All That Glitters

Several jade shops and factories dot the streets east of Antigua's Parque Central. Although Guatemala's best-known gem is extracted in the eastern part of the country near Zacapa, jade is inexorably linked with Antigua, where the processing and polishing goes on. Much of the work is done by hand, and most shops have an affiliated factory, sometimes at another location, sometimes out in back, open to guided tours.

The umbrella term "jade" technically encompasses two types of silicate stone: nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite is mined in East Asia, giving rise to its sometimes name "Chinese jade." It's less durable and less valuable than the rarer jadeite, which is found only in Guatemala, Russia, and Myanmar. High content of sodium, aluminum, iron, cobalt, and nickel give jadeite its distinctive durability and brilliance. Though green is the color usually associated with jadeite—experts recognize 25 tones of green—black, white, and lavender also make up its spectrum.

Olmec, Maya, and Aztec peoples in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica highly prized the stone. In fact, the Olmec established lucrative jade trade routes throughout the region. The Spanish observed the Maya using the mineral to cure various loin and kidney ailments, and so gave it the name piedra de ijada (stone of loin), from which the English word jade was taken. Jade became so integral a part of Mayan funeral masks that it was deemed to be a passport to the afterlife. Indeed, one of the requisite items for sale in most shops here, among the standard jewelry offerings, is an entirely jade reproduction of the famous sixth-century Tikal funeral mask unearthed in 1963.

Tips:

Some advice regarding jade shopping: First, a lot of the "jade" floating around Antigua (and in the market in Chichicastenango in the highlands) isn't jade at all. Don't buy from the vendors who sidle up to you on the street here and say, "Jade, mister?" Their wares are dirt cheap, but who knows what you're actually getting? It's possibly quartz. Make your purchases from a reputable shop here, one that can certify that you have purchased true jadeite. Such an establishment is not going to gamble its reputation on a knock-off stone.

The pronunciation of the word in Spanish, where J is always rendered with an H-sound, is HAH-day.

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