Guatemalan Jade

About 2,500 years ago, the Olmec—natives of Mesoamerica and ancient Mexico—created sculptures from intense bluish-green jadeite jade found in nearby gem deposits. When archeologists uncovered these jade carvings in the 1700s, there was no knowledge of any jadeite mines nearby or anywhere in the Americas. For the next 300 years—working mostly on hunches, folklore, and jade findings from local villagers—geologists and mineralogists combed the landscape looking for the lost Olmec jadeite mines.

Primary deposits of jadeite were finally found in the 1970s, in an area called the Motagua Valley of Guatemala. Mary Lou and Jay Ridinger, owners of Jades, S.A., in Antigua, found the ancient Olmec/Mayan mines and have uncovered some amazing natural colors. Besides the expected greens—called mint, apple, bright apple, and Maya imperial—there is lilac, pastel pink, blue, white, creamy yellow, galactic gold, coffee, charcoal, Maya black, and multicolored jade.

But thirty years later, Guatemalan jadeite has yet to draw an appreciative audience. Of course, it doesn’t have the pure and saturated green color of the material found in Burma or China, nor does it have a translucency/transparency that could challenge these other deposits. But ironically, this is the locality from which jade gets its name.

Gemologist and photojournalist Fred Ward has written about Guatemalan jade for both National Geographic magazine and his 1996 book titled Jade. Ward writes that following the traditions of the Mesoamerican Indians, the conquistadores wore green rocks around their waists to cure kidney disorders, and labeled them “piedra de ijada”—stone of the loins. Ward, who has been looking at samples of jade production for more than 20 years, says that pieces of it are nice. “There are certainly some museum pieces,” he says, but most of what’s mined in Guatemala is commercial. “They have something to sell. It’s just that if you’re looking for Burma quality, you have to go to Burma.”

The late Anna Miller, a gemologist, appraiser, and author, who died as this issue was going to press (see obituary on p. 32), was an expert on appraising Guatemalan jade, which is included in her Master Values Program for jewelry appraisers. “You cannot use the same standards of beauty for Guatemalan and Burma jadeite,” she said during an interview in April “You have to change your mental point of view as to what is really beautiful in jadeite. Guatemalan jade is never treated, baked, or colored in any way.”