Beloved for its deep, diverse variations of color, alluring luster, and remarkable durability, the jade stone has captivated hearts and minds for centuries. Its earliest uses date back to the Stone Age, when civilizations painstakingly crafted sharp axe heads and traded carved jade objects as currency. Master craftsmen across centuries and cultures have fashioned a swath of objects from the in-demand stone, including jade jewelry, plaques, sculptures, and even vessels. Today, these valuable artifacts can be found in museums and illustrious collections the world over. So what is jade, how much is it worth, and where does it come from? Here, we explore some of the fundamentals of the jade stone — and what all collectors should know before they buy.
What is Jade?
To better understand jade objects, it’s best to look at the origin of the stone itself. How is jade formed? Jade stones are comprised of two separate minerals: jadeite (a sodium aluminum silicate) and nephrite (a calcium magnesium silicate). These two gems were indistinguishable from one another until the mid-20th century, when scientists studying jade discovered the two separate chemical compositions. Both are known as “zhen yu,” or genuine jade. “Jadeite is the rarer of the two varieties, and as a result, it is considered more precious,” says Clare Richardson, Auctioneer and Head of Jewelry at Barsby Auctions.
Jadeite is most prized in its pure green variety, but can be found in many colors ranging from red, pink, black, brown, white, and even violet with variations of colors overlapping one another. In contrast, nephrite’s color scale is more limited, with the most commonly found colors being green to grey-green stones, white to yellowish stones, and yellow to reddish stones.
The unique properties of jade have fueled the centuries-long fascination with the stone. Incredible toughness, coupled with a relatively lower hardness grade, allows the stone to be carved into magnificent jade jewelry and objets d’art. This, together with the alluring “greasy” luster and incredible variety of color not found in other gems, has made the study of jade a world unto itself. The depth of color is enhanced by jade’s characteristic opacity, which becomes translucent only when carved very thin.
Jade Stone Meaning
Proponents of metaphysical gems believe that the jade stone provides its wearer with enhanced clarity and even access to the spiritual world; there are many published guides available on the different types of of jade and their ability to increase wisdom and intuition. Carved jade pendants have long been worn as protective talismans, and ritualistic masks and incense burners crafted from jade have been a part of religious ceremonies from Mesoamerica to ancient China.
The healing properties of jade have been hailed throughout history. This unique stone is often credited for alleviating anything from nightmares to kidney stones. Remarkably enough, the kidney-healing quality of this stone has crossed cultures from Mexico to the Far East. Stones carved for this purpose would be placed over the flank of a patient, and relief was soon to follow. This led to the naming of the jade mineral known as nephrite (from the Greek “nephros,” or kidney) and lapis nephrictus (in Latin, “stone of the loin”).
Where is Jade Found?
Jade is mined in many locations around the world. Both jadeite and nephrite are found in Russia, China, and Guatemala. Nephrite deposits of varying quality have been discovered in both the Swiss Alps and New Zealand. Western Canada has yielded some beautiful dark green stones termed “Canada Jade.” The most in-demand jadeite stones can be sourced back to Myanmar, formerly Burma, and are known as “Burmese Jade.” These have become exceedingly rare and valuable due to the country’s political upheavals and trade restrictions.
How Much is Jade Worth?
There are many factors that can affect jade value. “Jade that has not been treated is the most valuable, as treatment can reduce its durability. This type of jade is classified as Grade A, or A-type. B-type jade is treated with an acid solution and filled with resin, but is not colored, so it sometimes is sold as ‘natural color jadeite jade,” says Richardson.
The raw jade market is a fascinating exchange, comprised of gem traders willing to gamble on the quality of large stones and boulders recovered from mines. Often, these stones have an opaque outer layer, with one small window polished off to reveal a fraction of what the stone may contain. Buyers may see high quality green jadeite through the window, only to find that the stone is mostly less desirable white or mottled quality. This can lead to intense negotiations between raw jade dealers and their buyers.
Once a stone has left the market, artisans with years of experience will carve the stones using tools of commercial quality corundum (the mineral of rubies and sapphires). If a stone is high quality green jadeite, the carvings tend to be simpler to preserve as much of the body of the stone as possible. More intricate carving techniques are used to take advantage of unique colorations. In this way, skilled artists create value out of what might traditionally be considered flaws in coloration.
Jade jewelry today is a mix of antique jade jewelry and clean, modern designs. Traditional jade bangles are still a staple, but new color mixes in beads and cabochons are becoming increasingly more popular. Chinese jade jewelry in particular is poised for rapid growth in the luxury goods sector, and interest in China’s rich cultural heritage will be a key factor in the investment potential of jade jewelry and decorative art in the coming years. “China has both nephrite and jadeite, but values jadeite more highly,” explains Richardson. “Jade is considered an imperial gem and has been found in tombs of Shang kings.”
How to Tell if Jade is Real
Jade has many imitations, Richardson notes, including chloromelanite (jade albite or “maw-sit-sit”), chrysoprase, serpentine, nepheline, calcite, quartz, aragonite, glaucophane, prehnite and vesuvianite. “Imitations are often sold under misnomers such as ‘Indian jade,’ ‘Australian jade’ or ‘Russian jade,’” she adds.
Unscrupulous sellers may try to pass off less valuable serpentine, quartz or even resin as jade to unsuspecting buyers. A trained eye will immediately be able to identify these imposters from the lack of jade’s distinctive luster. Quartz and serpentine both lack the toughness of jade, so intricate carvings of these stones may show stress fractures and even multiple pieces epoxied (glued) back together. Resin made to mimic jade will be much lighter than genuine pieces.
How to Purchase Jade
As with any luxury item, the main determinant of value to you will be how much you love the piece. When buying jade, however, consider not only the color and size of stones, but also the artistry in carving that may elevate a piece beyond the value of its color. Modern jade jewelry and objets d’art are diverse in their appeal and their intricacy. Historical pieces of jade will have tremendous value determined by the provenance that is available, as well as the quality of the color and the carving.