An Interview with Jade Expert Jeff Mason of Mason-Kay
Jade expert Jeff Mason of Mason-Kay discusses the US and Chinese jade markets and what to look for in fine jadeite jade jewelry.
18 Minute Read
Thank you so much for speaking with me today! Mason-Kay has the reputation of being the jade company for US buyers, sellers, and appraisers. I really appreciate your willingness to address International Gem Society (IGS) readers.
It's really good to hear that. It has taken a lot of time and effort to build that reputation.
You certainly have earned that reputation. Mason-Kay was founded in 1976, and you're a fourth-generation jeweler. What is your family history in the trade?
We have been in the trade for generations. My great-grandfather did gems in general, and my grandfather did pearls. My father started in various gemstones, including jade. Eventually, he honed in on jade because its popularity increased in the 1960s and early 70s, partly due to President Nixon's trip to China. Slowly, my father started to import more jade than other gemstones from what was then called "the Orient." He became known as "the jade guy." My uncle then joined him and started Mason-Kay in 1976. I became involved after I went to the GIA in 1984.
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This article is also a part of our Jade Specialist Mini Course, in the unit Introduction to Jade.
Past and current market conditions for jade interest our readers. It seems like your dad followed consumer interest and growing market demand. You mentioned that Nixon's trip to China bolstered this awareness. Could you say more about that historical moment?
For those of us old enough to remember, it was a famous trip. In 1972 or 1973, the trip opened up relations and exposed people in the Western market to many Chinese things in general.
Your website describes Mason-Kay as the largest Type A jadeite dealer in the US.
Correct. There are a lot of Chinese jade dealers, as jade is a big jewelry item (in China). A lot of Chinese dealers sell particularly high-end Type A jade. If you add up the dollars, they certainly surpass our inventory. However, in the US, we definitely have the largest inventory of natural jadeite jade, both set in jewelry and loose.
In past interviews, you mention Burma as a primary gem-grade jadeite source. How and where do you acquire your jade inventory?
Traditionally, we have purchased overseas. Hong Kong really was and is the world hub of jade cutting. Some other centers rival it, but we know folks in Hong Kong going way back. That is where we have done our business. However, there have been some issues of late regarding China taking over Hong Kong and, more importantly, the military junta in Burma (now Myanmar). There are restrictions on the jade that can be brought in. You cannot bring in any jade that has gone through military hands or the hands of the Burmese government, which is quite restrictive. We're now bringing in minimal amounts that don't come from Burma.
Do you buy stones directly from collectors or work with people who mine jade boulders?
A lot of what we get today comes from sources within the US. We have a Sell Your Jade link on our webpage and a reputation as jade buyers just through the retail stores we have dealt with for these 40+ years. And we buy locally all the time. We're buying pieces out of estates every day. This is necessary because of the problems overseas. We set up our Sell Your Jade page after the financial crash of 2008 since many people needed to sell their jade — all of their jewelry, really — simply to pay rent. That page has blossomed since then. We get things sent to us every day.
Of course, we're not interested in many of the items. Some even turn out not to be jade. However, there's still a lot we buy. We may refurbish some items and sell them as estate pieces or pull out the usable jade and sometimes diamond stones. We can sell those stones and the gold and then use the center jade stones in new jewelry pieces.
That's so resourceful! My first job was with an estate store, and I love when pieces have their own history. Jade is interesting because many consider it a living stone, and it's a wonderful thought that it can travel through generations.
Absolutely! Many people love estate jewelry and, specifically, estate jade.
Detecting Jade Treatment
How do you view Mason-Kay? You buy and sell so much, but you also have advanced laboratory equipment.
I never like to call ourselves a laboratory. What I say is that we offer "lab services." For years, we've assisted people with valuation. Back in the day, people would send us a photo or the actual item itself or simply call so we could help with valuation and appraisals for things they purchased off the street or for various other reasons.
Jade dyeing has been around forever, but jade impregnation started around the early 1980s. So, we acquired an infrared spectrometer that tests for polymer or any kind of resin or wax used to impregnate a jade stone. That machine shoots infrared light through the stone and detects any of the fillings present there. It's an expensive piece of equipment, so most gemologists don't have one because they can't justify using it. We have one because everything we sell is natural, and we must stand behind our product and test all our inventory.
Since we've assisted the trade with value assessment over the years, if someone sends something to us for valuation help, it would be foolish for us to say, "it would be worth this much if it's natural." So, rather than having someone send a piece to the GIA or somewhere else afterward, we can test the piece for them to determine if it's natural. If it is, then we can provide a value assessment. If it's not, we let the owner know but don't provide a value assessment. Instead, we offer a report or less expensive verbal or email results.
Does your infrared spectrometer detect all kinds of impregnation? Have there been recent advancements made that make it harder for you to identify treated jade?
Jade treatments are still done the same way. Although there have been changes and upgrades in the material used, the spectrometer finds all of it. When they impregnate jade, the substance goes through the whole stone, so you can detect any polymer or resin in it even if you only test one edge of a stone. Dye is a little different because it can be anywhere in the stone, so you do have to actually find it.
How do you locate dyes? Is it by a visual examination, or do you use a different machine?
You can detect dye with a standard light spectroscope. Just about every gemologist has one and uses it for many applications. In contrast, our much more expensive infrared spectrometer only has a few applications within the gem industry. It's a piece of equipment designed for the plastics industry to detect plastics and determine if they're appropriate for bodily uses. It wasn't made for the gem industry but does have its uses.
If someone has a piece of jade they would like to send you for analysis, do you use other instruments besides the infrared spectrometer and the spectroscope?
First, we use a refractometer because we get items the owners think are jade but aren't. Dyed green quartz is a very common simulant, but there are other lookalikes, too. So, the first thing we do is make sure the stone is jade. If it is, then we go ahead and test for dye. If it's not dyed but is jadeite, then we go on and test for impregnation, and if it also passes that test, then it's natural. We can then provide a valuation if the sender requested one.
The Jade Market in China and the US
How familiar are US consumers with jade? If an item is sent to you and you determine it's been treated, what's the most frequent response? Are people aware that jade can be treated?
Our buyers are a little more knowledgeable than the average person who requests our identification services. We like people to send images to us first. Not everything they inquire about is actually jade, so we prefer to deter shipments that are obviously not jade. We get many photographs of things that aren't even close to jade.
There isn't much awareness of jade in the US or the West in general. Most people with some knowledge of jade think it's green, but it occurs naturally in various colors. Lavender, red, yellow, white, black, gray, and colorless — what we call ice jade — are quite popular these days. Of course, dyed jade can have any color, like blue and pink. Those colors will always be dyed. Some people don't even know what jade is. We do a great deal of education to help people understand jade. If they understand it, they're more likely to buy it.
Historically, jade has been used not just as a gemstone but for weapons and relics. These many uses have made it almost sacred, especially in Far East cultures, where it has been said that "gold has value, jade is priceless." However, this history isn't well-known in the US. Among the people in the US who do know about jade, do you find a similar reverence?
Yes, quite a bit! Jade is loved for many reasons, such as its lore and the healing powers that folks think it has. Jade is incredibly durable. Many folks don't understand the difference between toughness and hardness. As everybody knows, diamond is the hardest natural material, but jade is far tougher. Toughness relates to its resistance to breaking. If you drop a jade and a diamond on a hard floor from the same height, the diamond will break before the jade stone. Jade, both jadeite and nephrite, are the toughest stones behind hematite.
Do US consumers know the difference between jadeite and nephrite?
Even in the trade, some folks don't understand the difference between jadeite and nephrite. Nephrite is slightly tougher. This type of jade has been used for over 5,000 years. You find it in burial sites. This is the jade of history and lore. Nephrite was first used for tools and weapons, then later for adornment. It was found in many places around the world. Although nephrite had some regional differences, it was fairly similar overall. It was muted in color, very tough, and somewhat greasy in appearance.
In the late 1700s, there was a jade find in Northern Burma, and the Chinese realized there was something different about it. This jade had a greater variety of colors, and each color had much greater intensity and translucency than previous finds. These factors made this jade much more desirable to the Chinese Imperial Court. This is where the term "imperial jade" came from. It was not until the late 1800s that a French scientist discovered the mineralogical difference between these two types of jade. This was when scientists began to use the names jadeite and nephrite to differentiate them as two different stones. Since both types have been known as "jade" for centuries and have similar qualities, they've both remained known as jade. However, one is jadeite, and one is nephrite.
Because of its variety and intensity of color and better translucency, jadeite is used as a gem material more often than nephrite. The value of nephrite can only reach high numbers when it has historical significance, and the stone must have a certain age. On the other hand, jadeite value can reach high numbers just for its material.
I didn't realize that nephrite needed provenance to raise its value.
Modern white nephrite can have some value. Not many thousands, but it can have value if it's nice, clean, and carved. Other than that, nephrite has to be old, not just 100 or 200 years, but very old — like from the Han or Ming Dynasties.
What value characterizations are important to US jade buyers? What's most important to your customers? Is it color, translucency, age?
That's a good question with a good answer. Westerners certainly don't understand jade the way Asian cultures do because of the history. But we're learning! Westerners think that the most important characteristic is color. Obviously, that's very important. However, they don't take into account the texture as Asians do. Texture involves the translucency and granular makeup of the interior of the stone. The tighter the granular structure, the more translucent and stronger the jade is. Asian buyers would love both good color and texture, but they understand texture far beyond what we Westerners understand.
Take bangles, for example. Bangles are always cut as a whole piece, never as two halves. They're cut for the Asian market. Asian women tend to have smaller hands and wrists, so these bangles are often too small for Westerners. Westerners often choose to cut a bangle and place a hinge and clasp on it so it will fit. Adding a gold hinge and clasp also provides a nice accent. We sell a lot of these. They're quite desirable.
In contrast, Asian buyers will almost never buy a two-section bangle. They believe a bangle represents eternity. When a bangle is broken, that's no longer true. Therefore, they won't buy one with a hinge and clasp. In China, you'll only see a hinged bangle because it broke. This is a good illustration of how Westerners and Asians have different views and beliefs about jade.
This might be my Western background showing, but color is the first thing I notice before other factors like texture. Do you think people raised with a reverence for jade and a fascination with texture and translucency assess those factors more quickly than Westerners? Or does it still take an extra moment of reflection?
There's some truth to both. I do think that Asians take a little extra time when examining jade because they know what to examine. On the other hand, Westerners don't know as much. And I'm talking averages, of course. Some Westerners love jade and know jade well, and some Chinese and other Asians know nothing about jade. However, in general, Asians will have a better sense of what to look for. So, yes, they'll spend more time examining a piece. Their history with jade has also taught them the importance of things like translucency.
A well-textured stone with good translucency glows, especially in a well-cut cabochon, carving, bead, or bangle. That glow gives it a gemmy look that you just don't see otherwise, even with an intensely green stone. That gives it extra value.
It's always so exciting when someone in a dark room holds up a flashlight and the jade looks like it's lit up from the inside.
Of course, in a fine piece of jade, you want to see that glow not only with a light underneath but also with a face-up view in a normally illuminated room — at least a little bit. You certainly want that glow when the jade is outside in the sunshine. A very fine jade stone will glow even without light underneath it.
I'm curious about market changes over time in the West. Obviously, the Far East market for jade is strong and has been for a long time and will continue to be. Have you noticed changes here in the US? Has the popularity of jade changed at all?
It's interesting to know that the market is dictated wholly by Asia, mainly China. We in the US and the West overall don't have any impact on the market. I'll explain with a wonderful example.
In 2008, we had a big market crash. Business was tough, and people didn't want to buy. This had nothing to do with jade. People were just holding back on buying anything through 2009 and into 2010. In 2010, the Chinese market and economy boomed. The Chinese have always had and will continue to have a love of jade. It's just a question of whether they can afford it. With this boom came a massive growth in their middle class, and they could afford jade. This pushed demand for jade beyond what we had seen. Between 2010 and 2014, although things were still tough in our country, Mason-Kay did great because the Chinese demand for jade was very high — and they were coming here to buy it.
This demand reached its peak in 2014. You might be aware of the 27-million-dollar jade strand sold by Sotheby's in April of that year, which was the record high for any jade item sold at auction. In 2015, things started to slow down in China and level off. Although things got better in this country, jade leveled off as well. So, China really does drive the jade market. It doesn't have much to do with what happens in our country. When the Chinese do well, jade does well. When they don't do well, jade doesn't do well.
I didn't realize that China came to us for our jade inventory! Was that because they didn't have enough product locally to fill demand?
Partly that, but I also believe they thought they could get better buys here because we don't know jade well. I think they came here and bought at auctions and stores. They were buying what they could.
Specifically referring to your US clients, what have you noticed regarding jade demand over time?
The economy has been a little soft lately, but jade is doing great! This year, we had our best show in Tucson in the history of our company by far. We've been seeing high demand. I don't know if it's our outreach or the popularity of jade in general, but I would say that jade is hot! When people discover jade and learn about it, they tend to become buyers for life. They tend to buy one piece, then another, then maybe a third to go with the first two. Then, they go on to another color and buy two or three pieces of that. And so on.
You mentioned that 27-million-dollar jade strand. Unlike other gemstones, like diamonds, jade is priced by item rather than carat. From the perspective of an appraiser, that's an intimidating thought. Is there a baseline or another method that you use for valuation?
That's a very good question. I play a game with myself. Off the top of my head, I will see if I can price a jade piece based on my experience. Then, I'll compare it to our inventory to see if I need to adjust my initial estimate up or down. Often, I do need to change it. It's a challenge, but we want things to make sense.
We don't do appraisals on jade. We do value assessments. So, if someone sends us a ring, we will help the appraiser identify the jade as natural versus treated. If it's natural, then we help with a value. The appraiser can then complete the appraisal and add it to the value of the mounting and any other stones.
Back to your question, we compare things to our broad inventory and say, "well, it's worth more than this piece but less than that piece." If we didn't have as large an inventory as we do, it would be more difficult. Of course, we keep our inventory up to date and adjust according to our overseas sources. Usually, we have to raise values. We rarely need to lower them. So, we try to maintain our inventory as a point of comparison for evaluating new items. Of course, we do the same every time we buy new things. We have to price them accordingly, so customers don't ask, "why does this piece cost this amount but this other piece costs this much?" We want everything to make sense. That's a challenge. It takes some time to price everything we buy.
Red Flags for Jade Buyers
Do you know of any red flags or jade misinformation that should make shoppers either look closer at the item, reread the description, or pass on a purchase altogether?
Yes, and it all relates to treatment. There's a lot of treated jade out there. I see it all over the internet with very little disclosure. Sometimes, I find outright lies.
As a gemologist, you might know about the different types of jade treatment grades. There is Type A jade, which is natural. Type B is impregnated. Type C is dyed. Mason-Kay sells A jade. There's a lot of B jade on the market but not so much C jade, because almost all dyeing today is done during the impregnation process. That's called Type B+C jade, which is both impregnated and dyed.
When somebody doesn't want to lie outright but still wants to mislead you, they'll say that a jade piece is "genuine" or "real." Those terms mean it's jade, not some other stone like quartz, serpentine, or glass. What they aren't saying is that it's natural. So, what you need to see is Type A jade or natural jade. You also want to see the word "jadeite," so you know it isn't nephrite. "Genuine" and "real jade" are red flags. Don't believe it. Ask the vendor if it's natural jade and if it has any dye or fillers.
If you buy jade from anybody other than Mason-Kay or a store that buys from Mason-Kay, what you should get is a guarantee that it's natural and a statement that you can return the item for a full refund if it's found to be not natural if you submit it to Mason-Kay, the GIA, or the American Gem Lab (AGL) for testing. Not too many other labs have an infrared spectrometer.
Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.
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