A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the historic town is also renowned for its unique craft jewellery industry. After many centuries of oblivion, the Mayas’ precious stone has once again become the pride and joy of Guatemala.
Most visitors do not however come to Antigua Guatemala for the green stone, far from it in fact. Everything in the town, from its colonial heritage, churches and painted houses to the unevenly paved roads and arcaded edifices, home to a plethora of little restaurants and cafes, acts as a magnet for tourists from near and far. This renown is well deserved, particularly for its magnificent, if a mite threatening, panorama, framed by the three perfect cones of the Fuego, Agua and Acatenango volcanoes
But another history lies beneath the surface, that of jade. Discovering that hidden world is as easy as walking through the door of one of the two local workshops, such as that of the Casa del Jade. The atmosphere shifts immediately as you stand in the Casa Antigua El Jaulón, a former 16C colonial palace whose lavish central patio was remarkably restored in the 1990s. Seemingly a hundred miles away from the hubbub of the nearby street, artisans painstakingly cut and polish the stones, while others mount them into jewellery and shop girls graciously answer customers… There are showrooms and even a museum, home to ancient archaeological finds. Stylish premises for equally elegant work.
©R. Francis/robertharding/age fotostock
In Guatemala, jade is as revered as rubies are in Burma or larimar is in the Dominican Republic and it is a source of national pride. The stone was long mined and exploited by the Mayas who believed it brought health, strength and respect. Jade jewellery and stones have been found in many burial sites of nobles and princes, but the stone sunk into oblivion from the 16C onwards with the arrival of the conquistadors and their insatiable lust for gold. It wasn’t until the 1950’s, when William Foshag, an American geologist and mineralogist, found traces of it in the east, by the Sierra de las Minas, that the stone rose to fame once more. In 1974, another American by the name of Gerald Leech was one of a small group of pioneers who sought to revive the mining and production of the once-sacred stone. He now runs the Casa del Jade.
The company owns a concession in the Sierra de las Minas and is allowed to work the mine in exchange for royalties paid to the Guatemalan government. Every month the workshop manufactures some 3,000 pieces of jade jewellery, including bracelets, earrings, necklaces and other decorative objects.
“Two types of jade exist in the world, nephrite and jadeite; the latter is rarer and purer. Guatemala’s jade is jadeite, found nowhere else on earth, not in Burma, Russia or Japan.”
explains Alejandra Mena, Casa del Jade Sales Manager.
The company employs cutters and jewellers on its Antigua site but also in another workshop in the neighbouring village of Jacotenango. In its raw form, the dull green stone is nothing much to look at but after it has been cut and polished, it is transformed into a jewel of rare beauty and it provides work for some 80 families in this small town. White, black or even orange jade also exist, depending on the minerals that have seeped into the rock over the centuries.
It was during the harsh 1980’s, at the height of Guatemala’s civil war, that the stone regained a little of its former lustre, encouraged by the growing reputation and sacred character of the Mayas’ stone. Today, a company such as Casa del Jade sells 85% of its production to Antigua Guatemala and aims for excellency. As an extra measure of caution, the company sends samples to the GIA (Gemmological Institute of America) in the United States so that each batch can be analysed with the highest degree of accuracy to ascertain the precise geological composition.
“In the future, we intend to develop the design side of the business to make jade a genuine fashion object. Our clients come from all over the world and we are going to open new stores outside Central America. The strength of our local jade lies in not only its purity but also its symbolic significance,”
adds Alejandra Mena.
Getting there : You can fly direct (providing you are flexible about dates) to Panama from most European cities (avg. 11hr-flight), from where you will need to take Copa Airlines flight to Ciudad Guatemala (2hr). Starting at €540/£480 return airfrance.com.
Finding out more : visitguatemala.com - official tourist site of Guatemala.