Before the arrival of the Spaniards, jade was considered the favorite jewel of the inhabitants of Costa Rica. Worn only by ings, important families and spiritual leaders. These beautiful green and white semi-precious stones were a symbol of prosperity and social status within indigenous cultures.
This gem's lustrous qualities granted it adoration well beyond our own borders, its fame spreading as far as what is now known as Mexico. Indeed, jade artifacts were part of the gifts that the great Aztec emperor Montezuma gave to the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés centuries ago.
But why were these stones so blissfully delightful to indigenous populations? Given jade's color properties, these cultures believed that jade contained the forces of nature and of life within it. They associated its greenish luster with vegetation, thus establishing a relation between jade and water, the sun and sustenance.
The year 500 B.C. marked the beginning of a cult known as the "gem of the gods." Within the cult, working with jade took on a life of its own as ingenious artisans began transforming the stones into different sculptural, wearable artifacts such as pendants, earrings and even decorative pieces for the nose. These curious pieces depict small human figures meant to honor ancient shamans or images of animals that represented the protective spirit of a person or group.
Jade jewels were accorded magical qualities, which translated into symbols of power used only by the most important people within these hierarchical societies. A customary practice during funeral proceedings called for these beautiful objects to be buried with the deceased. It was believed that in the next life, these objects would be of use to the departed spirit. Thought to have healing traits, the gems were also used in curative ceremonies for almost a thousand years.
Currently, the largest collection in ail of the Americas of pre-Columbian jade jewels and artifacts can be seen in the permanent display at the Jade Museum of Costa Rica, located in San Jose.
Upon entering the museum, an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder radiates from these jewels. Gazing upon these original works of art, once used by ancestral societies to worship and honor their gods, is a mystifying experience, offering the visitor an insight into a life before, a tradition forgotten, and almost conjuring a supernatural link with the forces from beyond.