In the past Burma has held the crown for the world's best jadeite, today Guatemala is quickly becoming a leading source for Grade A jadeite. Just as its mountainous terrain can support agriculture of just about any type, Guatemala's hotbed of tectonic activity has resulted in the formation of many varieties of jadeite. Nephrite does not exist in Guatemala, so in its place, the tourist market's jade is mainly serpentine, glass, soapstone, or another green stone that resembles jade. Importation cost limits available material to domestic stones, so when real jade is found it is always Jadeite. Generally speaking, there are a few ways to get jadeite in Guatemala: the tourist markets, the jade factories in Antigua, and out in the field in the areas of Coban or the Motagua river valley. The factories in Antigua are the most reliable with the highest quality product, and highest prices. In the tourist markets, when you find the real thing, it often lacks in luster and/or quality of the cut - appropriately set in average quality jewelry pieces or carvings. Lapidary material availability is limited to the factories or finding it on public land in the localities mentioned. Some factories simply won't sell slabs or roughs, and when they do, it is expensive. Guatemala's national treasure is not well known currently. While Jadeite is highly prized in Asia, especially China, in western regions such as the USA, real jade is frequently not recognized for its value. Outside of the antiquities market, whether rare nephrite or jadeite, westerners often overlook the stones worth and authenticity, and are more in favor of the designer label or precious metals the "green stone" is set in.
The value of jade to the ancient Maya was tremendous, even more valuable than gold. The presence of jadeite artifacts throughout the America's suggests extensive trade routes during ancient times. Jadeite was the hardest available substance for use in weapons and tools until steel was invented (which is actually softer than jadeite), therefore it was a mineral of high industrial value until recent times. The great Mayan emperors where entombed with their lot of jade, among other objects. Tombs have been found with up to 7,000 individual jade objects. It was also typical to place a ball of jade within the mouth, indicating the soul contained the degree of spirituality necessary for eternal life. Jade was also used as a tool for communicating with ancestors. Pre-dating the Maya, where the Olmecs, who knew of mining locations where the finest Olmec jade was collected, used to create sculptures, and also buried with the dead. Jade is still honored today among natural healers who utilize ancient Mayan techniques for curing health issues such as back problems, sciatica, migraines, stress and for massage therapy.
Guatemalan jade occurs in a wide variety of colors. Among the most prized being lavender, Olmec Blue, white "Ice" and Imperial green. A very special variety is rainbow jade, in which a variety of colors show up in the same stone. True rainbow jade is made up of small to medium spots of nearly every color. The varying hardness of various colors make the jade more easy to fracture, and is reserved for the experienced lapidary artisan to work with. Rainbow jadeite, "Arcoiris", can only be found in Guatemala. Black jade is also popular with jade connoisseurs, and is priced equal to the common green varieties. Nearly every shade of green jadeite is found in Guatemala, from light mint green to well saturated medium to dark green. Varieties include a "Manzano" (apple tree green), red-orange, "Olmec Blue", "Celeste" (Sky Blue), champagne, purple (lavender, lilac, "lila"), "Luna" (moon white), "Blanco Crystal" (white crystal aka "Ice","Hielo" ), "Esmeralda" (emerald) green and true "Imperial" green jade - perhaps Guatemala's finest. It should be noted that most Guatemalan jadeite may carry a degree of translucency, but only very rarely is transparent. Lilac, or lavender jadeite is quite popular and is priced higher as the common green or black varieties, in the jade factory shops. Lilac jade's color is due to the presence of manganese. Its discovery was made in 2005 five after a hurricane inundated the Motigua area with floods and landslides, revealing the purplish stone when the storm receded. "Olmec Blue", a darkish, translucent blue-green has grown in demand thanks to its rarity, alluring color & ancient history. The Olmec mines are located on the opposite side of the Motagua river valley as the Mayan mines, and is therefore distinct in characteristics compared to "Mayan Jade".
The typical jade grading scale applies equally to Guatemalan jade. Grading Guatemalan finished jadeite would include pureness of color, translucency (depending on color), luster, & craftsmanship of cabochons or carvings. Antigua's factories do not price based on weight, but rather size & color. Unlike nephrite, which does not fracture easily, jadeite fracturing is a consideration to take into account. Fractured jadeite is often used for carvings as the fractures will be less obtrusive.
Unlike the markets where they will tell you anything to make a sale, I consider the factory dealers and workers some of the most decent and honest people in the business. However, since they must pay an entire staff to run the operation their products are very expensive. The advantage of the markets is you can negotiate, but know your stuff. Basic rules to follow are: jadeite feels really heavy compared to its size, and it can't be scratched by stainless steel blade. Also, the presence of an armed guard is not only indicative of the value of the products, but insures your safety in a notoriously dangerous country.