Ancient Chinese Jades

Little was known about these exceptional jades when museum founder Charles Lang Freer acquired them in the early twentieth century. On a technical level he appreciated their craftsmanship and the challenges of working with jade, and as a connoisseur he was attracted to the subtle beauty of the stone, its tactile qualities, and the visual appeal of the shapes. Freer assembled an outstanding collection of ancient Chinese jades long before most other Western collectors and museums took an active interest in them. Since then, controlled archaeological excavations and scholarly research have proven the jades now in the Freer Gallery of Art date to the earliest ages of Chinese civilization.

Poetically described two thousand years ago in China as the “fairest of stones,” jade actually refers to two different minerals, nephrite and jadeite. All of the true jades found at ancient Chinese sites are made of fine-grained nephrite. In its purest state nephrite lacks color; impurities create the variations of yellow, green, brown, and black. Most of the jades recovered from Liangzhu tombs are dark green to brown, while the finest jewelry is lighter green, suggesting this rarer material was reserved for more ornamental use. Later Neolithic cultures farther north favored almost pure black nephrite, likely because it was available locally. Smaller works, especially jewelry, created during the later Bronze Age feature beige jade possibly imported from Central Asia.