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Romancing the Stone: An Adventure Finding Fabled Jade Mines

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Steven Spielberg, with his Indiana Jones series, made archeologists sexy, but listening to Gemologist Richard Hughes’ lecture on jade, “Jade: Stone of Heaven,” you can see there’s plenty of romance, intrigue, and daring involved in rockhounding.

On March 31, Hughes recounted how the discovery of jade in Burma, now called Myanmar, caused the stripping down of a green rainforest. “It is not construction; it is deconstruction of mountains,” Hughes explained. Searching for jade requires patience, “Those who hurry, lose. Those who hurry will miss something…those who hurry don’t go to heaven.” And heaven is paved by jade.

On his journey to the famous mines, one taken during a time when most foreigners weren’t permitted to go because of the rainy season, Hughes recounted the people he met. Remember the 1984 movie, Romancing the Stone? That was supposed to take place in the jungles of Columbia, with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas’ characters slipping and sliding down a muddy bank. Hughes showed a slide of him and his friends, happy, healthy, and very clean at the start of the journey. That was before they learned the meaning of rain in Myanmar. Think that a SUV or truck is the best transport for a jungle? Not when the mud swallows the tires of your vehicle and you have to wait for a man on an elephant to pull out the gas-powered modern vehicle.

Despite the mud and the questionable characters he meets on his way to the mine, you can hear the enthusiasm in his voice and are quite sure he would do it again. For what? A stone, but not any stone – a stone the Chinese valued above even gold: jade. What exactly is jade? According to Hughes, it is a stone with “a certain quality.” It is easy to carve and has an oily quality to it. When Cortez invaded the Native American cities, the natives were grateful the Spanish didn’t know or know enough to value jade. While jade hadn’t become an item of value in Europe, it was already considered precious in the Meso-America, amongst the New Zealand Maoris as well as many Asian cultures.

Until the discovery of precious jade in upper Myanmar in the 1700s, the Chinese used nephrite. As with any type of mining, jade mining is a gambler’s trade. A rock’s value can’t be told until it’s split open. Splitting it open to make maximum use of the precious jade is also a tricky business. Modern machines, like x-rays, can’t help you. There’s also a bit of buyer beware in the jade trade. Buying jade is subject to fraud. Dishonest dealers commonly use heat treatment, epoxy, resin, and other treatments of non-jade materials. To be fair, this isn’t unusual with any gemstone – semi-precious or precious. Unopened stones might be dyed on the outside to hint that there is more emerald green stone inside to increase the hope of the buyer and the price commanded.

Hughes lecture was given as a part of Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum’s exhibit, “Jade, Silk and Porcelain: The Materials of Asian Art,” that runs until May 27. When you see the mud, the elephants, and the jade dealers who were rich for a few years only to end their lives in despair, you see both the romance and tragedy of Myanmar and our quest for jade, a substance harder to find than diamonds and thus, perhaps, truly more precious. You might even catch the bug that urges rockhounds and prospectors out into hardship and bad climate to find the perfect treasure.

Adventure still exists in the world today, if you’re willing to wallow in the muddy chaos of the misery of nature and greed of mankind. I guess you have to go through a little bit of hell before you can get to the jade heaven.

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