Working Jade With A Master

This jade stone is big and heavy. He hasn't worked on it at all, either.

Jade is an internationally recognized word for a type of stone found worldwide – a stone you can probably recognize in passing.

The type found in Guatemala is classified as jadeite (the only other type of jade is nephrite), and jade is pronounced “ha-day.” The color tone of the un-worked jade stone can vary greatly, but a bit of water always makes it easier to spot, and once you know what to look for you begin to spot it all over – at least in Guatemala.

Finding your jade is an important first step when it comes to producing jade jewelry, but for an unseasoned jade worker like myself it is best to leave that hunt to the experts, which brings me to to my very important first step:

Francisco Zumiga. This man is a fantastic teacher

#1 – Find An Expert

In the small town of San Juan del Obispo, somewhere up on the slopes of the volcano Agua in Guatemala, I had the good fortune to meet and work with Francisco Zumiga.

He is local (native to Antigua) and has worked with Jade for years – he says the jade stones themselves speak to his heart. As a local it is also much easier for him to get the permit needed from the government to go scouring the mountainous countryside and return with his jade fare.

Water works like magic to bring out the true colors of jade

Francisco is also one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Basically he is the Gandalf of Guatemala.

He was nice enough to meet us at the central plaza of San Juan del Obispo and guide us to his home. Inside the outer fence you immediately start up a small path through the jungle-like front yard and stumble into the outer parts of his “workshop.”

Odilia Zumiga

Gift the dog

We were introduced first to his dog Gift, who was so excited that he ran happily back and forth through the outer yard. Then his very friendly wife Odilia stepped out to greet us as well.

Left to right: Sandy, Francisco, Robin

For this visit, “we” was Sandy (la profesora de los estudiantes de Oregon State), our translator Regina (de As Green As It Gets), and myself.

After introductions all around we had a short tour of the house and shop, a quick explanation of the machines (most of them made by Francisco and Franklin (de As Green As It Gets)),

He gave us a quick run-through of the process before getting us started on our own stones

and a general summary of how the whole jade process works for him – it’s properties, how he finds it, how it decides on it’s own what shape it shall take, and more.

Just a thin slab of jade

#2 – Picking a Stone

Water makes jade look better

There are many different looks to jade stones, even in Guatemala. Here they range from white (youngest) to many shades of green, to green that is so dark it is almost black (oldest).

Lots to choose from

Sometimes there are spots (for white jade spots the spots are purple, green jade have white or black spots) of varying intensity depending on the other elements present in the stone.

Sandy and I both decided to go with stones with pronounced jagged edges that, left intact, would highlight the rough rock-origin of the finished product. Francisco told us then that in a shop in the city this would never be allowed, nor has he ever thought to do it before. He added that a bonus to having people over to work jade with him is that they can always teach him something, too.

#3 – Choose a Design

For the skin he had to go freehand with the drill to get the detail right.

There are two basic ways to decide on for fashioning your stone: mark a pattern of some sort on the jade or go freehand.

Francisco explained that he never picks up a piece with a style in mind, but rather it is the stone that commands what it shall be. Lucky for him, then, that not many should be desirous of the great effort required to make a jade frog.

Mark it up

Sandy decided to go for freehand and I went with a mostly oval (except for the rough edge) shape. Both of us intended to make pendants, a factor that decides later on where and how you drill a hole through the stone. A woman’s pendant requires a bit more style (that’s right MOM, this jade is for you!).

So with a child’s plastic stencil piece and a sharp, metal skewer-like tool, Francisco and I scratched out an oval on the surface and then, with a pencil, marked the lines I would saw off; a note, in the beginning you can scratch and mark up the jade stone all you want – everything will be polished away.

#4 – Cutting and Grinding

A Makers' Mark bandana serves as fine head protection, right?

Some kind of grips for the stone would have probably made this short step more comfortable

Stand firm, keep fingers pressing firmly down, and let the fast-spinning blade pull the stone to it. That’s the way to let the industrial diamond-tipped blade cut off the bigger (a loose term), unwanted sections of the stone.

Mostly, remember to keep the jade pressed flat. Oh, and ignore the “always wear goggles” safety warning; I was way more worried for my fingers anyway.

As Sandy had no firm design to follow, she skipped this part. Once I had finished we both stood at the free-standing sanding/buffing machine with the roughest paper on (like coarse sandpaper) to literally grind away what remained of the outer, undesired parts of the stone.

#5 – The Hole

Got a cavity? This drill works for that too.

As Sandy kept to grinding, I went into the shed part of the workshop (the only part of the place that was specifically designated a workshop – there were tools, stones and other pieces everywhere. No staff or wizard’s cap, though). Here Francisco demonstrated for me how to use his slick hole-drilling setup.Well, first we made a side trip to the dining room  (better light) to mark on the stone where to drill the hole, then he showed me.

The drill itself is actually used dental equipment outfitted with an industrial diamond-tipped drill bit. The drill is mounted on a microscope-shaped device with a lever to raise and lower the drill as needed. The stone is held freehand, but there is no sense of danger this time and, once the hole is started, it feels like it would be really hard to screw it up.

So, seated at Francisco’s desk, my foot working the sewing machine pedal that controls the speed of the drill, bit by bit I drilled a hole through my stone. Frequent dips into a bowl of water, or bouts of splashing water on the stone, were required to keep the drill cooled off – it also made it easier to see the white cloudiness forming in the water as the jade was drilled away.

Once through, I switched the drill bit out to a wider-tipped bit to open the hole up a bit more for mounting on a clasp. Easy!

#6 – Polish, Polish, Polish

There are six grades of sandpaper material (it could have really been sandpaper, I guess that’s something to double check if I ever strike out on my own) used to polish and buff the jade. The first grade, Francisco told us, is by far the most important as it alters the stone and every setting after that follows suit.

He has several machines to do this work on, one a converted saw, the rest hand-made. The one you see Sandy working on here has a simple, ingenious hanging bottle and tube drip system tool cool the buffer off with water. Occasionally the stone would still get a bit hot and have to be dipped in water.

Me and my bowl of water

When working with any of the other machines we had to frequently dip the stones anyway, and oftentimes drip water on the grinder/buffer itself. A note: the buffers spin towards you, so you’re going to get a bit sprayed as well.

There is a very important tip for this step, too, that concerns the way the buffer/grinder spins. Holding the stone to the oncoming top half does polish the stone up, but for a much smoother feel on the surface and edges you need to hold the stone to the bottom half of the roll, where it begins to rotate away from you.

#7 – Take a Break

This is unnecessary if you are in a rush (but why rush yourself) or a groove, but Sandy and I were only too happy to take a breather at the dining room table, sip on some hot chocolate (el chocolate hecha in San Juan del Obispo tambien) and galletas (a word that is, in Guatemala, applied to biscuits, cookies and crackers – in this case it was cookies).

I didn't know Mayan artists had such skill

Unfortunately, Francisco suffers from diabetes and partook instead of black coffee and plain bread, but did share great stories of the jade business and his life. He even had pictures to show us of his visits to the mountains for jade (and other treasures) and of other peoples’s visits to his workshop.

The second of many Mayan relics Francisco had brought back from the mountains

Francisco is always very happy to host people, and even has people that come back a year or more later only too happy to work more jade with him. As such, he is trying to improve his English speaking skills and this is a great time to practice, though sometimes he has to fall back to Spanish for things he cannot explain. This brought us to discover something we had in common: there are many things he cannot say in English that he can understand when someone else speaks it in English – as long as it is spoken slowly. This is the same case for me with many words in Spanish.

#8 – Polish, Polish, And Polish Some More

Back to the Grind, Sandy and I slowly worked our way through the grades of sanding/buffing paper, angling and turning the stone every which way to get the smoothest and shiniest polish on our jade.

Francisco described the process as holding the stone to the machine and doing a dance to move it all around.

After polishing again and again and again I made it to the last grade of polish/buff, this time a loop of leather on the roll. Water is still used as a coolant, but a liquidy zinc paste is also applied to the stone while buffing to give it an extra shine.

The last step before leather and zinc


Optional # 9 – Make it Wearable

This is not the stone I made

For a guys jade piece it is easy to just thread a leather strap through the hole in the stone and be done. It’s easy and looks good – I bought just such a necklace while at Francisco’s house.


I wouldn’t do that to you.

Instead, I handed the stone off to Francisco for a few days, as did Sandy. He melts down silver and fashions clasps for his jade. Then he puts it on an adjustable leather strap.

Sandy's stone

My finished stone

So now, in my case, I hand the stone off again to have mailed to my mom.

I hope you like your jade!

For those who might like your own stone – by your own hand or Francisco’s, I have to recommend coming down to San Juan del Obispo first. Alas, if that isn’t doable there are a few ways to get a hold of his work if you talk to As Green As It Gets ( Etsy may soon be another way to make a purchase from Francisco – I pitched it to him and to AGAIG, I thing it would be a great way to get him in contact with more people.

This entry was published on September 1, 2010 at 6:01 pm. It’s filed under Karma, Self Expression, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *