“Where in Central America is the best place to buy jade?”
Try Guatemala, the home of Mayan jadeite. Last summer I stopped for a week in Antigua, the old colonial capital. It is located 45 kms west of Guatemala City, the modern capital.
In Antigua, a thriving lapidary industry produces beautiful carvings and jewellery from Guatemalan jadeite.
Jade is the term given to two similar gem materials, called jadeite and nephrite. Jadeite is harder, denser and scarcer than nephrite; it is found in a wider range of colors, from white through various greens to black, and takes a high polish.
In Central America, the ancient Mayan culture prized jadeite for ornamentation and it was painstakingly converted into works of art. Excavation of the Mayan pyramids at Palenque and Tikal reveal that it was the custom for their kings to be entombed with a mosaic death mask of jadeite.
Spanish conquest of the region in the 16th century resulted in the source of jadeite being lost. The jadeite quarries were abandoned and quickly covered by the encroaching jungle. It was not until the 1950’s that evidence of Mayan workings were found in the jungle of the Sierra de las Minas in eastern Guatemala.
These secret quarries in the remote Motagua Valley were studied by the American archeologist Mary Lou Ridinger. In 1974 she proceeded to establish a viable mining and processing business known today as Jades SA, of which she is president.
There are two companies in Antigua working jadeite from this area; they are Jades SA and La Casa del Jade SA; both produce exquisite jewellery and artifacts on site, and have extensive display rooms where you can browse for hours. Thus the lapidary part of the industry is about 200 kms from the mine site. It is an important tourist attraction which creates a confidence for value and authenticity in the product with the tourist buyer, which includes well-heeled North Americans and Europeans.
The town of Antigua is itself a gem. The old Spanish capital of Guatemala is beautifully preserved. It is a haven for students who come here to learn Spanish. There are over 70 language schools; this is the main “industry” of the town. Tourists come too, in luxury tour buses for the day, and longer.
On every street corner it seems there is an old church, or monastery, often in ruins since earthquakes have taken their toll over the centuries. You admire the colonial architecture. The amazing variety of Indian craft goods on sale in the streets and market places will soon exhaust your cash supply, and trendy restaurants will dent your credit card.
The climate of Antigua is temperate. It lies in the Western Highlands at an altitude of 1530 metres, with a backdrop of three dormant volcanoes, called Agua, Fuego and Acatenango.
Antigua is a town you could easily settle into and disappear from the rat race for a few weeks, or months, and not realize that time has flown by. There is so much to see, and do, and learn!
The jade factories and show rooms are located on Calle Oriente close to the central plaza. First you must negotiate safe passage past the armed guards at the entrance. This is normal in Guatemala with businesses that handle lots of money. Tourists are pretty obvious so you should have no trouble. Once inside the staff will be offering cups of coffee, free gifts and will provide answers to all questions.
In the block adjacent to the plaza is a 17th century building that houses La Casa del Jade SA, with its lapidary workshop and display rooms. Their jewellery is designed by Guatemalan artist Estela Lopez. Out the back I inspected piles of rough jadeite waiting to be cut up on a large diamond saw. A small workshop employs about a dozen craftsmen. They use five stages of carborundum wheel, from 100 to 600 grit size, to grind the jade to shape, followed by polishing with sapphire powder on a leather lap.
I was intrigued by the replicas of the Mayan death masks. The manager explained how they were made. A wooden model of a head is used upon which is drawn the mosaic pieces for jade to be fabricated – it is like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle! Features are emphasised by using black jade and other colors. Highly prized is “galactic gold jade” which is black with sparkling yellow pyrite crystals.
Further down Calle Oriente is the business of Jades SA owned by the Ridingers. It employs about 50 lapidaries and is the largest jade factory in Central America. The show rooms have a fantastic collection of replica masks, including one of King Pakal, found in the temple pyramid of Palenque, Mexico, dated 692 AD.
Adjacent to the show rooms is an extensive courtyard with fountain, flowering shrubs, outdoor restaurant, cafÃ© and craft shops selling designer clothes, rubbings of Maya temple carvings and Indian wares. This fascinating place is open 7 days a week from 9am to 6.30pm. A free pickup from your hotel is available for a tour of the factory and workshop.
Both these firms produce top quality jade jewellery in association with authentic precious stones such as diamond, ruby and emerald.
On the streets is a different world of gemstones – the lower end of the market but equally as interesting. For $3 you can buy interesting jadeite pendants of Mayan kings, of fish and other lucky charms. Green necklaces for $7 may have a centerpiece of jadeite with matching beads of green glass and rock crystal spacers. I guarantee you won’t leave Antigua without some memento of Guatemalan jadeite!
How to Get There
Guatemala City, population 2 million, altitude 1500 metres, is a tad chaotic and not a place to linger. Most backpackers and tourists get on the first bus to Antigua Guatemala, population 28,000, the beautifully preserved former colonial capital some 45 kms distant.
One of the oldest and most charming towns of Central America and a great place to rest up awhile – a favorite spot with backpackers and students wanting to learn Spanish.
Budget accommodation is plentiful. See Tourist Information Center, Lonely Planet Guide or check with any language school for home-stays (ca. US$40/week). For more upmarket accommodation, check hotels in Guatemala.
The Parque Central and nearby craft market on Calle Oriente have a good selection of colorful weavings and curios. The best craft markets are at nearby towns of Panajachel and Chichicastenango which no doubt you will visit.
There are many schools in Antigua varying in degree of formality, course structure and price. Often a visitor may desire only a week’s one-to-one instruction possibly with a home-stay to absorb local culture.
I tried Academia Guatebuena for a week which is excellent and a bargain. For US$110/week you get 4 hours one-to-one instruction in the morning for 5 days, Monday to Friday and accommodation with a local family for 7 days and 3 meals a day except Sunday. OK for breakfast and lunch but let mamá know when you are dining out.
Do not be worried by the constant flashes and bursts of “gunfire” at night-time. It is a Guatemalan custom to celebrate birthdays by letting off large-calibre fireworks.
A popular organized trip is the ascent of Volcán Pacaya (2552m) which smokes away when not actually in eruption. Trips for students leave from the plaza at 2pm and return at 10pm. Object is to see the sunset from the summit and the crater-glow at night. Cost US$25, includes 1½ hour bus ride and 2 hour hike.
When I went we encountered gale-force winds causing a blinding sandstorm on the ash-cone preventing anyone getting to the top. A fantastic adventure on a fine day.
Please check weather forecast before committing yourself to a climbing trip.
Mountain safety procedures leave a lot to be desired. Make sure you are well-equipped for hiking and have a good flashlight. Keep together and follow the instructions of your guide.
In conclusion – Guatemala is a wonderful country for the foreign tourist but forever be vigilant for los ladrónes – ¡Cuidado!
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.