Jade has been mined around the world for more than 2,000 years, but it wasn’t until 1863 that what was thought of as “jade” was revealed to be two distinct minerals—jadeite and nephrite. Jadeite, from sodium aluminum silicate, is the rarer of the two, and is therefore considered precious. Nephrite, from calcium magnesium iron silicate, is comparatively common, but has long been valued for its strength and hardness.
Most people think of the jade used in fine jewelry as a green gemstone, but jadeite is white in its pure form and actually appears in a wide range of colors, including lilac/lavender, pink, brown, red, blue, orange, yellow, and black. Jadeite can range from opaque to translucent or near-transparent, and has a greasy to pearly luster. The stone is often mottled in appearance, and has minuscule dimples when polished.
The most prized jadeite, particularly in China, is known as imperial jade. It is a deep emerald or apple green due to chromium oxide in the mineral, sometimes with tiny black inclusions. But this imperial green jadeite has only been available in China since the 1700s, when it was first imported from Burma (present-day Myanmar). Before that, nephrite was the celebrated stone used in ancient Chinese religious rituals for thousands of years.
Nephrite ranges in color from black-looking dark green to cream (thanks to the presence of magnesium) and tends to be more spinach or sage in tone, rather than emerald green. It may be homogeneous in color, blotchy, or banded. Its interlocking aggregates of fibrous amphibole crystals make nephrite tougher than steel, which is why it was used in many early weapons such as arrowheads and axes.
With its strength and luster, nephrite jade was considered a magical stone in China. It was thought to link the physical and spiritual realms, yin and yang, day and night, and good and evil. It was also used to denote high rank and authority in Chinese society. Today, nephrite is mined in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Siberia, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United States, and Zimbabwe.
While some jadeite can be found in Japan and the United States, the primary source is still Burma. Historically, Guatemala was the source of jadeite for Central America, where it was also considered a sacred stone. Even the Spanish conquistadors called it “loin stone” or “kidney stone,” believing it could heal kidney and hip pains.
In jewelry, jadeite and nephrite are typically carved and/or polished and fashioned into beads, cabochons, mosaics, figurines, and cameos. These stones are used in earrings, necklaces, amulets, and bracelets...
Jade jewelry came into fashion in the Western world during the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 1930s, when Chinoiserie (a fusion of European and Eastern styles) was, once again, all the rage with the women of high society. Countess Mona Bismarck had a 1930s jade-and-diamond bracelet featuring five rows of jade beads connected by diamond rondelles. The large diamond clasp is set with jade carved in the form of a small spider sitting on a finger-citron flower, also called Buddha’s hand.
In the 1920s, the celebrated singer Ganna Walska had two chimera-themed bangles representing Makara, the mythical Indian sea-serpent. Made by Van Cleef & Arpels, the bangle featured carved coral chimera heads decorated with sapphires and diamonds holding jade beads in their mouths.
It is believed that Barbara Hutton received her 1930 Cartier necklace featuring smooth, round jade beads as a gift from her father. In 1934, Cartier fashioned her a jade, ruby, and diamond ring to match the necklace.
Much jadeite today is impregnated with wax or plastic resins to imitate the luster and color of imperial jade; sometimes these dyes can fade. Other times stones like chalcedony are dyed to look like jadeite. Most of cheapest “jade” on the market is made of glass or plastic. Treated and dyed jade should always be less expensive than natural jade, while glass fakes can often be identified by the air bubbles below their surfaces.
At times, other stones have been confused with jade, leading to many misnomers including Korea jade (bowenite or serpentine), Colorado jade (amazonite), Indian jade (aventurine), Australian jade (chrysoprase), Transvaal jade (hydrogrossular garnet), and Honan jade (soapstone). Unlike true jade, serpentine and soapstone are easy to scratch.
Thanks to all the dyed and low-quality nephrite jewelry on the market, nephrite has been devalued as a gemstone. Jadeite, though, is still sought-after, particularly when it is imperial green or lavender. The more opaque, colorful, and evenly colored the jadeite is, the higher its value.