Guatemalan Jade

The Sacred Maya Stone Becomes a Modern Gemstone

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Photos and Story by Helen Serras-Herman

Jade from Guatemala is a rare gem material that comes in many different colors. Jade was prevalent in the ancient Mesoamerican cultures, and the currently mined material was re-discovered less than 50 years ago.

Tourists visiting Guatemala today have the opportunity to visit museums and admire the ancient treasures, and then go to shops that sell contemporary artwork made from Guatemala jade. Here in the United States, the market is more familiar with nephrite jade from China, jadeite from Burma, or nephrite jade from Wyoming, California, and Canada. We rarely encounter jade from Guatemala as rough, slabs, and jewelry, and thus it is difficult to understand and appreciate its value.

Jade was revered in the Maya world, an ancient culture that flourished in the first

At the Jade Maya™ shop in Antigua, Guatemala, an impressive inventory of sorted jade slabs of all colors and grades, all numbered 1-14, are arranged on shelves.

millennium AD in Mexico and Central America. The Maya civilization stretched geographically over what is known today as Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico, and the western regions of Honduras and El Salvador. Great Maya city-states rose in the highlands and the jungle-covered lowlands. Metropolises, such as Tikal, Copan and Palenque, and the late-period cities of Uxmal and Chitzén Itzá in the upper Yucatán Peninsula, had royal courts, temple-pyramids, and enormous populations. The Mayas were passionate about architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and the arts.

The Maya, just as their predecessors the Olmecs, held jade in the highest esteem, as it was rare and hence valuable, and represented eternity. They buried their kings adorned with jade masks and pectorals, considering jade the ultimate passport to the afterlife. For the Maya, green was the most precious color. Green represented the life-giving water of the Sacred Cenotes (natural underground cave systems and wells), and green also symbolized crops and fertility. The extremely rare and valued feathers of the quetzal bird are also bright green. Besides the burial masks, jade was carved into rings, ear flares, pendants, beads, and ceremonial objects. In addition to the colors, jade was valued for its durability and its ability to take a high polish.

My husband Andrew and I had the opportunity to visit several archaeological sites and museums in Mexico, Guatemala, and Copan in Honduras, and see some fantastic jade carvings up close, as well as shops in Guatemala that sell contemporary jade artworks, and get a better understanding of this gem material.

Jade Minerals

Inspired by the history of the Maya ancient world, I carved this Maya Jade Nymph, in lavender jadeite, 158.5 carats, 3” H x 1.5” W x 3/8” D

Jade is a generic term that describes several gem materials:
Nephrite, Ca2(Mg, Fe)5Si8O22(OH)2, is a massive rock consisting of felted, intergrown, fiber-like crystals of the minerals tremolite and actinolite, members of the amphibole family of minerals (Harlow, 1993). Nephrite is found in many places in the world, including China, British Columbia, Siberia, New Zealand, and Wyoming, USA, and occurs in many colors ranging from pure white to green to black.

Jadeite, NaAlSi2O6, the jade used by the ancient Maya, is a rock composed mostly of the pyroxene mineral jadeite, known mineralogically as jadeite rock or jadeite(Harlow, 1993). The only other major source of jadeite in the world is Myanmar (Burma), where the famous translucent green “imperial jade” comes from. There are also new sources found in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Omphasite jade, CaMgSi206, is a pyroxene that is roughly half jadeite and half diopside, and it is the latest jade variety to be included in the international approved jade nomenclature in Hong Kong (Ogden, Gems & Jewellery Magazine, March 2013).

Dark chloromelanite, NaFeSi2O6+, the ferruginous variety, is an intermediate between jadeite and acmite (Foshag, 1957).

The English term jade is derived from the Spanish piedra de ijada or yjada (flank, side, hence loin stone or colic stone) as it was supposed to cure kidney ailments. Latin scholars in 16th- century Europe coined the term Lapis nephriticus, which later became nephrite. Jadeite was identified as a separate mineral from nephrite, by French professor, A. Damour in 1864, whose chemical analysis in 1881 proved that the Mexican stone was also jadeite. So, ironically, after all those years, the Spaniards’ “piedra de yjada” came to be known as jadeite.

Guatemala Jade Mining

The sources for Mesoamerican jade were lost for the past five centuries, primarily because the Spanish conquistadores did not value jade. They were only interested in gold and emeralds. Reports in diaries kept by early Spanish explorers document the special status of a gemstone unknown to them, one that would later be called jade. At the beginning of the Spanish conquest, the Maya people kept the location of their jade mines a secret to protect them from the invaders, but over time the location of the ancient mines and quarries became forgotten and lost.

Today we know the exact location of many of the ancient mines. We owe this incredible

I was truly impressed with the work of the master artist carver, who was carving a jade skull. In the background, other lapidaries stand while working.

jade rediscovery to an American expatriate couple, Jay and Mary Lou Ridinger. A magnificent variety of jadeite colors is now mined in Guatemala. Jadeite in every shade of green is collected there, from a light mint color to a very saturated dark green, as well as the green-and-white mottled variety known as Mayan Foliage, and the rarest of all - the bright, translucent Imperial Jade. Blue jade is another very rare color. Also found are white, creamy yellow, and my favorite, the rare lavender or lilac. Jade boulders of different colors can be found side-by-side in the field, even boulders with various colors within.

Also discovered is a scarce variety of deep black jade that has flecks of precious metals- silver, nickel, cadmium, pyrite, platinum, and gold, and was given the very appropriate name Galactic Gold. I donated a slab to Gem-A (Gemmological Association of Great Britain), and a Raman spectrum test was run by the Canadian Institute of Gemmology, which proved the slab to be omphacite jade, the latest jade variety to be included in the internationally approved jade nomenclature (Odgen, 2013).

The jade’s physical appearance is granular, with a greasy luster. Its hardness is about 7 on the Mohs scale. The refractive index is 1.65-1.67 and specific gravity 3.20-3.34.

The Rio Motagua flows along the earthquake fault line between the North American and the Caribbean plates. Jade is formed deep in the earth’s crust and is pushed up under very high pressure and low-temperature conditions (Mary Lou Ridinger, DVD The Mysteries of Jade, Discovery Channel).

The Ridingers retrieve jade by surface collecting only. There is no underground mining. They often heat the jade boulder and then throw water onto it to create cracks. Gasoline-powered jackhammers are used to remove jade ‘lenses’ from the boulders (Jadeite of Guatemala: a contemporary view, David Hargett, Gems & Gemology, Summer 1990).

The hunt for jade is arduous. Besides the sweltering heat and the poisonous scorpions and snakes, it is also difficult to identify the jade boulders, as their surface is covered with a rind similar to the bark of a tree. What helps distinguish jade among the various rocks in the field is by pounding the rocks with a 10-pound sledgehammer. “Jade is so hard and dense”, said Mary Lou, “that the hammer will bounce off the jade boulder and will make a unique ringing sound”.

They also test the jade in the field by submerging the specimens in a methylene iodide test fluid, blended to a specific gravity of 3.0. Jadeite will sink, while serpentine, nephrite, and chrysoprase float.

The Maya Jade Rediscovery Story

The most impressive jade mask and pectoral of King Pakal the Great (Maya for War Shield) of Palenque, weighing 26 pounds, discovered in Palenque, Mexico, is today at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, 7th century AD.

The amazing story of the jade rediscovery spans over a century, involving many American scientists enamored with the jade. Among them were Zelia Nutall, William Niven, Robert Leslie, William Foshag, and Tom and Joyce Barbour.

A plethora of carved jades had been found in archaeological sites in Mexico and Central America since the early 1900s, but there was no jade specimen found in situ until much later.

American geologist William Foshag, the curator of the Department of Mineral Studies of the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian), had spent several years in Mexico and Guatemala in the 1940s studying the ancient jades and the geology of the area. Foshag wrote about the discovery of jade in 1952 in the Motagua River Valley of Guatemala by fellow American Robert Leslie (Foshag, 1955).

In Foshag’s work, “Mineralogical studies on Guatemala Jade” published in 1957, a year after his death (Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections), his research using X-ray diffraction patterns and refractive indices categorizes the Guatemalan jade as jadeite, finding it to be similar to jade found in Burma. This was the beginning of the rediscovery of the Maya jade mining sources.

But it wasn’t until the American couple, archaeologist and anthropologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her late husband Jay Ridinger actually searched for the jade and found their first outcrop of green jade on a tributary of the Motagua River in 1974. They sent samples to the GIA (Gemological Institute of America) and other labs, all of which confirmed their finds as jade. They found lavender jade in 1998, and in 2004 finally found small amounts of translucent “emerald” green jade, which they call “Maya Imperial Jade”.

Maya Jade Collection at the National Museum of American Indian

My husband and I had an incredible opportunity to visit the Objects’ Collections of the National Museum of American Indian (NMAI), which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, at the Cultural Research Center, located just outside Washington D.C., in Suitland, Maryland. The Objects Collections are open to researchers, but a two-month advanced appointment is required, as well as a precise list of items to be researched.

The facility itself is an amazing experience. Thousands of items are housed at the NMAI Cultural Research Center, stored very carefully in secure vaults and large drawers stacked floor to ceiling on tall rolling cases.

Among the collections are a small number of beautiful Maya jade carvings. All items on my written request list came out of the vault. I spent hours with museum specialist Victoria Quiguango, both wearing protective gloves, looking at and admiring these elaborately carved pendants and their drilled holes, some 3 to 4” long. Their polish was also amazingly high. It was a unique experience for which I am very thankful.

Mayan Lapidary Work

Centuries-old Mayan workshop sites with remnants of tools were also found and

The black “Galactic Gold” jade pendants I carved created a classic and dramatic combination when set with red coral.

identified by the Ridingers. When we met Mary Lou Ridinger in Antigua, my first question was “how did the Maya carve their jade?” We know that the Maya did not have metal tools. The advent of copper tools with their ability to carry abrasive grit revolutionized hard gemstone carving in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece.

So, how did the Mayan carvers do it? “They carved jade with a wooden blade made from the local hardwood lignum vitae with an adhesive that could carry crushed garnet or jade as the abrasive,” Mary Lou said. Alluvial garnet deposits are found in the same area near the Motagua River.

Fabulous collections of jade artifacts, carvings, and carved beads are housed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, the Museum of Archeology & Ethnography in Guatemala City, and the Archeological Museum of Miraflores- the ancient Maya site of Kaminaljuyu — also in Guatemala City, as well as the archeological museums in Palenque, Mexico and at Tikal, Guatemala.

I was truly in wonder looking at the length of the ancient jade beads — many of them between two and four inches. It takes a while to drill a shallow hole today using diamond tools. The ancient lapidaries probably used a wooden bow drill with a bamboo shaft and abrasive, and/or a stone tip. I have total respect for the ancient lapidaries, for their ability, and the time they invested in their work.

Lapidary Work at the Jade Maya™ Shop in Antigua

The Jade Maya™ is a gallery, factory for carving jade and archeology museum, located in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala. It is the Ridingers’ original company, Jades S.A. (www.jademaya.com).

To set up the shop, Jay Ridinger brought lapidary equipment from the States. Robert Terzuola, another American living in Guatemala and fine jade master carver, became the shop’s foreman for several years, training Guatemalan apprentices (Green Gold, Donald M. Best, Lapidary Journal, October 1983).

When we visited the Jade Maya™ shop, we were thrilled to meet Mary Lou, a tall and impressive ‘gringa’, and the very hospitable and energetic shop manager Raquel Pérez. We spent over four hours during our first visit, and a couple more during a subsequent visit. They were very gracious to allow us to visit every room and workshop and take many photographs.

We followed around our wonderful, personal shop tour guide, Raphael Martinez. We started our tour at the slab room, where the rough material comes in from their seven quarries and gets slabbed. Huge saws are lined up waiting for massive jade boulders to be mounted and cut. The slabs are then sorted and graded — numbered from 1 to 14. These numbers correspond to their final finished cabochon grades.

An impressive inventory of sorted jade slabs of all colors and grades is arranged on wooden shelves, immediately available for custom orders. All of the jade material is natural, not treated by dye, heat, or bleaching.

At this flagship shop and factory, skilled workmen carve beautiful replicas of ancient artworks, with motifs that reflect their artistic traditions. I talked with the carvers and lapidaries at the shop, and I was amazed by their work. They are all local Guatemaltecos, many of Maya descent.

The main carving area is a room in the center of the shop, where visitors can observe the carvers at work. Several lapidary units around the perimeter of the room are set up with rotating wheels, where lapidaries take the jade carvings through every step of grinding and sanding. One lady lapidary was working on the final sanding of jade discs and she kindly let me watch her work. The final polishing is done on flat vertical laps using chrome oxide.

I sat and watched the master artist carver, who was doing an amazing jade skull carving. I was impressed with his work and how fast he was progressing, but I was also stunned to see that he was carving “dry”, without dripping water. Water is used as a lubricant to prolong the life of the diamond tools. But more importantly, water keeps the dust down so that carvers do not inhale it. He and the other carvers were only wearing cloth masks as protection.

At the drilling room, called the Perforado, I enjoyed watching the lapidary drilling round pendant blanks, which are later engraved with Maya glyph designs. He used an ultrasonic drill, but every pendant is held by his fingers and is masterfully perforated at the exact same spot as the previous one, without slipping or sliding. I was truly impressed by the rapid flow of production. The other lapidary, a woman, was drilling tiny ¼ inch preformed cubes of jade. After they drill the beads, the lapidaries sand and polish them into a finished product.

Then, we attended a brief presentation along with other tourists, about the history of the Guatemalan jade, the rediscovery story, the status of the current jade industry in Guatemala, the types and colors of jade, as well as the products available.

Finally, we strolled through the gift shop, a true luxury art gallery. Exquisite jade carvings are offered for sale. Some are replicas of ancient Mayan mosaic masks and sculptures, while others are original designs, created by contemporary jade sculptors and jewelry designers.

Working with Guatemala Jade

Carving this celt in black “Galactic Gold” jade, was as dirty as any other material that has metallic
inclusions. It has flecks of precious metals- silver, nickel, cadmium, pyrite, platinum and gold.

Back in my workshop, I started creating my Maya Jade Collection, and the sacred Maya stone became a modern gemstone medium. My favorite color jadeite is the lavender, which was easy to carve, following standard lapidary steps. After sanding the carvings on the 14,000 grit, I achieved a good polish with chromium oxide.

The lavender jade pieces, though, proved to be the most difficult to design around. I tried various gem materials, especially natural turquoise, but when paired with the lavender jade, they would overpower the pale lavender color. After much thought and experimentation, I decided to design in a pastel palette, using tanzanite and neon-blue apatite faceted beads, purple star sapphires, sugarcane emeralds from Brazil, and natural-color baroque freshwater cultured pearls, whose soft color variations from cream to gold to pinkish-white allowed the lavender jadeite to stand out.

Carving the black Galactic Gold jade, was as dirty as any other material that has pyrite and other metallic inclusions. The black residue color stains everything- from pans to fingernails! However, the black jade was easy to carve, drill and sand. Final polish was done with 50,000 grit diamond. And the black jade created a classic and dramatic combination when set with red coral, or golden pearls.

I truly appreciate the friends that motivated me to appreciate the Guatemala jade. Among them, the late appraiser Anna Miller, whose second conference on Jadeite in Antigua, Guatemala we were going to attend in 2003; celebrated photographer, the late Fred Ward, author of the National Geographic article “Jade- Stone of Heaven” and his book “Jade”, from whom we heard a lot about the jade shop in Antigua and purchased some of his rough jade; and Mary Lou Ridinger who generously shared her time and knowledge.

Each of my artwork “tells a story” and I thoroughly enjoy sharing the beauty, history and lasting friendships of my Guatemala jade journey.

I carved these drilled pendants in my favorite Guatemala jade color- the lavender, discovered only about 20 years ago.