GIA Museum presents ancient Chinese jade carvings from the Smithsonian

A collection of intricate Chinese jade carvings will be showcased in the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) Museum in Carlsbad, Calif. May 24 – Oct. 31.

Magic, Myths, and Minerals: Chinese Jades from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will be on loan from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). It includes 37 ancient jade sculptures dating from the Shang dynasty (13th -11th century B.C.E.) through the Qing dynasty (17th – 18th century).

The exhibition explores the art of jade carving, touching on the significance and use of jade in Chinese society. It also introduces the extraordinary skills required to shape and polish this beautiful but incredibly tough gemstone.

Smooth and lustrous, jade has fascinated the Chinese for more than 5,000 years. In ancient China, jade was recognized not only for its beauty and durability, but also for its reputed magical or supernatural qualities. It was believed that jade preserved the human body after death. Early Chinese jades were often shaped for use in religious ceremonies and burial rites, and jade objects were frequently interred in the tombs of China’s ruling elite.

Most of the sculptures in this exhibition were not made for ceremonial purposes, but rather for private appreciation. The jade objects are divided into sections that explain the significance of what is represented, including animals, birds, dragons, horses, elephants, and signs of the Chinese.

“The pieces in the exhibition vary as much in their appearance as they do in their significance,” noted GIA Museum Director Elise Misiorowski. One piece depicts a mandarin duck—an emblem of faithfulness and marriage – holding a lotus in its beak. Another piece represents an elephant, which is regarded as a wise and patient animal in Chinese lore. Fashioned during the Song dynasty, this piece displays the detail of a genuine elephant, taking into consideration its wrinkled skin, curving tusks, veined ears, and large toenails.

A segment of the exhibition illustrates how jade sculptures were carved in early times. “There were few tools available to ancient people capable of carving jade,” said GIA Museum Curator Terri Ottaway. “Artisans applied a paste made from ground garnets, quartz sand, or other abrasive particles, and gradually wore away small areas of the jade to shape a sculpture.”

The exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in cooperation with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The exhibition is made possible in part by the Blakemore Foundation and the Smithsonian Special Exhibition Fund.

GIA’s Museum galleries are open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. till 4 p.m., and are free and available to the public through scheduled tours. Contact Yvette Wilson, guest services supervisor, to schedule a tour: e-mail ywilson@gia.edu, or call 800-421-7250, ext. 4116. Outside the U.S., call 760-603-4116.