Chinese Jewelry Culture: Jade
Jade has been used in all periods of Chinese history and generally accords with the style of decorative art characteristic of each period. Its deep significance in Chinese culture has deemed it worthy of being symbolic of ancient Chinese ethics and ideologies and also representative of the progression of Chinese culture. The Jades of the Neolithic Period, are unornamented ritual and impractical versions of the tools and weapons that were in ordinary use, often much larger than normal examples. These are presumed to have been symbols of political power or possibly religious authority.
Jade was used to create many utilitarian and ceremonial objects, from indoor decorative items to jade burial suits. Jade was considered the "imperial gem". It became a favorite material for the crafting of Chinese scholars' objects, such as rests for calligraphy brushes, as well as the mouthpieces of some opium pipes, due to the belief that breathing through jade would bestow longevity upon smokers who used such a pipe.
By the end of the 15th century, the Silk Road had mostly stopped being a cultural trade route. China’s trade policies under the Ming Dynasty (618-900 CE) had become largely isolationist, and sea routes had become a faster and less expensive way to transmit goods than passing them through infinite middlemen on the Silk Road. As the country became more and more isolated from the rest of the world, the differences between Chinese jewelry and that of other Central Asian or Middle Eastern countries became more pronounced. Motifs carved into jewelry became more specifically based in Chinese folklore, and forms too became more particular to the place. Jade was preferred over any other stone: valued for its qualities of hardness, durability and beauty, it was often compared with positive regard to human characteristics and took on a significance that prompted craftsmen to incorporate it into weaponry as well as jewelry. Blue had always been a color favored by craftsmen and was incorporated into jewelry design via blue kingfisher feathers as well as blue gems.
In the history of the art of the Chinese empire, jade has had a special significance, comparable with gold and diamonds. Due to that significance and the rising middle class in China, today the finest jade when found in nuggets of "mutton fat" jade – so-named for its marbled white consistency – can sell for $3,000 an ounce, a tenfold increase from a decade ago.
Because of the value added culturally to jades throughout Chinese history, the character 玉 (yù) is very common in phrases like 玉容 (a beautiful face; 'jade countenance'), and 玉立 (slim and graceful; 'jade standing upright').