The History and Significance of Guatemalan Jade
What’s all the fuss about Guatemalan jade, you wonder? Here’s a whistle-stop tour of Guatemalan jade: some science, the history, and why it’s so popular.
Jade is a rare metamorphic rock made deep underneath the layers of the earth from thousands of years of heat, pressure, and time. You won’t find a recipe for it on WikiHow, that’s for sure! Since it’s so hard to bake at home—not to mention, rare, durable and remarkably pretty—you’ll find jade expressing its opulence and sophistication everywhere, from on the crowns of dead kings to your Aunt Pearl’s 35th wedding anniversary earrings.
How is Jade Made in Guatemala?
Jade is the result of two tectonic plates colliding furiously against each other. To create the perfect jade-making conditions, these slow-moving, sliding slabs of earth need to rack up a whopping 600 degrees centigrade and a literally earth-crushing 500,000 pounds of pressure for every square inch.
Guatemala sits on top of two of these tectonic plates, commonly known as the Motagua fault line which runs east to west through Guatemala’s southeast highlands, and even encompasses some parts of Guatemala City.
This jadeite-rich area is known as the Sierra de las Minas, or “jagged mountain range of the miners.” On the south side of the Motagua fault line, the jade is around 130 million years old. On the North side, it’s only a humble 70 million.
What is the significance of this colossal divide?
Well, scientists believe that there must have been two major collisions in the area to produce two different “batches” of jade. Like other types of stone, jade provides an interesting window into the history of the earth itself.
Jade Around the World
There are two types of jade: nephrite and jadeite (the kind found in Guatemala). Jadeite is harder and rarer, so more valuable—sometimes, even more so than gold.
You can find this jadeite in New Zealand, Myanmar, Taiwan, Surinam, Guyana, Canada, southern Europe, China, and Russia. (Amazingly, one of Taiwan’s biggest attractions is a cabbage made of jade!)
Jade from all over the world comes in a full spectrum of colors and finishes—depending on its make up. Examples include speckled jade, which contains flecks of metal, and deep green or black Guatemalan jade is rich in iron.
Jade is one of the world’s oldest decorative stones. Yet, unlike “precious stones” that include diamonds and rubies, jade is classed as a “semi-precious” stone. In reality, there’s no real scientific difference between these two categories—they’re merely marketing terms designed to make select gemstones seem more valuable.
To think of it: Golem from Lord of the Rings whispering “my semi-precious” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
The History, Uses, and Symbolism of Guatemalan Jade
Jade has been used to decorate tools, ornaments, mosaics, and weapons for around five thousand years throughout China and Mesoamerica.
Mesoamerica included parts of central Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, northern Costa Rica, and of course, Guatemala. In total, the area spanned around 325,000 square kilometers.
In Guatemala, the Maya believed jade to have a spiritual significance, connecting the Maya people to their grand pantheon of gods, to the natural world, the supernatural world, and to the afterlife.
In fact, the old Aztec or Nahuatl word for jade was “chalchihuitl”, which, with its associations of divinity, has been translated to mean both “heart of the earth” and “beauty”.
A Ticket to the Afterlife
The Maya not only considered Guatemalan jade as a symbol of status and wealth, but also a passport to the next life. As such, it adorned the tombs of the royal and the prestigious.
Kings, for example, were buried in jade masks and chest plates, which acted like a first class ticket through the underworld. Intercelestial travel at its finest.
The traditional, everyday Mayan person, on the other hand, was buried underneath the floors of their own homes with their mouth stuffed full of food along with a single jade bead.
Guatemalan Jade Jewelry
Teeth filing, painting, and decoration were common in Maya society between 300 and 800 AD and was very well established as an art around 600 AD, when the Great Mayan empire was at its most powerful and influential. Back then, there was no finer bling than a good old-fashioned jade inlay.
But if you didn’t fancy getting your teeth drilled, polished jade pendants were all the rage. Worn to emulate the Sun God Kinich Aha (whose depiction shows him with a mirror on his head), this particular trend was rooted in its spiritual significance. By polishing the stone to become more mirror-like in appearance, the pendant indicated a closer connection to the sun god, therefore increasing the status of the wearer.
Guatemalan Jade Writing
The Maya used Guatemalan jade jewellery and plates to write important scripts and histories. They did this via inscription. Using a “string saw”, skilled artisans would draw a cord back and forth with water and sand particles as a cutting agent.
In 2015, a large jade pendant was discovered in Belize with thirty Maya hieroglyphs about King Janaab’ Ohl K’inich, a ruler over the powerful Maya city in Caracol (in modern day Belize).
The text talks about an incense-scattering ceremony in A.D. 672 that gives great insight into traditional Maya ceremonies and religious practises thought to bring on wind and rain. What’s more, it gives details of the king’s family lineage and accession rights, helping to keep power in the family line.
Why Did the Maya Write on Jade?
Due to its unchanging appearance over time, the Maya associated jade’s symbolism with eternity and the immortals. Therefore it was a chosen medium for recording (and legitimizing) the lives of important people, such as King Janaab’ Ohl K’inich, Tecun Uman and K’inich Janaab Pakal (Pakal the great).
The rulers of Mayan society worked hard to appear godlike. This justified their position as leaders and helped to keep power within the family. Jade, along with the temples, the ceremonies, and other such status symbols, were a part of maintaining that persona. Therefore, jade was used as a powerful political tool.
Guatemalan Jade and Symbolism
Depending on the color, jade is supposed to have different attributes and mystical qualities. Guatemalan lavender jade, for example, attracts love.
All (twenty-three) shades of green jade are supposed to have healing properties. In fact, the English word for jade comes from the old Spanish word l’ajade, from piedra de (la) ijada which means “stone of colic or pain in the side.” Because jade was often worn as an amulet to cure colic, kidney stones, and other maladies.
The most coveted jade by the Maya is known as Imperial jade. It symbolises power, status, good luck, and eternity. This was exactly the type of jade worn by Maya royalty as well as other high status individuals.
The Spanish Influence on Guatemalan Jade
The Spanish invaded Guatemala throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. During this time, the Maya kept the location of their jade reserves well hidden.
In the end, the conquistadors didn’t spend much time (if any) seeking out Guatemalan jade. For the invaders, it didn’t have the same value in comparison to gold and other precious stones and materials.
It was for these reasons that the main Guatemalan jade excavation site was lost for five hundred years.
Rediscovering Guatemalan Jade
In 1974, archeologist Mary Ridinger and husband anthropologist Jay Ridinger discovered jade specimens in the Motagua river, a 250-mile long river in the western highlands of Guatemala.
Upon further investigation, the anthropologists discovered three pre-Columbian quarry sites with enough jade to re-establish the Guatemalan trade industry that had sat dormant for 450 years. Soon after, the Ridingers established a company called Jades, S.A. to work the jade and opened a retail store in Antigua, Guatemala called Jade Maya.
One of the Most Significant Jade Discoveries
Then, in 1998, a devastating storm hit Central America. Thousands died as floods and landslides reshaped the landscape. Old veins of jade were exposed as deposits washed up on riversides.
This led to further discoveries and within a few years an exhibition of scientists and jade hunters hit the jackpot, seizing control of “bus-sized” boulders scattered across the Guatemalan highlands. One archaeologist called the discovery ”one of the most significant” finds in decades.
Guatemalan Jade Today
Today, the majority of Guatemalan jade is excavated from Zacapa, in the Sierra de las Minas. Here, the miners, or los mineros, bash large boulders with special hammers to listen for a distinctive “jade-like” ring to emanate from the hammer.
When the hammer makes the right tune, the miners know they’ve struck jade, and that it’s time to begin extracting the deposits.
As time goes on, archeologists and geologists alike continue to uncover more and more about Maya history and the secrets of Mother Earth.
For your trip to Guatemala, you’ll find artisans who craft everything from talisman and miniature totems to bracelets, spoons, and napkin rings at the jade stores you choose to explore.
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