Author: Modern Jeweller
This will make you laugh, but not because it’s funny.
Remember the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August? Remember seeing President Bush and his wife Laura sitting in the stands with other heads of state before swimmer Michael Phelps won the first of his record-breaking eight gold medals?
Well, here’s the joke. Those medals were made, in part, of white jade. Human rights groups say that the jade was from Burma. If the charge is true (and there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to support it), Michael Phelps took home medals made of a gem material that was banned from U.S. importation by Congress that very month-at the repeated urging of the First Lady. True, the ban didn’t take effect until after the Games, but there’s a feast of ironies in American athletes importing what is soon-to-be contraband material.
Alas, lovers of jade are stuck with famine. What will the American jeweler’s life be without imports of Burmese jadeite? For most of our readers, Burmese jadeite is nowhere near as important as it is in China. For them, this embargo is a nuisance, not a crisis.
Nevertheless, the question remains: Is there replacement jadeite available that has the same legendary hue, translucency, and toughness as the Burmese variety? The answer seems to be no-at least as far as green stones go. Turkey is producing purple jadeite that, at its best, is semi-translucent. However, purists refuse to call it jadeite because its jadeite component is only 50 percent-compared to Burmese jadeite’s 98 percent purity. There is jadeite from Russia, too, but supplies are very limited.
That leaves nephrite-if you want to stay in the domain of jade. While I greatly admire British Columbia’s abundant verdant-green nephrite, many say it is no match for Burma when it comes to translucency and color subtlety.
Filling this vacuum requires stepping outside the sprawling jade family to a spectacular jadeite impersonator: hydrogrossular garnet.
Now here’s a second laugh. I may be decades late in preaching the glories of this garnet. But preach I will.
Back in the early 1930s, mineralogists started reporting a find of strange rock-mass hybrid garnet from two adjacent farms in Buffelsfontein and Turffontein in South Africa, 40 miles west of Pretoria. I say “hybrid” because this variety was polycrystalline-a rock, not a single crystal-and contained water (hence the “hydro” prefix).
Because of its astonishing visual similarity to jadeite, the new garnet was sold as “Transvaal jade,” a catchy but flagrantly deceptive market name. The material is still referred to, but not sold as, such. Today the term is mostly historic-a reminder of the gem’s uncanny resemblance to jadeite.
Looks weren’t the only thing encouraging confusion with jade. Depending on color and chemistry, hydrogrossular garnet has a comforting jade-like hardness of 7 to 8. According to author Michael O’Donoghue, green hydrogrossular garnet, caused by chromium, measures 8 on the Mohs scale; much rarer pink and orange stones, colored by manganese, measure 7.
Here’s where things get sad. If there were a 1 to 10 availability scale for gems, with 1 meaning defunct and 10 prolific, hydrogrossular garnet would rate a 2.
Josh Hall, the in-house gem keeper at Pala International, Fallbrook, California, was the only person able to supply us with top-grade samples of this material. And these are the remains of purchases made a decade ago. “Our reserves are on empty,” he says.
Yet when I asked him the likely retail prices for an extraordinary orange stone he sent us to photograph, he said $400 per carat. I told him that seemed awfully low. But Hall is sticking with that sticker price.
As for green stones, which Hall says he is occasionally offered (always as old stock or estate merchandise), he says the retail price is half that of the orange-around $200 per carat. No wonder he notes that hydrogrossular garnet is of greater interest to collectors than consumers. And unless South Africa starts producing again, the rarity will become even greater-despite more recent finds of lesser-grade goods in Canada.
Think of it. From a supply standpoint, hydrogrossular garnet is a greater treasure than the fabulous expensive jadeite it resembles. Now that’s genuinely funny.
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