Jade: A Mesoamerican Legacy

By Franklin Cordon

Jade is the sacred green stone that one day could be declared Guatemala´s National Stone due to its historic importance in the culture of Mesoamerica. According to scientists and historians the Maya attributed to it wealth, power, status and the most important of all, as a mystical passport to a supernatural underworld world, named “Xibalbá”…

The pieces they made are now considered masterpieces. Jade treasures have been found in several Mayan tombs from Mexico to Costa Rica. Some of the jade treasures include bracelets, rings, ankle bracelets, craniums with dental incrustations and the amazing mosaic pieces such as King Pakal’s funerary mask or the masterpieces from Tikal: the mosaic portrait funerary jar that belonged to Yikin Chaan Kawil or the beautiful mosaic mask from Burial 160, probably belonging to Kolomte Balam.

What is the significance of Guatemalan jade? Local jade is found with other minerals around Zacapa in the Southeast. In the mountain chain known as Sierra de las Minas, various minerals, including silver for minting coins have been mined since colonial times.

There are two main types of jade, the Asian variety called nephrite, and the Guatemalan variety, jadeite.  The latter is scarcer and found only in four countries in the world, Burma/Myanmar, Russia, Japan and Guatemala. The most important difference between these two jades, besides the chemical composition, is the hardness. Nephrite oscillates from 6 to 6.5 in the Mohs scale, while jadeite runs from 7 to 7.5. The diamond is a perfect 10 on the scale.

The colors of jadeite jade vary, ranging from the white-grayish moon jade to titanium-laced versions with lavender and opal colors, to iron-influenced greens and blacks and chromium-tinted greens, with the lime-green imperial jade being the most valuable. Then there’s the rare phenomenon called gold jade, which has pyrite embedded in the stone.

Based on the discoveries at the Cancuen (NOT Cancun) ruins, we can tell the ancient Maya carved these beautiful treasures with the friction of jade on jade, using hand tools such as a string saw probably made out of some sort of leather and quartz as an abrasive. They also carefully carved elaborate details with smaller jade-tipped tools. To obtain luster they used a mixture of sand, powder of crystals and resins from trees.

This unique and sacred stone of the Maya is not just for funerals anymore! I have been involved in the creation of a museum and gift shop that celebrates the legacy of jade. Called La Casa del Jade Museum and Gift Shop in Quetzaltenango, anyone can come and learn more about jade and purchase our GIA certified jewelry and pre-Hispanic reproductions. We’re located at in 15 avenue 3-86 Zona 1 (inside Diversity Tours) or you can write us at lacasadeljadexela@gmail.com.

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