There are many sources of information for minerals and gemstones and most of it is available on the internet, including the ubiquitous Wikipedia. Our technical descriptions of gemstones are drawn primarily from the Rock and Gem Guide of the Smithsonian Institute and from The Fifth Edition of Gemstones of the World, by Walter Schuman.
When people think of Jade they often think of those intricately carved sculptures sitting in the window display of an art store, or perched atop the mantel of a wealthy collector’s fireplace. Or they might think of that beautiful pendant they bought at the outdoor market, from a nice person who guaranteed that it was “real Jade from China.” Most people assume that Jade comes from China, or somewhere in Asia.
Well, that’s partly true. Jade has been the favored gemstone of the Chinese civilization for thousands of years. The most well-known Jade does come from Myanmar (Burma), an exotic source for the bright green “Imperial Jade” that was prized by Chinese Emperors.
But Jade is more than that: it comes from different places, and it actually refers to two distinctly different, but very similar minerals. There is Jadeite, which comes from China, Myanmar, Central America and Mexico. And, there is Nephrite, which is found in China but also comes from Canada, New Zealand, Alaska, Russia and Taiwan.
Both Jadeite and Nephrite are metamorphic rocks, formed under high pressures and low temperatures, conditions relatively rare in rock formation. They are so similar in appearance and character that they were thought to be the same rock. In fact, it was only in the late 1800s that a French gemmologist was able to classify them as separate minerals. However they are both still classified as Jade.
They both are extremely strong and durable, which makes them excellent materials for tool-making. In Neolithic times, they served the same function as steel does today. They were used to cut, chop and carve things, without losing their edge. Their beauty, coloring and durability also made them valuable for ornaments and for jewelry.
The color of Jade ranges from almost pure white, through pale, apple-green, to that deep, bright-green color that most people associate with the name. But it can also be blue-green, pink, lavender or a multitude of other rare hues. The color is largely determined by the presence of “trace elements” such as chromium, magnesium and iron. Jade’s translucence can be anywhere from entirely solid, through to opaque or to almost transparent.
So what is the “best” Jade? Well that is very much a matter of taste. While Europeans tend to like the bright- green Jadeite, the Chinese have favored both Nephrite and Jadeite at different times over their long history. Before the 1800s, the most valued was the almost white “mutton fat” Nephrite, that came from the Kingdom of Khotan, and was paid as a yearly tribute to the Chinese Imperial Court. By the mid-1800s, China’s own supplies were diminishing and new sources were found, with Burma’s bright-green Kingfisher Jadeite becoming the new favourite.
Jade was also a valued gemstone among the Mesoamerican cultures, including the Olmec, the Aztecs, and the Maya. Here too it was used both as a tool, and for ornamental purposes. The Jade of Mesoamerica is Jadeite and its only known source is in the Motagua River Valley, of Guatemala. This “Olmec” Jade is characterized by a deep blue-green color and a translucent hue with white flecking.
New Zealand is also a source for a unique Nephrite Jade known there as “pounamu”, or greenstone. This stone was prized by the Maori culture for both ornamental and utilitarian purposes.
Most people don’t know that, today, approximately 75 % of the world’s Jade comes from Canada, in northern British Columbia. This Jade is of the Nephrite variety and it was discovered by Chinese immigrants who came to Canada in the 1880s to work on the railroads. Canada’s Nephrite is becoming very popular with the Chinese and will no doubt continue to be a major source for new stones in the future.
There are quite a few gemstones on the market that are pretending to be Jade. The most common is Serpentine, but there are many others, including Prehnite, Aventurine, Garnet (“Transvaal Jade”), Chrysoprase (“Australian Jade”) and dyed Quartz (“Malaysia Jade”). While these imitators are nice stones in their own right, they are not Jade.
And, the thing about Jade is, well, you know…