Jade  Nebaj, Quiché. Classic Period

For most people, the word “jade” evokes exotic images of richly laden Chinese emperors. Few people realize the rich jade history of the Americas. To the Pre-Columbian people of Mesoamerica, specially the Maya,  jade meant life, fertility, and power; it was revered above gold. The association of the aristocracy with the brighter greens indicated that they valued jade above all other materials. Just as bright green jade was reserved for Chinese emperors, in Mesoamerica, bright green jadeite was reserved for kings and royalty. As an example of its desirability, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortéz was given four jade beads as tribute by Aztec leader Moctezuma, with the counsel that each bead was worth two loads of gold. The Spanish conquistadores, lusting only for gold, dismissed these treasures as nothing more than green rocks. the following objects were made of jadeite by the ancient Maya: beads (plain and carved), pendants, pectorals, "sawn into thin flat plates prior to shaping", earflares, buttons, celts, spangles, inlays, mosaics (e.g., mosaic masks), and plaques. There are also a variety of more esoteric items, for example,  pieces  used for blood-letting in religious rituals.

Most remarkable is the recent tracing by mineralogist George Harlow of Preclassic jadeite “axes” found on the Island of Antigua back to their parent mines in Guatemala.  Antigua is nearly 3000 km east of the Motagua valley as the crow flies, and 3500 km island hopping  Cuba, Hispanola, etc. Rocks don’t float. Only by canoe could they have made their way across the entire Caribbean. A unique and valuable trade item tends to become more valuable as it is traded farther from the source. The incentive is to profit by continuing to trade it until one of three things happens: an owner can’t bear to part with it, it reaches a cultural area where it is not valued, or it reaches the bitter end of the trade route. For the jadeite axes found on Antigua, the second and third may have both applied. Antigua was the far eastern edge of the Taino cultural area and of the Caribbean island chain.

Green Jade

Preclassic Jade Petén

Galactic Gold Jade

Following the Spanish conquest of the native culture and religion, and in order to hide the jadeite from the conquerors, Indians withdrew from jade mining and carving for generations. So much time lapsed and so many generations passed that no one knew where to find jade; the mines were lost to the world from the 1500s until the late 20th century

Jadeite rock

Jadeite Rocks

Jadeite rocks being transported

Grey Jade Tikal

Jade Incrustations,  Ixlú

Necklace Tikal

Blue Jadeite

Mesoamerican Jade Sources    

Funeral Urn Tikal

Jade masterpieces

Blue Jadeite

Crystal Green Jade

Tikal' s Tomb 160 Jade      Mask

Choromelanite jadeite from the Motagua Valley.

Río Azul, Mask

Jadeite recently fractured

Ancient Jade

Bluish Jadeite

Tikal, Pectoral

Jadeite boulder in Motagua Valley

Tikal Pendant

Until recently, serious gem and jewelry collectors and buyers looked to Asia for the purchase of fine jadeite. Traditionally thought of as a Chinese product, but principally from Myanmar (formerly Burma), jadeite has been cut and shipped from Hong Kong to the west for decades. Today, jade enthusiasts are finding jadeite is being mined and cut closer to home. Fine jadeite material in natural colors ranging from a bright, intense green to soft lilac, blue, pink, white, and yellow is available from Guatemala, in Central America. Although jadeite occurs in several locales around the world, Guatemala has been the least-known as a producer of this material.  Known sources of jadeite world-wide are relatively limited. The most important sources are located in Burma, Guatemala, Japan, and Kazakhstan.

“Jade” is the generic term describing two distinct stones: nephrite and jadeite. While the two are visually similar, they are different in mineralogical characteristics. Nephrite and jadeite are both white in their pure state, with all colors caused by inclusions of other minerals. Jadeite is the harder and denser of the two, with a richer, more brilliant range of colors. For these reasons and because of its scarcity, jadeite is the most precious and sought-after type of jade. while even the best rough nephrite sells for only a few dollars a pound, "gem jadeite sells for hundreds to thousands of dollars a carat".  There is no known source of nephrite in Mesoamerica or Central America.

"Guatemalan jade is jadeite. The Jadeite is formed by enormous pressures at low temperatures, Guatemala sits over the subduction zone of the Cocos plate, with the North American plate grinding along the Caribbean plate at the Motagua fault"

 Chalcedony, is a quartzite.  A blue-green variety, sometimes referred to as chrysocolla chalcedony, is mined in Guerrero, Mexico, and the middle Motagua River Valley, Guatemala, and also features prominently as a material for Precolumbian Costa Rican artifacts. This variety of chalcedony is commonly referred to as "jade" in Mexico and Costa Rica, in Guatemala it is called "Guatemalita". The color of the Mexican variety is derived from chrysocolla, a copper phyllosilicate. The Guatemalan variety also may have inclusions with pyrite, galena, and calcite.

The Motagua Valley     

That jadeite in serious quantity and in a rainbow of natural colors (no heat treatments or other enhancements are used in the Guatemalan jadeite, opposed to the majority of Myanmar types, that use them to enhance the color and quality ) is being mined in Guatemala comes as no surprise to researching geologists and archaeologists who have long believed that all the native Central American ancient cultures - Olmec, Toltec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Aztec, and Maya  got their jadeite from Guatemala. the only confirmed source of jadeite that is similar to that worked by the Olmec is from the Motagua River Valley, in Guatemala and within Maya territory, Not Guerrero as some scholars believe due to Jade workshops found there, but no Jade sources have been found in Mexico to date, only Green Serpentine of less quality than Jade.

In Jades of Mesoamerica, author and jade expert Fred Ward has compiled exhaustive research on Guatemalan jadeite used in the ancient Maya culture. He writes that discoveries of jadeite in the Motagua Valley area of Guatemala (also known as the Motagua Fault Zone) confirm the country as the source for most if not all of the jadeite used by Mesoamericans for three thousand years. There are notable workshops for Jade in sites such as Guaytán on the Motagua Valley, El Aguilucho in the Mountains of Sierra de Las Minas and Cancuén, witch gave this site a wealth not seen in any other Maya Site.  Jade is found in several locales in Guatemala: in the departments of Izabal, El Progreso, Zacapa, Baja Verapaz, and El Quiché. It takes an expert's eye to find jade because the boulders are generally covered with thick, black-brown, or gray rind, making it almost impossible to distinguish jade from ordinary rock. In August 2007, a group of archaeologists discovered along the mountain ridges north of the valley, a series of sites up to the Caribbean coast that controlled the commerce routes of Jade and Obsidian from its sources to the Petén Lowlands and the maritime routes

The elusive “Olmec Blue” jadeite was discovered in the southern part of the Motagua Valley by Geophysicist Russell Seitz of Cambridge and with a team of jade researchers including Harlow and Virginia Sisson of Rice University. The Motagua river parallels the left-lateral, strike-slip Motagua fault that offsets the rocks of the region by 1,200 kilometers. This displacement led the geologists to believe that south of the fault lay different basement and surface rocks and hence, “there was no reason to look there”, but Seitz, was suspicious and in 1999, while touring this area he saw an unmistakable “Olmec jade” handcraft, south of the river.

The top two pieces of jadeitite are recent finds from Río Jalapa drainage, Guatemala, and the bottom is a fragment of
an Olmec-style jade dish

Seitz and his colleagues announced their discovery of Olmec blue jade in the December 2001 issue of Antiquity. In late May this year, a New York Times article described their findings of a “Rhode Island-Size jade lode.”  Exploring the mountain region by foot and horseback, the group expanded the known jade-bearing zone 10 kilometers north, 18 kilometers east and 18 kilometers south, to about the size of Rhode Island. The presence of the jadeitite south of the Motagua fault indicates that while the surface collisional rocks on either side are different, the basement rock may be the same. The recent discovery indicates the Motagua fault is more than just a single fault, and a new geological map of the region is needed. “Serpentinite is buoyant, like a cork,” Harlow says. He suggests the additional faults provided fractures and openings that allowed the serpentinite to carry precipitated jadeitite from the subduction zone to the surface. The geologists concentrated their search for the blue-green jadeitite north of the Motagua river where serpentinite, jadeitite’s host rock, is plentiful.

There are some visual differences in the jadeites of Myanmar and Guatemala, the most obvious of which is color. Although some individual pieces of Guatemalan jadeite cannot be separated from their Burmese counterparts (particularly after they are worked into jewelry), the majority of materials have distinct color and often textural differences.

42 Jade Colors from Guatemala

What is abundant in Guatemala is jadeite in natural colors of lilac, blue, pink, white, yellow, black, and a unique black with natural precious metal (Gold, Silver and Platinum) inclusions (Galactic Gold), along with many shades of green. Guatemala is now producing the world's newest jadeite colors, including “rainbow jadeite” (several colors in one slab or boulder). Black jadeite from the Motagua Valley area, represents the creamiest, richest, and best black jadeite in the world, far exceeding Burma's darkest, which is gray and can only be sold as charcoal.” Modern Guatemalan lapidaries make two types of item from jadeite: replicas of ancient pieces and modern jewelry. The modern items mainly consists of oval cabochons and beads. The cabochons are set in gold, silver, or gold-plate as rings, earrings, and pendants

Related links:

http://www.famsi.org/reports/03023/index.htm  (Jadeite sources in Mesoamerica)