Jade is a precious stone found only in an area of northern Burma where millions of years ago an upwelling of magma pierced the earth’s crust. The beauty and mystique of this coveted material, much more valuable than diamonds, has led to a history in which splendour and ornamentation jostle with greed, exploitation and death. In this intriguing book the reader is taken on an extended trip through jade’s history from the 18th-century Chinese Emperor Qianlong, who wrote obsessive love poems to the substance, through to the gunboat diplomacy and opportunistic trade wars of the British. This is all diverting enough although, it has to be said, rather drably written. However, the book leaps to life in the final hundred pages when the authors clandestinely enter Burma and penetrate the secrecy and deceit surrounding the present-day mining of jade. Their description of the hellish conditions in the mines of Hpakant is truly harrowing, with a million men, women and children toiling in conditions of abject slavery. The Burmese military junta pays them in supplies of heroin and almost all the workers are hiv-positive, contracted from dirty needles. Despite the mine being declared a disaster area by the UN, jade continues to be traded on the international markets and collected by such figures as Nicole Kidman.
I would have preferred a rather briefer history lesson and much more of the excellent investigative journalism of the final section. Nevertheless, this is a fine and necessary examination of a beautiful substance subject to a squalid, inhuman trade.