Did You Know Jade is Found in Guatemala? Guatemalan Jade Has Been Revered for Ages by the Peoples of MesoAmerica
By Danielle Olivia Tefft, Jewelry Writer
I have a little green carved jade elephant in my jewelry box. He’s from when I was a girl in the 1970s. I remember jade jewelry was all the rage back then. Of course my little elephant is nephrite, the more common and least expensive of the two forms of jade on earth. I think I paid less than one dollar for my little guy. He was probably carved in China where the jade trade has always thrived. As I played with my little elephant during childhood, I had no idea that jade was being rediscovered in the Americas at that time. More about that a bit later...
Natural jade occurs in two distinct forms: Jadeite and nephrite. Of the two forms, jadeite is the more valuable because of its scarcity and variety of intense, translucent colors. Translucent, vivid green jadeite has been prized in Asia (especially China) for centuries. But jadeite is also found in many other colors including black, lavender, orange and yellow.
It’s a widespread belief that jade, in both its jadeite and nephrite forms, has been specifically revered in Asia. However, Asian cultures were not alone. Jadeite jade was also held in high esteem by the pre-Columbian Mayas, Aztecs and Olmecs of Mesoamerica for over 3000 years. (Mesoamerica covered the region between North and South America that included the modern countries of Mexico, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala.)
Many jade artifacts including jewelry, utensils and figurines have been found in archeological excavations of Mesoamerican ruins. These archeological digs confirm that in these pre-Columbian civilizations, jade was considered sacred and more precious than gold. These ancient peoples believed jade was a symbol of creation and power. They buried the highest quality jade with people of great status. As in China, the brightest, most translucent green jade was reserved for royalty.
It was not until Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century with their lust for gold that jade took a back seat as a precious material in Mesoamerica. The Spaniards regarded jade as colorful rock with no real value. For almost 500 years, the abundant jade mines of Guatemala lay abandoned and forgotten. Until the 20th century, archeologists believed that the jade excavated from pre-Columbian tombs had somehow arrived from Asia over ancient trade routes since no known source of Mesoamerican jade had yet been uncovered. For centuries, the most prized jadeite came from Burma (now Myanmar).
The Asian origin hypothesis was debunked in the 1970s when the first Guatemalan jadeite fields were rediscovered near the banks of the Motagua River. Then, in 1998, after a horrific storm that caused widespread flooding and damage throughout Guatemala, other large deposits of jadeite were left exposed. Fact-finding expeditions began in 2000 and soon archeological teams began finding even more jadeite fields at higher elevations.
It is now known that these long lost Guatemalan jadeite mines cover an area comparable in size to the state of Rhode Island. There is no longer any doubt that these jadeite fields were the source of the prized artifacts found in Mesoamerican tombs, not material from Asia. In addition, Guatemala is now recognized worldwide as a source of high quality jadeite. (No nephrite jade has ever been found there.)
Guatemalan jadeite is found in many more colors than green, including black, blue, lavender and orange. Unlike jadeite from many other parts of the world, Guatemalan jadeite does not need to be enhanced with treatments to intensify color or appearance. It’s naturally vivid and takes a high polish. Black and blue Guatemalan jadeite jade are the most desirable and expensive versions.
Most of us can’t afford to own an actual pre-Columbian artifact or necklace from antiquity made with Guatemalan jade. However, breathtaking Guatemalan jade from the same source, mined and revered by ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, is once again available. I recommend three websites online that offer authentic Guatemalan jade jewelry for sale (much of it made by modern ancestors of the original Mesoamericans). They are Jade Maya and Casa Del Jade and UNICEF Market. (I was not paid to endorse these businesses.)
Do own any Guatemalan jade jewelry? Have you traveled there to purchase any? If so, we’d love to hear about it in the comments section. And if you love gemstone jewelry from all ages, please subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss an article!
Danielle Olivia Tefft is a professional writer with a lifelong passion for gems and jewelry. She is a GIA accredited jewelry professional and the owner of online antique and vintage jewelry shop, Treasure Box Antiques. Current projects include writing jewelry blogs and web articles for clients worldwide. When she is not writing, she spends time in the garden, spoiling her cats and traveling with her significant other. Would you like to hire her to write for you? Visit her website danielleoliviatefftwrites.com for clips, terms and more information.
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