The State of Jade (archive)

In April 2007 Mary Lou Ridinger was invited to speak at theSinkankas Symposium, a conference co-sponsored by theGemological Institute of America.

To celebrate its 5thyear, the Symposium chose to explore the power of Jade, and so Mary Lou was an obvious pick to headline the list of speakers at the event.

Other speakers included Fred Ward, National Geographic author and photographer; author Si Frazier; Don Kay of Mason Kay Importers; John KoivulaGIAgemstone inclusion expert; Richard Hughes, author and gem authority; and George Rossman, professor and mineralogist at California Institute of Technology.

Reprinted here is the speech that Mary Lou Ridingerpresented at the Symposium. It is sure to further your understanding of the history of Mary Lou's discoveries, and of Jades, S.A.

April 21, 2007
The State of the Jade

"Jade: A treasure from the past, an asset for your future. That's the advertising slogan of our company, Jades S.A.

But where does the word 'jade' come from? 'Yu' is the Chinese word for jade; the Aztec word for jade is 'chalchihuitl'; the Maya word for jade was 'yax tun'. But the word for jade comes from 'piedra de hijada,' Spanish for 'stone of the loins.'

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Europeans were unfamiliar with jade. Consequently, when the Spaniards brought jade from the Americas, their term, 'piedra dehijada' became 'pierre d'ejade' in french, 'jade' in German, 'giadda' in Italian, and 'jade' in English.

Jade was the most important cultural item of the civilizations of Mesoamerica for three thousand years, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. There were seven different civilizations that worshipped jade, beginning with theOlmecs and ending with the Aztecs. During the Maya civilization, there were cities of 50,000 people, with skyscrapers seven storeys high.

The mystery for archaeologists like myself during much of the 20th century was this: where were the jade sources located?

That mystery was partially solved when William Foshag, the curator of geology for the Smithsonian, spent twenty years of his life looking for jade sources throughout Mexico and Central America. His work, "MineralogicalStudies on Guatemala Jade", was published in 1957.

This was the road-map for subsequent exploration showing the position of the Motagua Fault between the North American tectonic plate and the Caribbean tectonic plate. He also did meticulous analysis showing the similarities between Burmese material and Guatemalan material -- X-ray diffraction patterns, refractive indices,etc. And so, this publication became our bible.

When we found our first outcropping of jade on a tributary of the Motagua River in 1974, we sent our stone samples to the G.I.A. (Gemological Institute of America) for X-ray diffraction and identification. We also sent samples to Kennecott Exploration, Inc. Petrarch Associates, Western Petrographic, Metallurgical Laboratories, Inc. and the University of Miami.

Once we were convinced that we had jadeite jade, we came up with a mission statement for the founding of our fledgling business. We wanted to set up a factory and carve the jade by training descendants of the Maya to recreate the treasures that had been of supreme importance to their ancestors for three thousand years.

We would ask museums and governments around the world who had collections of pre-Colombian jade to authorize or licence reproductions. We would never buy or sell pre-Colombian jade, and our reproductions would give customers the 'green option' -- to buy a piece of recently carved jade marked with our company trademark (a triangle) and provide impetus to a newly formed industry in Guatemala, thereby preventing the 'national patrimony' from being looted from tombs and stolen from museums to satisfy the greed of private collectors.

We also planned to create products completely original and different from jade products being produced in Asia.

We also planned on never selling any jade that we could not back up with a one hundred percent guarantee that it is true jadeite jade from Guatemala. We decided never to dye, bleach, heat treat, or use anything to change the natural color of the stone.

This was amazingly ambitious and idealistic and probably foolhardy of us; to start a new industry in a country that didn't believe that their stone was jade, to train workers who never knew their ancestors worshipped jade, and to create products to sell to tourists who had never heard of jade from Guatemala. So, for fourteen years we had to continuously write, speak, lecture, educate and enlighten and entire country and its hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors.

Now, over one hundred articles have been written about us worldwide. We have been featured in National Geographic Magazine and on the Discovery Channel, and one of the finest articles was written in the summer 1990 issue of Gems and Gemology entitled, 'Jadeite of Guatemala: A Contemporary View' by Dave Hargett.

There have been several twists and turns along our highway, but one of the most rewarding was our involvement with the 'Mesoamerican Jade Project' from its inception in 1977 until its results, which were shared with us in 1980.

The project was funded through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with the Materials Conservation Laboratory of the Smithsonian and with Brookhaven National Library. The project set out to seek a method for finger-printing jades from mine sources and jade archaeological artifacts from museums by using neutron activation analysis to compare rare trace elements using isotopes given off after radiation.

The results showed that material from our only jade quarry in the 1970s -- let's call it Quarry #1 -- matched up with only one of six groups which were found by the project. We had a new mission: find five more jade sources.

We went back to major investment in exploration. Our team found Quarry #2 in 1987, Quarry #3 in 1998, Quarry #4 in 2000, Quarry #5 in 2002, Quarry #6 in 2003, and Quarry #7 in 2004.

Quarry #2 gave us a new jade with metal inclusions which we dubbed 'Galactic Jade'. The G.I.A. assay reported jadeite jade.

It turns out that Quarry #3 was a lucky strike extra, because there were no museum artifacts associated with it. This is our source of 'Rainbow Jade' and 'Lilac Jade'. We sent samples to the G.I.A. for assay and later sent the same material to the Hong Kong Gemological Laboratory.

So we had a new material for the world and we have since sold several million dollars worth of this material through our own stores in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. And during the last thirty-three years we have created a market for black jade and sold millions of dollars of black jade.

In 2004, we discovered truly translucent emerald green jade which we call 'Maya Imperial Jade'. We still have only small amounts, but the material is there and we are selling it steadily.

A major obstacle we have faced over the years is the lack of appraisers who are qualified to appraise jade. We gave the G.I.A. a sample set of study jades from Quarry #1 in 1978. We have hoped that the G.I.A. would include more material on jade in their coursework. The G.I.A. used an image of one of our reproduction jade masks to attract students to their courses but they are not turning out appraisers who are qualified to appraise jade.

We worked very closely with Anna Miller's Master Valuer program from 2000 until her death in 2003. She held a workshop in Guatemala in 2002 which produced nine qualified jade appraisers. We have a list of these Master Valuer graduates for anyone interested. We also have a current price list for our stone.

We are now having our assay work done by Hong Kong Gems Laboratory because the G.I.A. lab no longer does X-ray diffraction on jade samples, and will no longer give a designation of 'jadeite jade' on an analysis. The G.I.A. lab now only identifies our jade as 'pyroxene'. Jadeite is one of many pyroxenes, so it is not a conclusion that we are satisfied with. We hope this can change.

In conclusion, we are a young industry in Guatemala. Many of our ex-employees have set up their own businesses, but we are still the giant, we are the only example in the jade world of a thoroughly vertically integrated operation. We have five mining licences from the Guatemalan government, we operate seven quarries, we do ongoing exploration, we transport, cut and process all of our own stone, we have seven jewelers, twenty-five factory workers, two designers and eight assemblers. We do all of our own manufacturing and we wholesale and retail all of our own products ourselves.

We have not strayed far from our mission statement and the surest evidence of our success was an accidental meeting which occurred when the Discovery Channel was filming a special entitled, 'The Mysteries of Jade' in Belize in 1999.

I was sitting on the sidelines while they were setting up a shot of tomb looting and, ever the anthropologist, I struck up a conversation with a local, who it turned out was one of the biggest traffickers of pre-Colombian artifacts in Belize. He had no idea who I was and I had no idea who he was. As our conversation progressed and his account of his activities grew more fascinating, I finally asked him, 'Do you have a lot of customers for jade?'

He responded sadly that he, 'used to do a lot of business with jade and got great prices,' but that 'some company in Guatemala was producing so many replicas that collectors had become discouraged and the bottom had dropped out of the market.'

I could have stood up and cheered. Our goal had been reached! What better evidence of success."The

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