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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: March 24, 2008 NO.13 MAR.27, 2008
Medal Marriage Made in Heaven
China will use jade in the medals for the Beijing Olympics in order to symbolize the nation's culture

On March 1, artisans at the Shanghai Mint were about to add the finishing touch to 3,030 jade rings. These jade rings will be mounted on the reverse side of the medals to be presented at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games. A ring will encircle the Beijing Games emblem engraved on metal in the center of each medal. The designers of the medals were inspired by China's ancient jade piece inscribed with dragon patterns. On the obverse side of the medals is the standard design authorized by the International Olympic Committee.

Why jade?

"After weighing many design ideas carefully, we settled for jade because it is very special," said Hang Hai, associate professor specializing in graphic design in China Central Academy of Fine Arts, who is a key member of the Olympics medal design team of the university. The design of Hang's team was adopted by Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG). Hang said that jade was chosen because it has been treasured in China for thousands of years, and it symbolizes the Chinese culture.

The International Olympic Committee has two specific requirements for the design of the medals to be used in the Beijing Games: First, it should be unique; second, it should have Chinese characteristics. The design of Hang's team has certainly met both requirements.

Jade has been used in China since the New Stone Age, about 10,000 years ago. Considered to be sacred and mysterious, jade was often used in religious services and important ceremonies. It has been widely loved in China for its elegant color and beautiful texture, the pleasant sound it sends out when knocked on wood and the refreshing feeling it gives when touched. Moreover, it also stands for virtue and nobility in the Chinese culture. Jiang Xiaoyu, Vice President of BOCOG remarked that jade blended Chinese culture into the Olympic spirit and would make the medals of the Beijing Olympic Games very special. Jiang believed that jade would be the right thing to honor the ethics and achievements of Olympics winners.

BOCOG's global search for the design of the Beijing Olympic medals started on January 11, 2006. In the three months thereafter, it received 265 designs from home and abroad. Then, experts in art design, engraving and minting were invited to conduct several rounds of reviews of 179 short-listed designs. Relevant organizations were also asked to revise the draft designs. The final design was approved by BOCOG on January 11, 2007 and by the IOC on February 8 of the same year.

The design team in China Central Academy of Fine Arts was picked as the winner. The team had 15 members, most of whom were students. In the beginning, they had not thought of using jade as the raw material. They tried to replicate jade sculpture with metals. "No matter how hard we tried, we could not make metals look like jade," Liu Yang, a team member recalled. The right decision came on Liu's graduation day, July 3, 2006, when the team decided to use jade.

In the beginning, the team placed jade at the center of the medals and planned to engrave the Beijing Games emblem on it. Yet, due to the unique color and texture of jade, the emblem looked fuzzy. Then the team became inspired by ancient jade pieces decorated with dragon patterns, and decided to use a jade ring around a metal heart inscribed with the emblem. The design team also picked the shades of the jade carefully so that they would match the colors of the medals, with white jade for the gold, light green for the silver, and dark green for the bronze.

Why Kunlun jade?

Last year, the government of Qinghai Province sent a letter to BOCOG, offering to donate Kunlun jade to the 2008 Olympic Games. After careful appraisal, experts decided to accept Kunlun jade as the raw material for the rings on the medals on January 2, 2008.

Kunlun jade was discovered in the 1990s. In the past two decades, Kunlun jade has become a well-known type of nephrite in China for its good quality and large quantity. Yet it has often been "eclipsed" by Hotan jade, which is known as one of the five top quality jades of China.

"The jade to be used on the Olympics medals must be flawless. The color and luster must be even and consistent," said Liu Shengchun, President of Qinghai Province Treasure and Jade Association. Liu used an example to illustrate his point. If a volleyball team is the runner-up, each team member will be awarded a silver medal. It would be awful if the jade rings inscribed on the silver medals differ in color.

According to experts, Kunlun jade is very similar to Hotan jade in composition, shape and texture, and the former has all the colors needed for the Olympics medals.

Kunlun jade is produced from Sanchahe Jade Mine in Kunlun Mountains, one of the largest mountain ranges in China. The mountain range has an average altitude of 4,500 meters above the sea level, and peaks crowned with snow. According to ancient Chinese fairytales, the mountain is home to immortal beings.

The news that Kunlun jade was chosen as the material for the Olympic medals has boosted its market price. The jade market in Golmud of Qinghai has become larger and more crowded.

Why Yangzhou City?

The design for the medals was nailed down, the raw materials picked, and the only decision left was where to make the medal. This January, 4 tons of carefully chosen top quality Kunlun jade were shipped from Qinghai in northwest China to Yangzhou City, Jiangsu Province in east China, where they will be carved into the Olympic rings.

Yangzhou is famous for its exquisite jade sculpture craftsmanship. "Although the quality of jade is very important, it takes a skillful artist to turn it into an outstanding piece of art," explained Wang Suling, General Manager of Yangzhou Kunlun Jade Ware Co. Ltd. It was not an easy task to "glue" jade and metal together, pointed out Tong Weina, President of Shanghai Mint. The greatest difficulties lie in the differences in their texture. Metals are pliable, while jade is hard but crispy. Masters of arts and crafts and engravers got together to brainstorm for a solution.

The jade is first cut into slices 7 cm in length and width, and 3.5 to 4 mm in thickness. The slices undergo a series of pre-designed procedures. "The key is to ensure the metal at the center does not slip out of the jade ring," said Wang Yipeng, professor at the School of Design, China Central Academy of Fine Arts, disclosed. A dent is carved on the side of the rings so that the metal carved with the emblem can be laid into the ring. The error margin cannot exceed 0.05 mm, which is one third of the diameter of a hair. Between the inner wall of the jade ring and the outer wall of the metal piece at the center, there is a vacuum. To reduce collision between jade and metal, damping materials are put along the inner wall of the rings. After putting jade and metal together the medals are tested. Scores of trials demonstrate that even if dropped from a height of 20 meters, the medals remain intact. These special medals will be ready to be delivered to BOCOG by June 2008.

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