Adapted from Jade: The Mystical Mineral
by Andrew Scott
1 The venerable Phra Yanaviriyajan, Lord Abbot of the Wat Dhammongkol Monastery in Bangkok, sat deep in meditation. The comings and gong of the monks and visitors did not disturb him. The monsoon rains, which poured off the temple’s steep, re-tiled roofs like a torrent of pearls, did not distract him. On this particular day–a November morning in 1991–an unbidden vision entered the abbot’s consciousness. He saw a strange landscape of dwarfed trees and precipitous slopes under a vast, empty sky. In a valley, an enormous weathered boulder lay by a stream, and he knew, with a deep certainty that was beyond thought, that the boulder was jade. He knew that inside the boulder, patiently waiting to be set free, was a jade buddha destined to form the crowning touch to Wat Dhammongkol–a buddha to last as long as the enlightened one’s teachings.
2 The 72-year-old abbot, affectionately known as Luang Poh (“respected father”) Kiyung, had looked for the right material for a statue of the Buddha for five years. Only one scarce substance–jade, a beautiful, durable stone revered throughout Asia for millennia–would do justice to the Buddha and to the temple. But where could he find a piece large enough and superior enough to realize the image he had in mind? Sensing that the unfamiliar landscape of his vision must be in northern British Columbia, where the world’s richest jade deposits are located, the abbot prepared to fly across the Pacific and, as he put it, “just go look for the boulder.”
3 His Thai followers, though, were less sanguine about this strategy. A few days later, as they were still debating what to do next, a fax arrived from a Luang Poh associate in Vancouver who knew of the temple’s requirements. It spoke about the president of a B.C, jade-mining company, a man named Kirk Makepeace. According to the fax, the finest jade boulder Makepeace had ever seen had recently been unearthed by his miners. If Luang Poh was interested, he should come to Canada at once. The abbot smiled. The news did not surprise him.
4 He made an immediate trip to the headquarters of Jade West Resources Ltd., Makepeace’s company, located near Vancouver, in the city of Surrey. Several buyers, including a Beijing jade dealer, were interested in the 32-tonne boulder, which had been cut into three car-sized chunks so it could be transported from the mines. The abbot decided then and there that the pieces were what he’d been looking for, paid for the stones, and had them shipped to Thailand. The $350,000 transaction was the biggest sale ever of B.C. jade and strengthened Canada’s reputation as the leading producer and exporter of the semiprecious mineral. It also cemented Makepeace’s reputation as the country’s most astute jade hunter.
5 Most Canadians are likely unaware that B.C. holds vast reserves of jade, and supplies more than three-quarters of the 300 tonnes that the world currently consumes annually. British Columbia exports most of its jade to China and Taiwan, where 50,000 artisans labour in less than ideal conditions. The best is used in jewelry, and the rest is carved into amulets, figurines, incense burners, and the like. Some jade comes back to Canada in the form of beads, tiny maple leaves, or bears with fish in their mouths, which are sold to tourists as souvenirs. Some never leaves the country, and is fashioned instead into expensive sculptures by a select group of artists.
6 Jade has been carved and treasured for more than 3,500 years in China, where it became associated with five virtuous qualities: kindness, because of the warmth of its lustre; integrity, because its inner beauty can be seen from the outside; wisdom, because, when struck, it gives off a tranquil sound that carries far; bravery, because it cannot be crushed or twisted; and purity, because it takes a sharp edge but is not used for violence. Jade became synonymous with beauty and nobility–the “stone of heaven,” representative of the emperor’s divinity, and honoured as a symbolic link between life and immortality.
7 Most of the oldest Chinese jade pieces are nephrite, a silicate of calcium, magnesium, and iron. B.C. jade is nephrite also. Confusingly, a different mineral–a silicate of sodium and aluminum known as jadeite–is referred to as jade as well, though it is much rarer and brighter. Both types come in white, red, blue, black, and yellow, as well as the trademark range of greens.
8 What gives nephrite its special value, beyond the subtle beauty of its coloration, is toughness. Composed of fine, fibrous crystals tightly matted and locked together, nephrite takes fine detail when carved, polishes to a rich glow, is hard enough to resist accidental abrasion, and is just about impossible to shatter. Jade sculptures, while notoriously difficult to carve, last a long, long time.
9 For nephrite production to succeed at any mine site, three conditions must be satisfied: high quality, sufficient quantity, and reasonable ease of access. In Canada, the region where it happens predominantly is northern British Columbia. I had seen the shiny green bears and geese in souvenir shops, all marked “B.C. Jade”, aimed at Japanese visitors, but never really associated the legendary stone with Canada. In fact, nephrite has only been mined seriously on the West Coast for three decades, but the province’s aboriginal peoples have used it for mare than 4,000 years. They carved axe heads, chisels, and clubs from nephrite, as well as knife blades, drill points, and picks.
10 After doing a little reading, I developed a strong urge to head upcountry and see the nephrite mines for myself. I soon found that if I wanted to learn about jade production in Canada, I would have to talk with Kirk Makepeace. By buying out his competitors, Makepeace has emerged as the biggest player in B.C. jade. His company, Jade West, extracts nephrite at several northern sites, including Kutcho Creek, 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver. In the summer of 1995, I arranged to meet Makepeace at Smithers, one of several jumping-off spots for British Columbia’s northern wilderness. At the last minute, Luang Poh had also decided to make the journey–his second visit to the mines. He had recently purchased another large boulder from Jade West, this one destined to embellish a Buddhist temple he was having built in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
11 During a smooth flight over the verdant but tree-sparse Spatsizi Plateau, we glimpsed the Stikine Plateau, western rampart of the Cassiar Mountains, remote and forlorn. From the air we could appreciate how the region’s geology made for perfect conditions for jade to form. Three hundred million years ago continents collided along a series of fault lines that run north and south down the entire length of the province. Today a jade-studded belt of serpentinelike rock is a reminder of the event. Nephrite is found in the northern Omineca district and around the town of Lillooet, much farther south, where small boulders of alluvial jade can sometimes be picked up beside the Fraser River.
12 Not that the jade is there for the taking. Almost all of the jade boulders on the surface–sculpted by retreating glaciers–have already been mined. Now the most efficient way to get jade is to dismantle an intact seam. “This kind of mining is ideal for a small operator with an intimate knowledge of the business,” Makepeace explained to us once we landed near the mine site. “The work has to be babied along, which is probably why big corporate concerns haven’t succeeded.”
13 During my visit, the crew was located below a rocky ridge at the foot of a steep slope of talus scree, where they worked a vein, or “lens,” of jade. “This is serpentine,” said Makepeace, fingering a piece of the loose, grey-green talus, “and B.C. has lots of it.” He described how jade often forms where a belt of serpentine is squeezed against a harder bedrock, such as granite, by the movement of the earth’s crust. Over thousands of years, heat and pressure can cause a layer of serpentine to metamorphose into something tougher and more compact–like jade. As the soft surrounding serpentine erodes, the thin band of jade, usually less than two metres wide, is exposed.
14 “Look up there,” Makepeace exclaimed, pointing to a dark olive stripe snaking through the ridge high above us. “We call that the China Wall.” Discovered in 1969 by local prospector Andy Jensen, it is perhaps the richest deposit of jade on the planet. “There are thousands of tonnes of jade up there–enough to supply the world for centuries,” said Makepeace. “But it would be incredibly expensive to mine. What we’ve done is trace that vein down to where we can get at it.”
15 At the base of the ridge, an excavator and bulldozer had cleared away tonnes of serpentine to reveal, in Tony Ritter’s words, “a wall of jade standing upright.” The 28-year-old mine manager was feeling confident. “This jade is proven,” he enthused. “We just have to extract it. Sometimes we remove the contact rock and the jade is not good, so we’ve done a lot of work for nothing. The quality can change as we work along a seam. Or the site may become too difficult or expensive or dangerous to work. You have to develop an instinct for jade.”
16 On a flat bit of ground near the face of the seam, dozens of jade boulders, roughly broken off with the excavator bucket, were laid out. A pair of diesel saws were slowly cutting them into manageable sizes. Gigantic diamond-edged blades removed the dross, revealing smooth faces of shining stone that potential buyers could judge for colour and quality. A young miner was finishing off a partially sawn block with metal wedges and a sledgehammer. Another employee was drilling holes into one particularly large and intractable boulder so that a pair of $20,000 hydraulic splitters could be inserted to begin the tedious process of breaking it in two.
17 There is strong demand for B.C. jade, coming from Europe and Thailand, among other places. Makepeace sees a future for industrial products–tiles, tabletops, and fireplace facings. Promoted through well-produced, innovative products, he proposes jade could become as distinctive a Canadian icon internationally as hockey and maple syrup.