On the north side of the Parque España rises one of the few office towers in San José: the INS, or Institute of Social Security, building. The eleventh floor of this uninspiring edifice contains one of the city’s finest museums, the Marco Fidel Tristan Museo del Jade, home to the world’s largest collection of American jade.
As in China and the East, jade was much prized in ancient Costa Rica as a stone with religious or mystical significance, and for Neolithic civilizations it was an object of great power. It was and still is considered valuable because of its mineralogical rarity. Only slightly less hard than quartz, it’s well known for its durability, and is a good material for weapons and cutting tools like axes and blades. As no quarries of the stone have been found in Costa Rica, the big mystery is how the pre-Columbian societies here got hold of so much of it. The reigning theories are that it came from Guatemala, where the Motagua Valley is home to one of the world’s six known jade quarries, or that it was traded or sold down the isthmus by the Olmecs of Mexico. This would also explain the Maya insignia on some of the pieces – symbols that had no meaning for Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian inhabitants.
The museum displays are ingenious, subtly back-lit to show off the multi-coloured and multi-textured pieces to full effect. Jade exhibits an extraordinary range of nuanced colour, from a milky-white green and soft grey to a deep green; the latter was associated with agricultural fertility and particularly prized by the inhabitants of the Americas around 600 BC. No two pieces in the collection are alike in hue and opacity, though, as in the Museo de Oro, you’ll see a lot of axe-gods: anthropomorphic bird-cum-human forms shaped like an axe and worn as a pendant, as well as a variety of ornate necklaces and fertility symbols.
Incidentally, the view from the museum windows is one of the best in the city, taking in the sweep of San José from the centre to the south and then west to the mountains.