Casual purchasers of jade jewelry choose the stone primarily because of its beautiful green color, perfect for everything from necklaces to rings. They probably also know that jade is closely identified with China – but not much more.
It’s likely they don’t know that jade is one of the world’s oldest known gemstones, that it’s been prized for millennia by other civilizations like the Maori, the Aztecs and the Mayans, that it was highly valued as a weapon long before it became a centerpiece in some of the world’s most beautiful jewelry, and that many people still believe it confers long life or even immortality on its wearer. Chances are that they also don’t know there are two types and at least seven colors of jade, or that in many parts of Asia white jade is actually more popular than the green jade we commonly see.
If you’re one of those casual purchasers, you’re about to learn all about this storied gemstone – as well as how to value and buy jade jewelry. You’ll not only be more prepared to buy pieces made from jade stones, you’ll have a much greater appreciation of the jade necklace, jade pendant or jade bangle you already own.
A Brief History
Many thousands of years ago, jade was commonly used both for tools and weapons because of its durability and strength. Yet it wasn’t long (in relative terms) before the stone became valued by civilizations around the world for symbolic, cultural or religious reasons. The Maoris fashioned cult instruments from jade, native tribes in Central America carved statues and figures of religious leaders from it, the Spanish Conquistadors began making amulets from the stone after invading and conquering those same tribes (and also used jade medallions for their perceived medicinal value), and the Egyptians believed the gemstone symbolized inner harmony and love.
There is a good reason most people associate jade with China. As many as 5,000 years ago, it was known as the “royal gem” (yu), often used to create cult and religious figures, and even furnishings for the households of the imperial family. From then until now, jade has been associated in Chinese culture with many core Confucian values such as compassion, wisdom and justice, as well as the possibility of immortality. Oddly enough, jade has never been mined in any great quantity in China; it originally was introduced into the country from Turkestan, and the country’s major supplier of the stone has primarily been Myanmar (or as it was formerly known, Burma).
All of these civilizations quickly learned the value of jade as an ornamental, and examples of early jade jewelry can be seen in museums on every continent. It has also become extremely collectible, with antique jade pieces (not just rings and bracelets, but everything from bowls to snuff boxes) highly sought-after on world markets. It’s not just antiques that are valuable, of course; jade stones are still being mined in sufficient quantities to feed the appetites of buyers with Myanmar, Canada, central Asia, Australia and even the United States current sources for jade. However, many of these nations don’t produce the type of gemstones you would want in your lovely jade pendant or jade earrings. Read on.
Types of Jade
The word “jade” immediately brings to mind an intense, emerald-green gemstone – ideally mounted in a lovely setting or formed into a beautiful bangle. However, the word actually refers to two different stones with common characteristics. And jade can also be found in many different colors other than green.
Nephrite was the type of jade which was first used in China and many other countries. It is known as a “pyroxene”, a mineral containing silica, and is typically either green-grey or dark green. Later, the brightly-colored stone known as jadeite was discovered and eventually became favored for the design of figures and jewelry; it is an “amphibole”, or ferro-magnesium silicate. Both are tough, dense and hard stones which have a close resemblance aside from their colors, so both became known simply as “jade”. The Chinese understood the difference between the two stones by the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that Western gemologists drew a firm distinction between the two. They’re both still considered jade, but jadeite is rarer and therefore more valuable. It is almost always used in the production of modern, fine jade jewelry because of its often-brilliant colors. Nephrite’s value is more important for historical reasons, particularly when it comes to antiques.
As mentioned, nephrite is most often a dusky or dark green color, but pale yellow, red or white nephrite is also found. In addition to the trademark bright green of commonly-seen jadeite (with the most brilliant, semi-transparent emerald green referred to as “imperial jade”) the gemstone can also be colored red, pink, violet, white, brown or black. Most gem-quality jade still comes from Myanmar. Both forms of jade typically exhibit some degree of color variation, as well as streaks or blemishes; evenly-balanced color is only found in the best jade stones, while veins or other impurities can either enhance or detract from a gemstone’s value, depending on their size, type and location.
Throughout the rest of this article, when we refer to “jade” we will be discussing the jadeite used to produce jade jewelry.
You would probably expect that the most important quality of jade, when it comes to value, is color. And you would be correct. Imperial jade, with its trademark emerald green hue (although some stones may have slight blue or yellow hints to them), is the most valuable version of this gemstone; perfect stones can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. True imperial jade has a pure and vivid color and is almost transparent with absolutely no trace of grey.
Many other varieties fall just slightly below imperial jade: kingfisher jade looks almost the same but isn’t quite as intense in color, apple jade has a vivid greenish-yellow color, and moss-in-snow jade is a fascinating stone which is white and translucent but has bright green occlusions which are pleasing to the eye. Other colors of jade which are also valuable (particularly in Asian markets) are lavender, black, white and orange, as long as there are no traces of brown. In all cases, vividly-colored stones are more valuable than those with lighter colors.
The next criterion for evaluating jade stones is transparency, with semi-transparent gemstones the most valuable because the light which penetrates the surface of the stone increases the brilliance of the stone’s color. An easy way to judge transparency is by placing the gemstone on a book or newspaper and trying to read through it. If the text is readable but a little blurry, that’s perfect. The least valuable jade will be opaque, or partially-transparent with opaque patches; a stone which is fully transparent is far better than one which is cloudy.
Texture is also important when judging jade. The stone should be smooth rather than coarse, and gemologists describe the best texture as “old jade” or “old mine”, which is extremely fine and very smooth to the touch. Lesser textures (“relatively old mine” and “new mine”) are less valuable, and it’s pretty easy to feel the difference.
Needless to say, size always factors into the value of any stone. Jade is typically measured in millimeters rather than carats, with larger stones naturally more valuable than smaller ones. Unfortunately, jade is one of the gems whose price increases geometrically rather than arithmetically – in other words, a slight increase in size can mean a big increase in price.
One other factor you may come across as you shop for jade: some vendors identify it by grades classified as either A, B and C. Grade A is natural jade which has not been treated, enhanced or altered; it is the only type of the gemstone which will increase in value over time. Grade B jade has been treated with acid to remove impurities and then coated with either colloidal silica or resin. Grade C jade is the same as grade B, but also with artificial pigmentation added. You should only consider grade A jade since acid can affect the stone’s durability, and the stone will yellow and lose color if it receives external treatment.
What about cut? That’s obviously a factor as well, but because this is such a versatile gemstone and can be used in so many different types of jade jewelry, it can be cut in almost any shape imaginable without devaluing the gemstone. That will be discussed next as we look at the types of pieces available at fine jewelers and online.
Many precious stones are used to create jewelry. Because of its history and versatility, jade is used in more types and styles of jewelry pieces than just about any other stone.
We’ll begin with a piece which is closely identified with this gemstone: the jade bangle. Jade bangles first made in China at least four thousand years ago, initially fashioned from nephrite. Today, these smooth jade bangles worn around the wrist are made from jadeite and are available in either traditional circular or oval shapes, or sophisticated versions with luxe link designs, stainless steel or gold hinges, or other unique twists (turning them into more of a bracelet than what we think of as a jade bangle). If the bangle is entirely cut from a single stone it’s called a hololith and is more expensive than one made from several pieces of jade.
Closely related are jade bracelets, sold in a myriad number of designs. A series of round gemstones on a jade bracelet will make a stunning fashion statement – but also a serious dent in your credit card balance; that’s because the color, transparency, size, texture and symmetry of each bead’s cut must match to create a fine jade jewelry piece. Carved stone is a wonderful choice because it makes a lasting impression when used to fashion a jade bracelet, as do the many high-end variations created by upscale jewelry designers.
The most common and desired jade rings are simple yet gorgeous all-jade bands, and again they are quite expensive because they are cut from a single piece of stone and must show uniform color across the entire ring. A common variation on the hololith form of jade ring is a saddle ring, which has a carved top in the shape of a rectangle.
Just like jade bracelets, jade necklaces are most striking when they are made of single or double strands of matching (and expensive) stones. There are many similar approaches, including stringing jade stones set off by occasional pearls in the strand. A jade necklace also looks elegant when it is used to hold a gold, gold and pearl, or gold, pearl and jade pendant. On their own, jade pendants are extremely popular with a wealth of designs on the market, or you can engage your own designer and only be limited by your imagination and budget. Perhaps the most popular jade pendant is one in the shape of the Chinese eternity symbol (known as “bi”) which is a disc with a hole in the center; the universal “infinity” symbol is also a widely-sold choice. Both carry great spiritual significance for many people.
Finally, jade earrings are widely available in thousands of different sizes and designs. Jade earrings are perfect to compliment your other pieces of jade jewelry, or just on their own.
If you are not shopping at a high-end jewelry store, it can be easy to be fooled into thinking that you’re buying jade when you’re really being sold something much cheaper and less desirable. We’ve already discussed the difference between nephrite and jadeite, and the different grades of jade that some sellers use to get you to purchase the gemstone at a “discount price”. But vendors may try to pass off serpentine (sometimes called new jade or olive jade by unscrupulous sellers), a type of garnet (called Transvaal jade), dolomite marble (called mountain jade), or even dyed quartz (called Malaysian jade, blue jade, red jade or yellow jade). These should all be avoided.
A few simple tests you can do to quickly see if you’re being offered something other than real jade:
- Hold the stone up to a bright light and inspect it with a loupe. You should see small fibrous, intertwining threads inside the stone. If there are no fibers or see what look like layers inside the stone, you may be looking at either a different gemstone or a stone which simply has thin layers of jade glued onto it.
- Flip the stone in your palm. If it feels heavier than you’d expect, that’s a good sign because jade is denser than most gemstones. If it feels lighter than you’d expect, be careful.
- Tap the stone against a real piece of jade. If the sound is resonant and deep, that’s what you want to hear. If it sounds more like plastic beads clicking together, beware.
Of course, all of these tests are rudimentary and not meant to be a definitive method to tell if you’re looking at real jade. But they’re a quick way to avoid obvious fakes. As with any precious stone, insisting on documentation and an appraisal is always the best approach.