost exclusively on ruby and sapphire at that time, so that’s what I was exposed to and that’s what I focussed on. But on weekends I also made many visits to the Burmese border, mostly to Mae Sot, so my interest in jade continued – a guilty pleasure. In the lab at AIGS, we would see the occasional piece of jade, but at that time Thailand was just a way station for jade passing through to Hong Kong.
Much later, in 1996, I had the chance to visit Burma’s jade mines, the first group of foreigners permitted to do so since the early 1960’s. Following that epic journey, my guilty pleasure became a more serious concern. Ever since then, I’ve spent a lot of time researching jade sources and markets around the world. In 1997, I went with a crew to produce two films on jade in Burma, taking noted National Geographic photographer, Fred Ward, with me. In my conversations with Fred, he spoke of Chinese “mutton fat” jade (nephrite), but, outside of photos in books, I had no real concept of what it was.
Richard visiting a Burmese Jade Quarry in 1996 - photo courtesy RWH for Lotus Gemology
That changed in 2009 when I visited Guangzhou’s jade market. It was there that I saw firsthand the Chinese mutton-fat jade. While the jadeite was displayed like meat in a supermarket, the Chinese nephrite shops were like small churches or art galleries. There was a reverence accorded the material completely unlike that of jadeite. I fell head-over-heels in love with this stone. As the Chinese say, “better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”
Much later, I was invited to give a lecture in Shanghai, at Tongji University. It was the first time I lectured in the Mainland. Later, I told the professor, Zhou Zhengyu (Adam), that I wanted to visit some bookstores in Shanghai to buy books on jade. He said there was no need, that I could get plenty of books from the “Tongji Bookstore,” which turned out to be his office. Before I left he had gifted me with a half-dozen or more books on Chinese jade.
Returning home, I browsed through his presents. And fell in love again. What I saw was page after page of the most incredible carvings, nothing like the older works from centuries gone by. This was fresh, this was contemporary, this was a revelation, a Renaissance, a rebirth of an art form that stretches back some 8000 years.
Spectacular Hetian jade carving from master Yang Xi of Suzhou, China - Photo courtesy of Zhou Zhengyu / Tongji University
AsiaLounges: About jade itself, I believe it may be of interest to define what it is, as I understand many traders do not necessarily see eye-to-eye on that topic. What is jade and what are the different families that compose that lovely material?
Richard W. Hughes: Interesting that you should ask. In the West, mineralogists and gemologists have strict criteria for defining minerals/gems. But traditionally in China, jade was not defined by chemical or crystallographic properties. Instead jade was defined according to certain “virtues.” Thus the Chinese definition of jade is far more broad than in the West.
A couple weeks ago (May 2019) in Switzerland, following my lecture on jade, I was taken to task by a prominent European gemologist for not clearly using Western mineralogical nomenclature. My answer was that, in China, the definition of jade is much broader. He pointedly said: “But you are not Chinese; you are Western!”
The Art of War made into a stunning jade carving - photo courtesy RWH for Lotus Gemology
I guess I once was “Western,” but after having spent nearly half my life in Asia, working for and with Chinese and other Asian people, and being married to a Chinese, I no longer see things with such restrictive blinders on.
However for argument’s sake, let’s look at the Western definition of “jade.” European knowledge of jade really began in the 19th century. In 1846, French chemist Alexis Damour did the first “scientific” analysis of nephrite, finding it to be an amphibole. Later, following the British and French armies' 1860 sacking of Beijing’s Summer Palace, where many Chinese jade objects were stolen and then made their way to Europe, Damour again analyzed jade. He found the vivid green stones to be chemically different from the white-to-pale-green nephrite jade and named the new stone “jadeite.”
So there you have it. By any definition, the “scientific” Western definition of jade is a bastard child. It takes two different mineral types and lumps them together under the vague rubric of “jade,” based largely on their shared characteristics and history. Call them “virtues” if you dare.
I should probably mention that there is one Chinese variety of jade that shares my name. It is called “dickite” (aka ‘chicken blood stone’). If you don’t believe me, look it up. I like to think that it was named after me, perhaps in a previous lifetime.
AsiaLounges: In understand you have visited jade deposits in Burma, China, USA, and Russia. I guess my question to you is where does your personal preference in terms of material lies and why?
Richard W. Hughes: Sticking to the Western definition of jade (jadeite jade and nephrite jade), we have to be aware that jade is different from other “normal” gem materials. Normal faceted gems are judged by the 4 C’s (Color, Clarity, Cut and Carat weight). With jadeite jade, we need to add the 2 T’s (Transparency and Texture). There are also a number of other factors that can make a major difference. Open fissures are a major no-no for Chinese buyers, as are black spots. Also the distribution of color is complex, where some combinations are valuable, while others are shunned.
What many in the West do not understand, is that a piece of jadeite jade can be extremely valuable even if it is not green. This is expressed in a Chinese proverb:
“An insider looks at kind, and outsider just at color.”
But when it comes to carved jade, in almost any of its multitude of forms, what the carver adds to the piece overwhelms the other factors. Nobody really cares what canvas Michelangelo painted upon, nor are they seriously concerned with the content of his pigments. In this respect, jade is entirely different from most other gems. Again, I will revert to a Chinese folk story:
“Here I stand, O Noble Stone, to carve a creature of your own. Whisper signs and sounds from rock that I, your servant, may unlock.”
This is not to say that the material itself (referred to in China as the ‘base’ or in Thailand as the ‘meat’) is unimportant. Today, fine pieces of Hetian “mutton fat” jade from Xinjiang in western China are enormously expensive. As a result, only the most famous and well-funded carvers can afford to work in that material.
As for my own preference, I’m in love with the Hetian (Khotan) “mutton fat” nephrite jade.
AsiaLounges: I think a lot of our readers would like to understand better how to value jade in general? What are the things that one should be aware of when purchasing jade in China or in Myanmar for example?
Richard W. Hughes: The same principles apply to all gems. First you need to educate yourself, to learn as much about the subject as possible. You can do this by visiting shows, dealers’ offices, markets, museums, etc.
When it comes to buying, unless you have unlimited funds, it’s best to start slow. You can often learn the same lessons from buying a $100 gem as a $10,000 gem, so move slowly up the food chain. Catch a few guppies before going shark fishing.
Most important is to deal with people you know, people who are established. This is so that, if there is a problem, you can go back to them in the future. And make sure that any major purchase is backed up by an independent report from a major lab.
Jade market in Guangzhou - China - where the cost per piece goes from few dollars to several millions - photo courtesy RWH for Lotus Gemology
AsiaLounges: As you may have seen in some of our recent interviews, it has become a bit of a habit of ours to tease our guest with a question on ethics and traceability. How does that work with jade and what do you personally think about these topics in the gem trade in general?
Richard W. Hughes: This issues of “ethics” and “traceability” are code words for “was the gem I want to buy mined under conditions that did not involve bad things being done to poor people.” It has become a major story in the past decade.
Obviously, Donald Trump and his cronies excepted, most of us want others to live good lives and under comfortable conditions. The jewelry industry has come under fire in the past, not because it is inherently more abusive than others, but because it is an easy target. People don’t have to buy jewelry or gems. It is the epitome of a discretionary purchase.
Few people understand that virtually everything they own is built from materials that were mined from the ground, often under less-than-ideal conditions.
Kid in the Jade Market in Hetian, Xianjiang, China - photo courtesy EBH for Lotus Gemology
It is easy to call for bans on child labor. But in poor communities, that “child labor” helps to support families living from day-to-day. If they are not permitted to work, what will they do? They can’t go to school, because they don’t have the money. So if they are barred from basic occupations, what is left? Generally it is illegal activity, such as theft and even prostitution.
Everyone wants to be self-righteous. In my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, there is a big interest in mountain cultures. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s brother founded a school there. You will often see bumper stickers on cars in Boulder shouting “Free Tibet!” I’ve never seen one saying “Free Hawaii” or “Free Texas.”
Ethics are important. But like the Hippocratic oath that doctors take, the number one rule should be to first do no harm. I’ve attended dozens of meetings where these issues have been debated. But I’ve yet to hear any of the advocates of “ethical sourcing” air the opinions of those whose activities they propose to regulate. Because they are almost never asked.
At one panel discussion I participated in on an embargo of Burmese gems, I explained how the parts of cell phones came from minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has one of the world’s worst human rights records. I then had a friend walk through the aisles with a bag to collect the phones of those who not just wanted to talk the talk, but walk the walk. He found no takers. As I said, everyone wants to be self-righteous and call for sacrifices. Few want to make personal sacrifices.
If we really want to improve the lives of poor people in developing countries, we need to help raise their standard of living. We need to buy the products they work so hard to produce. We need to assist these nations and peoples to rise out of poverty. And we need to stop our own governments from waging wars that drag them down.
AsiaLounges: Coming back to jade, I would like to ask about treatments in general. Is jade treated? Can treatmens be detected and do they have as big an influence on the price of the material as they do with other gems?
Richard W. Hughes: As you would imagine, a gem with such a lengthy history as jade also has a lengthy history of treatments. Some are detectable and some are not. The influence on price can be quite significant.
The most common treatments are staining (dying) and/or polymer impregnation. In a green color, the staining is easily detected by most labs. However there are some treatments that are not detectable. Some jade is heated to produce a reddish color. This is currently not detectable.
Jade being dyed in Ruili, China (on the Burmese border), one of the many treatments available for jade as explained by Richard in this interview - photo courtesy RWH for Lotus Gemology
Nephrites are often artificially stained to mimic the natural oxidation stains on the outside of some boulders. This can require a genuine expert to detect. Nephrite quarried from primary deposits (known as ‘mountain jade’) is often sawed into small pieces, which are then tumbled with dyes to mimic the more valuable “river jade.” This also requires an expert to detect.
Of course there are also many imitations and a variety of assembled stones, including assembled rough.
AsiaLounges: We have on various occasion discussed your love for the fine arts made on Chinese jade, could you tell us more about it? Could you help us understand what attracted you to it in the first place and how you discovered this art form?
The "Way of the Carver" being passed down to Richard by Master Wu Deshen - photo courtesy RWH for Lotus Gemology
Richard W. Hughes: This is a rather recent passion for me, and was a product of seeing Hetian jade and then seeing the exciting directions the new generation of Chinese carvers are working in. While I was living in Hong Kong (2010–2012), I was exposed to Chinese contemporary art, which I loved. Thus it was not a large step to develop an interest in Chinese contemporary jade carving.
In April 2019, Billie and I had the pleasure of attending the annual Tiangong Awards in Suzhou (China), which is essentially the Oscars of jade carving. While there, I ran into an old friend, Donn Salt, who is arguably the finest jade carver in New Zealand (and they have some great ones). After walking around the exhibition and seeing the level of the carvers, he told me he felt like a schoolboy. I think that says it all.
Yet another stunning jade carving - photo courtesy RWH for Lotus Gemology
AsiaLounges: I have recently heard, don’t ask me where, that Lotus Gemology is now providing gemological reports for more than just ruby, sapphire and spinels. Can we expect to see hard cover reports on all of them or only a select few and why?
Richard W. Hughes: Due to client requests, we have now expanded our reports to include all gems (diamonds and pearls excepted). We are now in the process of rolling out new jade hard cover reports, which we are quite excited about, and believe they are the finest in the business. As for the future, no comment. Suffice to say we have a number of interesting plans and ideas.
AsiaLounges: I have always wondered why you decided to specialize in ruby and sapphire. Is there a particular reason, the love for corundum or was it a business move?
Richard W. Hughes: As I previously mentioned, I learned gemology in Bangkok, and that was the major stone traded in Thailand at that time. So this is what I ate three times a day. Desert was jade and spinel.
AsiaLounges: If you could work on a gem of your own choosing, regardless of business considerations, which one would it be? Can we expect you guys to work on this gem type in the future regardless of economical considerations?
Richard W. Hughes: The world of gems is full of variety and wonder. We enjoy working with all of it.
AsiaLounges: I understand you have quite the busy schedule these days with a series of lectures around the world, can you tell us more about it? Where are the next ones and what will they be about?
Richard W. Hughes: Most years we give a half-dozen or so lectures around the world. For some reason, the first half of 2019 has been unusually busy, in that we’ve received far more invitations. Speaking to an audience is like anything, the more you do it, the better it gets, and thus the requests build. We have always had more lecture requests than we can accommodate, and sadly turn down nearly as many as we accept.
Billie and I will be lecturing together in Wuhan (China) on 25 May 2019. In June 2019 I’ll be speaking in Taipei (China) and Billie will be speaking to Cartier in Paris in July. Our lecture schedule is available at this link.
AsiaLounges: Last but not least, as it is customary with our interview series, I would like to ask you to give three pieces of advice for the new generation of gemologists and gem enthusiasts that wish to follow in your foot steps.
Richard W. Hughes: First, find something you like to do, and do it. Both my wife and I were fortunate in that we found that something (gemology) early in our careers. And we are thrilled to see our daughter, Billie, not just sharing that passion and career with us, but extending the field in new directions. We are so blessed.
Second, work hard. It’s often said that genius is 10% inspiration and 90% hard work and I’d agree with that. But if you’re doing the thing you love, the hard work will come naturally.
And third, keep an open mind. An open mind will serve you well.
Jade References from Lotus Gemology:
- Tracing the Green Line • A Journey to Burma's Jade Mines
- Heaven and Hell • The Quest for Jade in Upper Burma
- Burma's Jade Mines • An Annotated Occidental History
- Burmese Jade • The Inscrutable Gem
- Jade Buying Guide • LotusGemology.com
- The Chinese Box • A Guangzhou Jade Market Puzzle
- From Russia With Jade
Sidebar: The Four Treasures Reference Database from Lotus Gemology
Brush, ink, paper and ink stone are known in China as the “four treasures.” Long ago, the Chinese recognized that these simple tools allow human beings to communicate ideas, even beyond the grave. They have changed our world more than any other. Thus we have christened the Lotus Gemology reference database after the most important human tools of all time.
At Lotus Gemology, we believe knowledge is the common property of all humankind. Towards that goal, we have made our internal reference database—created with thousands of hours of work over a period of nearly four decades—available to the entire world free of charge. It is our way of giving back to those who have come before us, and providing tools to researchers who are working to push gemology ahead.
The Lotus Gemology Four Treasures database contains over 5000 references relating to gems and gemology. It is particularly strong in citations relating to ruby, sapphire, spinel and jade.
AsiaLounges: Thank you very much Richard for your time with us today, I am convinced our readers, the loungers, will have enjoyed the read as much as we did preparing it and we hope to see you again in our columns very soon.
As for us, we will be back with you soon for more interviews and articles about the gem and jewellery trade. Should you have any questions feel free to ask them over at firstname.lastname@example.org, same applies should you wish to hear about a particular person in the trade or simply wish to be the next one to be submitted to our inquisitive questioning!
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We look forward to meeting you all again in the Lounges very soon,