Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Carnelian - The Red Jade that is Not Really Jade

Just like classical music, "jade" also has broad and narrow definition. If you are a newbie collector/buyer looking through the listing on eBay, it's better to follow the strict definition, assuming that jade only includes two minerals,  jadeite and nephrite (if a seller hasn't specifically indicate what the jade piece is, it's probably made of some less valuable material). If you just want to learn about jade in the artistic/cultural aspect, it's safe to look at the big picture (which by the way, is pretty sizable).

The word jade in Chinese can simply imply any stone that is "beautiful" (in fact, the Chinese word jade 玉 translates into "beauty" itself). If you are looking something more specific, possibly has some cultural and historical significance, minerals like serpentine, saussurite, turquoise, chalcedony and many other also count. Today, I will be talking about carnelian, an variety of chalcedony that is historically called "Red Jade".
The chemical composition of Carnelian is silicon dioxide, the same as quartz and glass but the different crystal structure gives it a texture that's not as flat. The mineral is quite abundant and can be called, at most, a semi-precious stone. While you will never see carnelian set in an expensive gold pendant, surrounded by tiny diamonds, they were often carved into small pieces then sew onto man's hats (of course they were also worn by women and children). The hat adornment, which is called Maohua in Chinese, was quite popular during Ming/ Qing dynasty (mid 1600s to early 1900s) and can be made of silver, quartz, jade, enameled brass and opaque amber. Carnelian was a popular choice due to its vibrant color and relatively low cost.
Anyway, the vibrant color of Carnelian is not gifted by mother nature but achieved with a little human help. In fact, most of the carnelian we see in the market has been heat treated / has the red color enhanced permanently (The process involves an oxidation reaction with the red iron oxide as product, I am not going to bore you with the details). 

Treated/burnt/heated carnelian might not be that pretty of a name so Chinese call them Eastern Red, since the heating technique used back then originated from Japan (not to be confused with Southern Red carnelian, which is a rare and all-natural variety with a foggy texture to being nearly opaque).
This is the biggest of all carved carnelian pieces I own, while it might seems a little bit too bulky to be a sew-on hat adornment, measuring 1 1/2 inches wide, there are actually much bigger Maohua out there (the forehead is the limit, literally). Chinese are never known for their subtlety anyway.


  1. I just love Carnelian - better than green Jade! Thanks for the post!

    1. If you love carnelian, I suppose you would love red jadeite as well (but you need to buy from a really reputable seller, possibly someone you know, since it's so often heat treated from cheaper variations) , they have the same vibrant color but the texture is more "alive" (it has something to do with the crystal structure of different gems but I can't explain them well), and they feel much more substantial and jewel-like. I tend to prefer jade over carnelian because their physical property as well, carnelian generally chip more easily.

  2. so pretty! I really love Jade - I'm always wearing the Jade necklace that my mum gave me years ago!


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