By Dr Emrys Chew

Jade is one of the world’s oldest gems. In Neolithic times, it was fashioned into weapons and other implements because of its exceptional strength. References to jade in recorded history begin around 4000 BCE where, in view of its significance for the ancient Chinese, some scholars have suggested that a Jade Age existed between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. Indeed, among the various gems, no single stone has a closer relationship with a particular culture than jade with the Chinese. Prized for its translucency as well as its toughness, the Chinese called it yu (‘jewel of heaven’), believing that jade provided a bridge between this world and the next. Yu is, in fact, one of the oldest characters in the Chinese language; its pictograph is said to have originated in 2950 BCE, when the transition from knotted cords to written signs supposedly occurred. The pictograph represents three pieces of jade, pierced and threaded with a string; the dot was added to distinguish it from the pictograph for ‘ruler,’ giving some indication of the esteem in which the stone was held. Confucius (551-479 BCE) believed that jade possessed the five virtues of benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom and valour.  To Taoists, a jade elixir could make a person immortal by conferring its imperishable characteristics when ingested. In Buddhism, the Pure Land is composed of gold, silver, agate, coral, amber and jade. Having said that, it should be noted that jade played an important cultural role in other parts. In pre-Columbian Central America, jade was more highly valued than gold. Ever since ancient times, jade has been used around the world to impart knowledge and ensure good health in the present life, as well as bring good fortune in the afterlife. Throughout the ages, it has been transformed into objects of art and adornment that historians and archaeologists alike consider priceless.

From a scientific perspective, however, there are actually two separate types of jade: nephrite (calcium magnesium iron silicate) and jadeite (sodium aluminium silicate). They are distinctly different in mineralogical composition, but have certain similarities. Nephrite ranges in colour from creamy-white to spinach-green to black, while jadeite varies from white to apple-green, as well as mango-yellow, cinnamon-red, lavender, and charcoal-grey, but both minerals have a characteristic waxy to pearly lustre. Although not particularly hard—nephrite measures 6.5 on Mohs’ scale, and jadeite measures 7—both minerals consist of tiny interlocking fibres and grains that make them, structurally, the toughest of all gemstones and stronger than steel. Consequently, both were used from prehistoric times for weapons and tools, and in later ages for the most delicate and intricate carvings. Both have shared equally in the stone’s rich folklore and history.

The Chinese have carved and revered jade for thousands of years. Ancient Chinese jade was nephrite; and nephrite that was especially treasured was either a clear, white variety known as ‘water jade,’ or a grayish-white form known as ‘mutton-fat jade,’ which was used for carving figurines and religious artifacts. The stone had alleged medicinal properties, too; according to a Chinese encyclopaedia written in 1596: “Drinking a mixture of jade, rice and dew water strengthens the muscles, hardens the bones, calms the mind, enriches the flesh, and purifies the blood.” Jade was a symbol of longevity, given as gifts within the family and worn throughout a person’s lifetime. Jade was also important for the afterlife; carved jade amulets were offerings to the gods and thought to protect the body from decay. Many fine examples have survived, dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (c.1600-1200 BCE and 1000-260 BCE, respectively). During the Western Han period (206 BCE-25 CE), complete jade suits—made up of thousands of pieces of nephrite held together by gold wire or silk thread—were fashioned as burial clothes for Chinese emperors and high-ranking nobility.

It is significant, however, that jade was considered sacred by several other societies. It was also used for tools, ornaments and burial objects by the Maori of New Zealand, the Japanese of Honshu Island, and the Indians of North and Central America. When Spanish conquistadors invaded Mexico in the sixteenth century, they found the indigenous people wearing jade to cure kidney problems. The Spanish called the stone piedra de ijada (‘stone of the loins’), from which we derive the name ‘jade’. The Spaniards also knew the stone as piedra de los rinones (‘kidney stone’), believing that naturally occurring kidney-shaped pieces could treat inflammation of the kidneys (nephritis). Subsequently, this other name was translated into the Latin lapis nephriticus, from which we derive ‘nephrite’. But there would be one final twist to this cross-cultural saga. In 1863, French mineralogist Alexis Damour began to analyse bright green jades from Burma. When he found these samples to be chemically different from ancient Chinese jade, he named the mineral jadeite to distinguish it from nephrite.

Nephrite is naturally more abundant and widespread than jadeite. It is found in Taiwan, British Columbia, Alaska, Wyoming, Siberia, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. But for centuries, ancient Chinese nephrite was mined near Khotan in far western China and then transported by camel train. On the other hand, being much more rare and limited in distribution, jadeite is nowadays considered to be the more valuable species of jade. No gem-quality jadeite is found in China. Jadeite sources include Guatemala, Russia, Kazakhstan, Japan and California, though all pale in comparison with Burma. The most important deposits of jadeite are located at Hpakan and Tawmaw in Upper Burma, which yields virtually all top-quality jadeite on the market today.

The fine jadeite from northern Burma first trickled into China during the eighteenth century, catching the eye of the Emperor Qian Long (1735-95). Qian Long and his court preferred the richer, brighter hues of jadeite to the more subdued shades of nephrite. A formidable patron of the Arts, Qian Long went so far as to make jadeite his private property, declaring its trade illegal and punishable by death. With this shift in tastes at the top of the social hierarchy, the Chinese would soon apply the historic word yu to this ‘new jade’ as well. Since then, jadeite has become the most highly sought after by modern Chinese enthusiasts, particularly the chromium-rich emerald-green variety known as ‘imperial jade’. Indeed, top green jadeite resembles the finest Colombian emeralds, and some have used the term feicui to describe its coloration, likening it to the vivid bluish-green plumage of a kingfisher. The most desirable pieces are cut from clean material and well-proportioned, displaying an intense medium or medium-dark green colour; clear translucency and finely grained texture; and a watery lustre with smooth finish. Many exquisite pieces have sold recently at auction for millions of dollars, overtaking ruby as the world’s most expensive gem. The so-called Doubly Fortunate necklace, fashioned from 27 well-matched imperial jade beads, was sold at a Hong Kong auction in 1997 for $9.4 million; this meant that each 15-millimetre bead was worth approximately $350,000. At the same auction, a superb jadeite bangle sold for around $2.57 million; and a pair of double hoop earrings set with imperial jade and rose-cut diamonds, dating to the Qing period (1644–1911), fetched $1.55 million. Even at the threshold of a new millennium, it appears that the mystique of jade remains undiminished.

Further Reading

  1. Alexis Damour, ‘Notice et analyse sur le jade vert: réunion de cette matière minérale à la famille des wernerites’, Comptes Rendus des Séances de l’Académie des Sciences, vol. 56, 1863, pp. 861–65.
  2. Christopher Cavey, Gems and Jewels: Fact and Fable (London, 1992).
  3. Peter Keller, Gemstones and their origins (New York, 1990).
  4. Richard W. Hughes, ‘Burma’s jade mines: An annotated occidental history’, Journal of the Geo-Literary Society, vol. 14, no. 1, 1999, pp. 15–35.