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Chinese Gems and Jewelry

Nephrite Jade Cabochon
Nephrite Jade Cabochon

Many people are aware of the long history of nephrite jade in China, which goes back to the New Stone Age. However, China is not only a source for jade, other gemstones are also found there.

With the expanding Chinese middle class comes a greater market for jewelry. The Chinese are spending more on luxuries than ever before. According to some reports, with regard to revenue, the Asia Pacific region now has the largest gemstone and jewelry share. Also, China is the largest platinum jewelry consumer in the world. However, when it comes to gold, India remains the largest consumer, with China coming second. Therefore, domestic production of precious metals and gemstones is more important than ever.

Some Chinese people place significance on traditional beliefs such as feng shui and Chinese astrology. Gemstones play a role here and certain gems are attributed to each astrological sign, whether it is due to the gemstone color or another property. Feng shui is the art of placement and design, which attaches importance to color. According to feng shui, colored gemstones are materials which attract, repel or conduct energy. Auspicious gemstones are often bought for weddings and on the birth of babies.

Cultured Saltwater Golden Pearl
Cultured Saltwater Golden Pearl

Some organic gemstones are sourced from China, such as cultured pearls and amber. In fact, since the 1980s, China has been the most prolific producer of cultured pearls in the world, mostly from saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels. The fisheries where these mollusks are raised date back to the Han Dynasty. The saltwater fisheries are based mainly in Guangxi and Guangdong in the south, and the freshwater fisheries are mostly in the eastern region. Since freshwater mussels can produce more pearls than marine oysters, freshwater pearls tend to be lower priced.

Another organic gemstone, amber, the fossilized resin of pine trees, has been found in Yunnan Province of China. The demand for Baltic amber has increased in China. Amber is believed by some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to soothe the circulatory system and calm the wearer. Additionally, amber in Chinese is called "the soul of a tiger" because an old Chinese belief states that a dead tiger's spirit goes into the ground and turns into a mineral. Therefore, some Chinese people believe that amber represents tiger-like qualities, such as courage.

Very Rare Faceted Cinnabar Crystal
Very Rare Faceted Cinnabar Crystal

Cinnabar, a form of mercury sulfide, has been mined from the border area of Hunan and Kweichow Provinces. The cinnabar mines date back to the Ming Dynasty and some of the best cinnabar crystal specimens known have been produced by this area. The material has various uses; it has been used as a red pigment since ancient times and is the common ore of mercury. It is used for decorative purposes and large crystals are faceted for collectors. These faceted gems exhibit an attractive adamantine to sub-metallic luster, due to the remarkably high refractive index of cinnabar. Since cinnabar has a relatively low level of hardness (just 2 to 2.5 on the Mohs scale), it is not considered to be suitable for jewelry.

Some of the finest turquoise gemstones are sourced from China. This material comes mainly from Hubei and Shaanxi. Turquoise has been used for ornamental purposes in China for over three thousand years. Chinese turquoise ranges from blue to green in color with a waxy luster and a Mohs hardness of 4.6 to 5.5. It occurs in a pure form, rivaling the renowned "Persian turquoise" and also with veined patterns. The most desirable turquoise in China has a pure, sky-blue color and a Mohs hardness score of above 5. Turquoise with such hardness is termed "porcelain turquoise" by the Chinese. In Tibet, turquoise is believed to bring good luck and offer protection.

Corundum Gemstones
Corundum Gemstones

Corundum (ruby and sapphire) has been made use of for thousands of years in China. Highly polished ceremonial axes from Liangzhou District of Gansu Province dating back over four thousand years have been found to contain corundum. It is thought that these axes provide evidence of the first use of diamond as an abrasive. This is because another material such as quartz would not have been hard enough to grind corundum, which has a Mohs hardness of 9. Corundum is also found in the provinces of Shandong, Sichuan, Yunnan, Xinjiang and Hainan Island. The sapphires of Penglai, Hainan, are said to be similar to those found in Chanthaburi, Thailand. Hainan Island is also a source for purple, red, purplish-red, brown and brownish-red zircon gemstones. These gems also occur in Heilongjiang and Fujian.

Chinese Peridot Gemstone
Chinese Peridot Gemstone

Since the 1990s, China has been one of the largest producers of peridot gemstones. These tend to be yellowish-green and are typically mined from Hebei Province in the northeast. Chinese peridot is said to possess a good level of hardness and a luster similar to highly-desired Burmese peridot. This peridot is typically untreated and exhibits excellent transparency. In China, there is a traditional belief that peridot promotes prosperity and success.

The above gemstone materials are just some of the gems that can be found in the People's Republic of China. Garnet, bloodstone, chicken's blood stone, diamond, topaz, pietersite, amethyst, azurite, fluorite and tourmaline are some of the other gemstone materials that have been discovered in the vast expanse of the Middle Kingdom, from the far reaches of the western frontier of Xinjiang, to the east of the mountains where the Yellow River meets the Yellow Sea in Shandong.

  • First Published: January-27-2015
  • Last Updated: January-22-2019
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