Jade was the cornerstone of the Mesoamerican people. Its economic, political and, above all, ritual importance was due not only to its beauty and material value, but to its sacred symbolism associated with water, corn and life itself. Today, many elaborate objects made of this stone are preserved testimonies of the level of artistic complexity reached by the pre-Hispanic societies.
Among the various raw materials used by the ancient Mesoamerican peoples, jade was one of the most prized because of its colour, hardness, sparkle and symbolism. Jade is the generic name given to this stone which derives from the French rejada, which gradually transformed into jade. The French term comes from the Spanish, since during the 16th century, the green stone was known as the ‘ijada stone‘ (stone of colic), because it was supposed to cure nephritic colic.
As a matter of fact, the word jade refers to two different types of stone: the nephrite and Jadeite stones, whose mineral qualities are different. The first is the stone used in China and other parts of Asia and Oceania, where, as in Mesoamerica, it had a great economic and symbolic importance.
Jadeite, which was used by different Mesoamerican peoples, comes from deposits, especially from Burma and the Motagua River basin, located on the border between Guatemala and Honduras. To date, no other jade deposits have been found in the Mexican or Central American territory, although there is the possibility that there might be some in other regions. Although green is the most characteristic colour of jade, this stone can also be found in other various colours ranging from white to purple, with green-bluish nuances.
The nephrite and Jadeite are often included within the serpentine subgroup which is of greenish minerals. Following mineralogical analysis of materials, specialists have defined Jadeite and nephrite as ‘true jades’ and other green stones such as serpentine, albite, chalcedony, aventurine and quartz, as ‘social jades’ or ‘cultural jades’, as their appearance and symbolism were similar.
Jade has been mined and worked since the dawn of the pre-Hispanic period. During the Middle pre-Classic period (1,200-400 BC), the Olmecs were the biggest producers of luxury objects and utensils made of this stone. In the early Classic period (150/200-650 A.D.), the Maya created plenty of pieces carved in Jadeite and during the late Classic period (650-900 A.D.) they peaked their skills in jade manufacturing by creating objects of unsurpassed aesthetic quality. During the early Classic period, the inhabitants of Teotihuacan also worked objects made of ‘jade culture‘ stones.
Unfortunately, there is not much documentation regarding jade deposits and their exploitation and little is known about the stone processing and its distribution, but thanks to archaeological works, several workshops throughout the Motagua River deposits have been found. These workshops were discovered in 1954, the date from which the jade industry, which had waned during the colonial era as a consequence of the predominance of gold and silver, revived. A pre-Hispanic workshop where jade works were produced has been identified in the Mayan lowlands area. In these region, craftsmen manufactured a wide variety of items such as earrings, beads, bangles, plates, sculptures and, in the Maya area, complex masks which contained many pieces of jade arranged in mosaic.
One of the qualities of Jadeite is its great hardness, as it reaches 6.5 to 7 on the Mohs scale. For this reason, production processes required a specialisation and the use of various techniques to transform blocks of material into beautiful pieces of votive or personal use.
The stone was first cut then polished and smoothed with sand and water, while skins were used to get its characteristic sparkle. Jadeite and the so-called ‘cultural jades’ present a wide variety of nuances, but the Mesoamerican groups preferred the intense green or bluish-green coloured ones however.
The Olmecs of the Gulf Coast liked the bluish Jadeite more, which is known as ‘Olmec blue‘, while the Maya of the Classic period preferred intense green tone stones, known as ‘Imperial jade‘.
The green tone stones were closely linked with water and corn. Both elements, according to the Mesoamerican world outlook, were sheltered in the Sacred Mountain. The Olmec used to offer hatchets of this material in different shades to their gods, sometimes the hatchets were carved in cruciform shape, which referred to the pre-Hispanic idea of the four directions of the cosmos, where a mountain was located.
Mayan rulers and some representatives of noble classes used to wear objects made of jade that symbolised strength or other mental virtues. In some representations pectoral plates with T-shaped drawings are seen, a motif that was associated with the wind or 1K in the Maya tradition. Since there were not many jade deposits, the scarcity of this stone was linked to the highest spheres of the pre-Hispanic society. However, although the best pieces of stone were affordable only by a small elite, it is very likely, as some archeological findings have confirmed, that some members of the lower classes could get lower quality pieces of jade. Despite this, there is no doubt that jade was a stone closely associated with the concepts of power and sanctity in Mesoamerican societies.
Today, jade continues to be a beautiful, highly valued stone, which is used for the manufacturing of ornamental objects, in particular, jewellery.