Jade is an ancient gemstone that has been used in countries all over the world for thousands of years. Across cultures, it means purity, connects the living with heaven and can even make music. Property wise, jade has a hard and smooth texture, a high luster, and brilliant colors.
Jade is not only available in the rich green shade with which you are probably most familiar. In addition to “imperial green”, you can find white, violet, yellow, jasper, black, and even red.
1. Properties: Hard, smooth, silky, brilliant colors and high luster
Nephrite jade (soft)
There are actually two different kinds of jades: nephrite (softer) and jadeite (harder). Nephrite (软玉) is sometimes called Chinese jade as it is a traditional Chinese jade material, or “Hetian jade” (和田玉), because the Hetian region of Xinjiang produces the best quality nephrite.
Nephrite has a hardness of 5.6-6.5 degrees. To give you some perspective, diamonds are a 10 on the Mohs hardness scale. Nephrite has a hardness of 5.6-6.5 degrees. To give you some perspective, diamonds are a 10 on the Mohs hardness scale. Therefore even nephrite is softer than jadeite, it is still considered a hard gemstone.
Nephrite is opaque or translucent, and is divided by color into the following categories: green jade, white jade, violet jade, yellow jade, jasper, black jade, and red jade (瑭玉).
Jadeite jade (hard)
Jadeite (硬玉) is rated between six and seven on the Mohs hardness scale. High quality jadeite is also called Feicui jade (翡翠) or Burmese jade since more than 95% of the commercial grade Feicui comes from Myanmar. This is where you find the expensive “imperial green” jadeite.
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Jade in general
From a geological perspective, jadeite and nephrite are very different. However, both have a relatively hard and smooth texture, a high luster and brilliant colors. It is also cool, and feels like silk.
In terms of colors, it is not only available in the rich green shade with which you are probably most familiar. In addition to “imperial green” jade, you can find white jade, violet jade, yellow jade, jasper, black jade, and even red jade.
2. A long history
When we talk about jade, Chinese jade may be the first that comes to mind. In deed, China has over 5000 years of jade history, dating back to the Late Paleolithic. For example, Dushan Jade was being mined as early as 6000 BC in China.
The truth is, jade has been used in cultures all over the world for thousands of years. In ancient Mayan culture, this gem was used for deities, masks, and jewelry. And the Maori people in New Zealand, too, have a long history with this precious stone.
Jade has adorned people as jewelry, has adorned buildings as decoration, and has served as effective tools to help in humankind’s survival. Chinese jade, Mayan jade, and Maori jade have all helped these cultures eke out a life before farming made cities possible.
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3. A bittersweet legend
While many cultures have treasured this gem, the Maori people in New Zealand have a bittersweet legend to explain how jade came to be:
While bathing in the sea, a beautiful woman named Waitaiki catched the eye of a water spirit named Poutini. Poutini was so entranced by Waitaiki’s beauty that he kidnapped her and fled to the mainland. When Waitaiki’s husband realized that his wife was kidnapped, he set out to find her.
After a long journey, Waitaiki’s husband finally catched up to Poutini. With a battle imminent, Poutini realized that his time with Waitaiki was coming to an end. He decided he would rather Waitaiki perish than to be with someone else — even if that person was her rightful husband.
Waitaiki’s husband came upon her cold, lifeless body in the riverbed. She had been changed to jade. It is rumored that his song of grief can still be heard in the New Zealand mountains if you listen closely.
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4. A musical gem?
Unique to almost any precious gem, this gemstone can actually be used to make instruments. A clear note sounds when two pieces of jade strike. For this reason, wearing two jade bangles are a traditional way to display prosperity. Anyone who can afford it and hear the beautiful tinkle is doing very well indeed.
Note that this stone will not be damaged by these strikes since it is so hard; However, excessive impacts are able to damage it.
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5. Most valuable and pricey varieties
Hetian jade (和田玉) is one of the “Four great jades of China”. The other three are are Lantian jade from Shaanxi Province, Xiuyu jade from Liaoning Province, and Dushan jade from Henan Province. What is so special about this gem?
It has a very fine texture due to the extremely fine grain size, a greasy luster which gives a sense of moisture and softness, moderate transparency, high toughness which allows for fine carving, and a clear and long sound when struck.
Currently, top end Hetian jade costs between $1,500 to $5,000 per gram, which is unbelievably expensive. In China, there is a saying goes “diamond has a price, jade does not”.
Among Hetian jades, mutton fat white jade (Yangzhi Baiyu/ 羊脂白玉) is the best and the most precious, which is characterized by its transparency, fineness and moistness.
This precious gemstone is often used as a metaphor for good character, and as a gift of affection between lovers.
The Burmese jade or Feicui
The Burmese jade or Feicui (翡翠) is a high end variety of jadeite, known for its famous “imperial green” color. In fact, you can also find Feicui in yellow, black, red, pink, brown, white and even velvet.
A good quality Feicui is supposed to have an emerald green color, an oily and shiny luster, a glassy and translucent texture, no impurities, no cracks. Top Feicui jade can reach $8,000- $30,000 per piece.
6. Production and treatments
Because nephrite and jadeite are geologically different, these two kinds of jades come from different places. Nephrite comes from China, New Zealand, Australia, and even Alaska; while most commercial jadeite comes from Myanmar, but it can be produced in other parts of the world.
While other gemstones can be lab-grown or synthesized, the only way to imitate this gem is use glass or plastic, which is quite unnatural and can be easily identified. This is one of the main reasons why it is so expensive.
However, a variety of treatments can still be used to improve the quality of jade.
Type A treatment is a traditional wax treatment that fills in any surface imperfections and gives it a signature silky feel. Type B treatment means that the gem has been soaked in a color-altering acid and has been injected with a polymer to get that smooth feel. Jade designated as Treatment Type C has been altered like Type B with the addition of being dyed.
7. Prices and values
The price and quality are closely related. Currently, top end Hetian jade is roughly between $1,500- $5,000 per gram, a medium quality white one costs between $800 and $1,000 per gram, while you can always find average quality jade jewelry at $80 to $500.
8. Meanings of jade
For thousands of years, cultures around the world have pondered different meanings of jade. Generally speaking, jade is considered to be able to exude purity and vitality, and is associated with the mysteries of life, death, and prosperity.
To be detailed, in Chinese culture this gemstone means purity, value beyond price, and connection with the spiritual realm. And the bell-like tinkle of two jade bangles ringing together means wealth and prosperity.
In Mesoamerica, jade represented life and was able to connect the dead to the living for the Mayans. This is why when Mayan aristocrats passed from life, a jade stone would placed in their mouth.
Moreover, the ancient Mayans considered it to be an important part of their spiritual life, since polished jade is reflective enough to be a mirror. Ancient Mayan nobles would wear jade pendants polished to a mirror-like sheen.
Each culture across the world has different meanings for jade. However, they all associate it with purity as well as the connection between life and death.
9. Famous jade jewelry
When married to a Georgian prince, the American socialite and Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton was given one of the most famous jade necklaces in the world. The Hutton-Mdivani necklace, is thought to have been carved in the nineteenth century and is made of 27 perfectly-cut translucent jade beads that are deep emerald in color.
In 1934, Cartier was commissioned to replace the clasp and a new one of yellow gold with rubies and diamonds to better contrast with the deep green color of jade. At a Sotheby’s auction in 2014, this necklace sold for $27.44 million to The Cartier Collection.
Like Barbara Hutton, Dowager Empress Cixi was an avid collector of jadeite jewelry too. One of her most prized possessions was a pair of artfully-carved jade watermelons.
These treasures were so important that they were buried with her. However, because grave-robbers raided her tomb in 1926, the whereabouts of the jade watermelons are shrouded in mystery.
10. How to choose?
Based on a variety of properties, jade can have a wide range of values. The color, the transparency, the texture, the carat weight, and any carvings factor into how much a particular gemstone will be worth.
The most valuable color of this gem is a deep emerald green. Color imperfections can make such gemstones appear to have patches and thus reduce the value. In the meanwhile, although green receives the most attention, you can find it in also violet, red, and even white.
The more transparent, the more valuable it is. Opaque ones might be less valuable, but, depending on the look, they can give an outfit a certain degree of magnetism.
Texture is another aspect important in determining a stone’s value. High quality ones are luxuriously smooth to the touch.
Carvings are another way to tell if a jade is valuable. The more detailed or intricate the artistry, the more valuable the piece is.
11. Care and maintenance
This gem (both jadeite and nephrite varieties) is pretty tough. In prehistoric times, it was literally used to chop trees down. Because this gem is hardy, you will not have to worry very much about damaging it.
For the most part, wiping your jade jewelry down with soap and water is all the care and maintenance needed. Occasionally, it may need to be re-polished, which requires professional equipment.
Even though this gem can stand some wear and tear, you will need to avoid contact with anything acidic. Mixing acid and this gem together can change its appearance and possibly even make it brittle. As an example of something to avoid, vinegar is a common household acid.
Depending on whether the gem in your jewelry is treated, you may need to follow instructions from your jeweler. For some treated jade, heat can be harmful.
This is an amazing gem really — it is mysterious and has been used for thousands of years and you do not have to put too much time or effort into its upkeep. Perhaps this is one of the best aspects of jade, compared to any other precious stone.
Thank you for reading this article. If it is helpful to you, comment below to let me know or check other articles on pearls that we have published: What are Chinese pearls and how much are they worth?
Image sources: Sotheby’s.