Jade is often considered synonymous with China. The country’s worship and appreciation of jade can be tracked back about 8,000 years. Nephrite dominated the jade trade until jadeite was first imported into China from across the border with Myanmar. Exactly when this happened is still very debatable, but most people agree that it was not later than the Ming Dynasty (around 1475). For a long time, jadeite was traded mainly out of the palace. When the Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1861 to 1908), she started to collect high-quality jadeite from all over the country to satisfy her own desires. This trend also swept over the whole royal family and the upper social class. Jadeite and nephrite have shared high market status ever since. It’s well known that jadeite can be shaped into different jewelry styles such as bracelets, rings, cabochons, and more, but China’s cutters also process this material into larger-scale decorations. These decorations are called “Shan Zi” in Chinese. “Shan” means hills or mountains, indicating that the jadeite was carved to preserve its original outline and shape. In the past, only the royal family or extremely rich people could afford Shan Zi, especially the largest carvings. The result is that, along with its use as decoration, Shan Zi is also a symbol of wealth and power. Common Shan Zi themes include scenic views, plant life, traditional symbols, ancient famous paintings, and more.
The choice of theme depends entirely on the shape and outline, and sometimes the color, of the rough material. Jadeite Jade is a sodium- and aluminium-rich Pyroxene. This, the more precious kind of jade is a microcrystalline interlocking growth of crystals (not a fibrous matrix as nephrite is.) It only occurs in metamorphic rocks. The jadeite deposits found in Myanmar’s northern regions are the source of the highest quality jadeite in the world, noted by sources in China going as far back as the 10th century. Chinese culture places significant weight on the meaning of jade; as their influence has grown in Myanmar, so has the jade industry and the practice of exporting the precious mineral. Myanmar produces upward of 70 percent of the world’s supply of high-quality jadeite.