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The Perils of Hong Kong Jade; New York Times Recommend Us

A VISITING Frenchwoman once asked me for advice on buying quality jade, one of Hong Kong’s best-known commodities. So my mother took her to Chinese Arts & Crafts (, which is where we would go ourselves. Our visitor was so horrified by the prices that she fled empty-handed.

In retrospect, she was probably just after something pretty, green and Chinese and would have been better off at the Jade Market, which is part of a hodgepodge of themed shopping areas in the Kowloon area.

At the Jade Market, a homely spot housed in a squat concrete building, 30 vendors hawk necklaces, amulets and carvings, as well as pearls and crystal.

A dealer known as Ms. Tsui said she started selling jade 30 years ago. Back then, she noted, Hong Kong’s markets sold high-quality jade to local residents. Now, that business has mainly gone to the big-name jewelers.

Today, she sells mostly items like tiny jade amulets that are used to decorate cellphones and are sold for 15 Hong Kong dollars, about $2 at 7.91 Hong Kong dollars to the U.S. dollar. She said these were not fakes made from soapstone or glass; but she wasn’t vouching for their quality either. “Come on,” she said. “At these prices, you can’t expect good stones.” She held up two carvings, one a dull off-white and another a forest green. The latter was obviously the product of artificial coloring injected into an inferior jade. “We’re very honest about that,” she said. “We mostly sell cheap because that’s what tourists want.”

Ms. Tsui offered some blunt advice for browsing the market. “If you know what you’re doing,” she said, “there are hidden treasures to be found. If you don’t, just get some cheap souvenirs.”

Jade of a totally different class is sold at the 30-odd branches of Chow Tai Fook (, Hong Kong’s best-known jeweler.

At Chow Tai Fook, jade is often fashioned into intricate designs with white gold and diamonds. As for pure jade pieces, even the cheaper ones, like a smiling Buddha amulet, go for around 29,000 Hong Kong dollars.

Among the most prized pieces are traditional bangles, which are carved from a single block without any clasps, joints or fused parts. One, even in tone and the color of grass, was 75,000 dollars. Another item was priced at 273,000 dollars. To me, its swirls of emerald and creamy white seemed imperfect, but the saleswoman said it had great clarity and luminescence. Held under a spotlight, it glowed.

Alex Chan, who runs a shop called President Jewelry and Gems and has been teaching about jade for the Hong Kong Tourism Board since 2002, explained the three classes of stones.

• Grade A, made from pure jadeite, is simply carved, polished and waxed. It’s all natural and not altered internally.

• Grade B is bleached with chemicals, a process that can leave small fractures in the structure — sometimes not visible to the naked eye — rendering the piece more brittle.

• Grade C stones are not good quality to begin with, which is why artificial dyes are injected into them. The color may not last.

In Hong Kong families, jade is often passed on as an heirloom, and a stone that is pure and strong may be prized over a prettier piece that is fragile or whose beauty may fade.

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