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July/August 2005 issue


Romancing the stone

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 thestone stone
Excerpt of story by Chris Tenove with photography by Brooke McDonald

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.

Related stories:
In Depth: Green with Jade


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