||July/August 2005 issue||
Romancing the stone
The great Canadian jade rush began in 1955. Now, four mines
in British Columbia produce three-quarters of the world's supply
Excerpt of story by Chris Tenove with photography by
George Vanderwolf is a mountain goat, his wife says. He
certainly looks it as he climbs ridges and lopes across scree
slopes, pointing out tufts of mountain bluebells and delicate
pink phlox as he passes. Vanderwolf has a toothpick-thin build, a ball cap that stays on until his head hits the pillow and
muscular, walnut-brown forearms that have hauled sluice
pails, broken horses, swung hammers and cracked rocks.
When a pale green boulder catches his eye - something
that might look good outside his wife's gift shop -
he hikes it 200 metres down the slope to his
truck. After he turns his back, I try to lift
the boulder and realize I will have a hernia
before I make it 10 steps. I'm 31.
Vanderwolf is 70.
If Vanderwolf is a mountain goat, then these
most certainly are his mountains. We've climbed up
to the headwaters of Hell Creek in the Shulaps
Range, northwest of the British Columbia hamlet of
Lillooet. (Lillooet itself is a four-hour drive northeast
of Vancouver.) For the past 50 years, Vanderwolf has
tramped the pine forests, alpine meadows and ragged
peaks of the Shulaps, working as a hunting guide, a logger,
a prospector and a miner. "I'm not meaning to
brag," he tells me, "but I know every rock and tree up here
by its first name."
On this bright July afternoon, we are up around 2,200 metres
— high enough to watch puffs of cumulonimbus float by
a little above eye level — when Vanderwolf spots an old
wooden post lying on a greenish black bed of broken serpentine.
It's just over a metre long, made of two two-by-fours
nailed together, the nailheads leaking rust into the weathered
wood. "This here's the one," Vanderwolf says when he picks
it up. "This is where I staked my first jade mine."
From 1957 until the end of the 1960s, more rough jade was
produced in the Lillooet area than in the rest of the world combined.
The industry shifted north when massive new deposits
were found, but British Columbia has remained the
global capital for nephrite jade.
Treasured by Chinese carvers for 5,000 years, the stone
was created between 50 and 185 million years ago, when
two massive tectonic plates smashed together and buckled upward
to create the Cordilleran mountain region that stretches
from the Yukon to Mexico. In rare cases, this collision drove
serpentine, rich in iron and magnesium, into igneous rock like
granite. At the contact zone, the pressure and heat transformed
the soft serpentine into hard nephrite jade. These surface deposits are found as boulders, some
weighing many tonnes, and as outcrops.
For the past three decades, British Columbia has
produced about 200 tonnes of nephrite jade a
year, more than three-quarters of the world's total
production, worth an estimated $3.5 million. (Russia
and, to a lesser extent, Australia, New Zealand, China
and California are also jade producers.) In 2004, jade
boulders in B.C. sold for about $15 a kilogram, varying
according to the quality of the stone. A small
fraction goes to local artisans, but most is
shipped to the workbenches of hundreds of
experienced carvers in Hong Kong, Taiwan
or mainland China. B.C. jade is
prized for its toughness and its almost
mirror finish when polished.
For the rest of this story, visit your local newsstand or go to our store to buy this issue.
• In Depth: Green with Jade
Can Geo POLL
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