Expert advice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 July, 2004, 12:00am

Q In old paintings, Chinese men are often depicted wearing jade as belt buckles or other decoration. How far back does this practice date? And where can I find a similar piece for myself?


Jade has played an important role in Chinese culture, economics, politics, philosophy and religion for thousands of years. Durwin Tang of Tang's Hall of Precious says: 'In the past, people would hang them on their necks, or on their clothing. For example, on their belts as an ornament and also a bit like a toy. They would use them for good luck and handle them.

'Hanging jade on your body was believed to bring good fortune or protection against accidents. It was commonly believed that carrying jade would increase your positive energy.'

According to Tang, the tradition dates back to the Neolithic period. 'People would find different types of stones. They couldn't tell if it was really what we would define as jade or just a nice stone, but they called it jade.'


Neolithic carvings were done with a surprisingly high level of precision and artistry. 'They used very natural carving, so the Chinese interest in carving dates back to that period,' he says.

The shapes were sometimes selected for a purpose. 'They chose the shape for good luck, fortune, happiness,' he says, 'not just decoration. There are many symbols. The bat, for example, was good luck. Longevity was the Chinese character, or a depiction of the old god of longevity. The 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac were popular. Sometimes, they chose the pendants solely based on the beauty.'


'Based on tomb findings, we think people were hanging carved jade off their belts around or before the Han dynasty [206BC to AD220]. They used them on the outside of their clothing and, when they walked, the pieces of jade would jingle and make a nice sound. Now, people like to keep the jade on the inside of their clothing. They don't recognise it as decoration like other modern forms of jewellery,' says Tang.

Tastes in jade differed over the years. 'Later, in the Qing dynasty [1644 to 1911], the people started to prefer Burma jade or jadeite over Chinese jade or nephrite. Burma jade is valued based on its colour, with green considered the best of all. A glass-like quality is also admired. Carving is not important, and it is really only for decoration. Chinese jade, nephrite, comes in many different colours. Pure white is the most valued, but it is very difficult to find. Nowadays, many collectors prefer yellow jade, which is also rare. Chinese jade must have carving to have value.'


In Tang's opinion, the Han and Qing dynasties produced the best jade carvings. 'The Qianlong period [named after the emperor, 1735-1795] was known for the best carving. I think the top carving came from the Han dynasty and even a bit earlier in the Warring States period [475BC to 221BC].

'Han dynasty jade is less collected, so people understand it less,' says Tang. 'Qing pieces are more expensive than Han. It's like paintings. Sometimes the modern styles are more expensive.'

One interesting thing about jade is that it changes colour and translucency with age and usage. 'Jade has a life,' says Tang. 'It's like a baby that grows. A few thousand years ago, it may have looked one way, but it changes.

'Carved jade is not priced like other precious items. The best diamond fetches the best prices, but with jade it depends who likes it. It may only cost $1,000, but they may like it better than a $100,000 piece. There are factories making imitations every day, so it's a dangerous market,' he says. 'Every year, it gets harder to find real old jade. Remember that good old pieces are difficult to find, especially now that people in China have money and have been collecting them.'

Times have changed. 'Before, you could find very nice antique jade for about $500 or $600. Nowadays, a nice Qing dynasty pendant will go for around $5,000 to $30,000 for a very good piece.'


Chinese Jade From the Neolithic to the Qing by Jessica Rawson ($624, The Language Of Adornment: Chinese Ornaments of Jade, Crystal, Amber, And Glass by Filippo Salviati ($468, Tang's Hall of Precious, G/F, 67 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2517 7344