Skyrocketing prices for the gem draw prospectors into the market in search of sudden wealth, Wei Tian reports in Urumqi.
The price of fine nephrite, just natural stone, has climbed from 10,000 yuan a kilogram to at least 1 million in 10 years. Top-grade art work in Hetian jade? Possibly priceless. An exhibit of works such as this in Beijing ended this week. [Provided to China Daily]
For thousands of years, no gem in China has been given the same status and honor as jade.
It was used to make imperial seals in the ancient times, carved into gods or mythical wild animals to protect the wearer from misfortune, and more recently embedded into the gold medals for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
Over the last decade, however, the gem has also become extremely popular with collectors - not for its representation of moderation and virtue, but for its skyrocketing price.
Jade dealer Wang Wenhua said that 10 years ago a natural stone would have sold for about 10,000 yuan a kilogram (more than $1,500 at today's exchange rate).
Today, that price would be at least 1 million yuan.
What Wang Wenhua regrets most is having let go of some precious jade too early and too easily. She is 35 and has been a jade dealer since 1997.
"Most of my collections sold in early years for several hundred yuan, a thousand at most for the really good ones. It was still a decent price at that time, but who would have thought what would happen next?"
She explained that Hetian jade is found in two forms, shanliao (nephrite), which is extracted from a mine cave, and ziliao (pebble), which is burnished by a thousand years in a river.
There is no list price for jade, she said, but 10 years ago a universally acceptable price for fine primary nephrite - the natural stone - would have been about 10,000 yuan a kilogram (more than $1,500 at today's exchange rate). Today, the price would be at least 1 million yuan ($157,000).
In the same 10 years, the global price of gold has only tripled.
"For jade pebbles that are engraved by nature, you can hardly put a price on them now," Wang said. "It's all up to how much the buyers want to pay."
It was reported that a decorative jade cabbage that was produced in Yangzhou and exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai Expo was bought by an anonymous French couple for 130 million yuan ($21 million). Yangzhou Jade Workshop later denied the report, explaining that the item was a national treasure and thus not for sale, but the story is still widespread.
To compensate her regret and to seek another opportunity for fortune, Wang now travels three or four times a year from her home in Urumqi, capital of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, to the birthplace of jade a thousand miles away.
Her destination is Hetian, a remote city on the west end of China's territory where a riverbed emerges every spring as the snow melts, carrying jade pebbles down from the Kunlun Mountains.
The river, known as the Yurungkash or White Jade, is the headwater of Hetian's jade industry and has made the city a mecca for Wang and other dealers, collectors and speculators.
Although their enthusiasm was nearly the same, the prospectors who flocked to Hetian showed no reverence for something long considered sacred.
"The situation was most serious in 2006, when there were more than 8,000 excavating machines and 50,000 people digging along the 30-kilometer-long riverbed day and night, trying their luck," Wang said. "People would invest hundreds of thousands of yuan buying machines and hiring workers, but all the effort would pay off once they found a sizable jade pebble."
A small village sprung up along the river, with hundreds of tents and cook shops scattered around the digging site. The garbage they produced piled up, and their excavation reshaped the river, causing flood hazards.
The frenzy was stopped in 2007 when local government dispersed the illegal residents and banned any more mechanized exploration on the riverbank to prevent further environmental damage.
"But the restriction has only made the jade price increase even faster, because it significantly reduced production and pushed the scarcity value of the existing pieces even higher," Wang said.
"There will always be supply, only the digging now goes underground. Even with helicopters patrolling the area, some people still find a way to get access, under cover of river dredging projects, for instance."
The value of a jade pebble of acceptable quality can triple even before it is shipped out of Hetian, Wang said.