Journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark didn’t plan to write a book ‘ about imperial green jade, but the gem found them. Soon they were obsessed with its beauty and history, a history that had never before been written. In The Stone of Heaven (Little, Brown), Levy and Scott-Clark trace the stone through centuries and around the world, finally arriving at still-operational jadeite mines in Burma’s “Last Valley of Capelan, ” where no journalists had gone before. In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, Levy and Scott-Clark explain how their obsession began.
The British had called it “noble serpentine,” comparing it to green magnesium crystals. The French likened it to the quartz-like “chalcedony.” The Spanish claimed it as their piedras hijades, a “stone of the flank” that cured all known kidney ailments. Even the Chinese seemed confused: So what was this lustrous, Burmese stone? Nothing is harder to find than a story that is reluctant to be told, and for months our phone calls were met with polite but firm rejections delivered in Cantonese, Mandarin, French and an Upper Eastside drawl, until we found ourselves in a greasy Kowloon office block.
“You’re going about it the wrong way. It all starts with touch,” the dealer advised us before opening a handkerchief to reveal a handful of stones that looked like boiled sweets: “You can dig up as much history as you like; but have you even seen or held the stone? You have to understand. You have to know,” he said conspiratorially, pressing pieces into our palms.
It was the first time we had ever seen jadeite up close and, like you, we had only °vet thought of it as some foreign jewel, strewn across stalls in Chinatown street- – markets, forgotten souvenirs brought back from Hong Kong and Beijing. But these stones gleamed with a syrupy hue, oozing colour as they warmed in our hands, drawing us in as we listened to how the dealer had once sold the finest pieces to First Ladies, drug tsars, warlords and movie stars In only minutes we were hooked. Maybe it was the way the stones pulsed in the sunlight that pierced a broken blind. Maybe it was the way they acquired vivid new tones as they rolled around in our hands, encompassing a dozen shades on an artist’s chart, one moment sap green, another, hooker’s light. Maybe our judgement was skewed by the knowledge that we were holding stones worth millions of pounds.
Only then, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, London and New York, armed with the early stages of an addiction, did we open the doors to an intimate circle of collectors and dealers who led us through the pages of history that they had a hand in making. Our research switched to a tale of their times, Martini laughter and masked balls, greed, betrayal and conceit. Republicans and Communists who had turned to a stone to raise political parties and finance coups. Scholars and jewellers who had accompanied it on voyages from the Old World to the New. Electronics millionaires who had bought into its past, collecting pieces that had come back from the dead. Bright young heiresses who thought they shone like the stone they adored but whose friends were fickle and whose lovers were common thieves.
Throughout our journey there was no one who wanted to discuss with us the rumours that were creeping out of the Burmese jungle. No one would talk about the callous regime that was said to have committed a calculating act of inhurnanity that was almost beyond belief. Sitting down, once more, beside the Ping River, a year after our last visit to Chiang Mail our friend told us how he had heard that the secret mine was now a valley of death, a place that incarcerated the debris of addiction and infection, sometimes loaded down and sunk in flooded shafts, sometimes gagged and executed in remote jungle clearings. It was a story that eclipsed the blood diamonds of Africa but no one knew more because no one could get through the battalions of soldiers who ringed the mines. “It’s impossible. Don’t even try” our friend warned us. But who likes to be told a story about a place that they are prevented from visiting?