One of two distinct minerals commonly known as jade, jadeite is the rarer and harder variety. Rich green jadeite, known as “imperial jade,” is also the most highly valued. However, durable jadeite can be found in many colors and is well-suited for both intricate carvings and cabochons.
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The value of a jadeite carving is as much a function of artistry and antiquity as the color and quality of the material itself. Jadeite is a very specialized gemstone, and evaluating these pieces is complicated. In the US, its appeal is largely collector based. The finest jadeite originates from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Historically, China has had a great admiration for jadeite. Today, it remains the strongest market for this gemstone.
Jadeite is one of the two minerals popularly described as jade. The other is nephrite. Although they have some similarities, these materials have distinct properties.
People across the world have used both jadeite and nephrite for tools, ritual objects, and jewelry for millennia. The Chinese have utilized nephrite since the Neolithic era and may have worn carved nephrite bangles as far back as 4,000 years ago. The Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs of ancient Meso-America made ceremonial objects and jewelry from jadeite.
The Chinese and Meso-Americans valued nephrite and jadeite, respectively, not just for their physical properties. They came to symbolize excellence and the greatest values of these cultures. For example, the Aztecs characterized eloquence as “a scattering of jades.” The Chinese sage Confucius (551-479 BCE) compared jade to a gentleman esteemed by all for his qualities.
However, these cultures didn’t refer to these materials as “jade” or group them together. How did these two gem materials become associated?
The Origin of the Term “Jade”
Jadeite and nephrite both occur in Europe. The authors of a 2017 study have documented the trade of jadeite axe heads from sources in Italy across Europe during Neolithic times. However, as Giancarlo Sette writes, European knowledge and use of both jadeites and nephrites disappeared over time — until the 16th century and the Spanish arrival in the Americas.
After reviewing Spanish writings related to their conquests in the Americas, Sette notes the following developments over the course of the 16th century:
Initially, the Spaniards referred to green gemstones from the Americas as “emeralds,” regardless of their transparency. At this time, the Spaniards were not yet familiar with high-quality, transparent Colombian emeralds.
Gradually, Spanish writers started to record indigenous terms for various green gemstones and their uses. In particular, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún noted that the Aztecs grated a green stone, xiuhtomoltetl, mixed it with cold water, and drank it to relieve heartache and inflammation.
The Spaniards began to refer to certain green stones from the Americas as “piedras de yjada” or “stones of the sides” because supposedly the Aztecs believed they had the ability to cure kidney ailments. (Whether this was actually an Aztec belief is not certain).
These “piedras de yjada” were most likely what we now call jadeite.
“Yjada” or “ijada” became the origin of the word “jade” in English and in other European languages.
How Jadeite and Nephrite Became Jade
For thousands of years, Chinese artisans worked nephrite into utilitarian and artistic objects as well as jewelry. Much of the traditional Chinese folklore and symbolism associated with jade originated as the folklore of nephrite. However, in the mid 18th century, a new green gemstone from neighboring Burma (now known as Myanmar) entered China. The Chinese came to prize this material. As it turns out, this was jadeite.
Cup, jadeite, Qing Dynasty (19th century), China, 2.5 cm x 4.4 cm. Bequest of Edmund C. Converse, 1921. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain.
Gemologist Jill Hobbs notes that the Chinese distinguished these two materials: nephrite was known as yu, while jadeite from Burma was known as fei-ts’ui. However, European merchants trading with China at this time grouped both materials under the now-commonplace term “jade” because of their apparent similarities. It was not until 1863 that the French mineralogist Alexis Damour distinguished jade as two distinct minerals — jadeite and nephrite. The term “jadeite” was coined after jade.
The term “jade” still enjoys widespread use both in the gem trade and in everyday parlance. However, gemologists should distinguish between nephrite jade and jadeite jade.
Does Jadeite Make a Good Jewelry Stone?
Jadeite pieces are very tough. Although nephrite has greater resistance to breaking, jadeite usually has a Mohs hardness great enough to resist scratches from the most common jewelry hazard: household dust. Both jadeite and nephrite have excellent wearability, but jadeite is somewhat better suited for jewelry, especially ring use, because of its greater hardness.
Jadeites can occur naturally in many colors, but green enjoys the greatest popularity. “Imperial jade” of deep green color from Myanmar is very rare and expensive, and its translucency is highly prized.
Jadeites can also occur in combination with other pyroxene group minerals in solid solutions. However, these blends aren’t always considered jadeite varieties. The jadeite content of these gems materials can vary.
Maw Sit Sit
Maw sit sit is a lapidary rock found only near the Myanmar village it’s named after. It has a dark green color with black spots and green veins. Specimens typically contain jadeite (15%), kosmochlor (sometimes called ureyite), albite feldspar, and other minerals.
Jadeite has a distinctive absorption spectrum useful in identification. It has a strong line at 4375 and weak bands at 4500 and 4330. The 4375 line is diagnostic but may not be seen in rich, deep green material, which has a chromium spectrum: strong line at 6915, weak at 6550 and 6300.
GE hasn’t commercially released synthetic jadeites.
Many simulants or lookalike materials appear on the market. Some natural gemstones that may be passed off as jadeites are calcite, green idocrase (erroneously referred to as “American jade”), aventurine (erroneously referred to as “Indian jade”), serpentine (erroneously referred to as “Korean jade”), and green hydrogrossular garnet (erroneously referred to as “Transvaal jade”). You may even encounter green-dyed marble sold as “Mexican jade.” See our list of jade misnomers for more examples.
Grayish jadeites can be stained to resemble “imperial jade” or dyed to take on a mauve color.
Bleaching, or acid treatments, and wax or polymer impregnation are occasionally used to improve color and luster. Polymer coatings are stable treatments. Gemologists grade jadeites and nephrites according to the types of treatments they receive.
“A” jade refers to untreated, natural jadeite or nephrite. This material may have a wax coating, but no other treatment should be present.
“B” jade refers to material that has undergone bleach and polymer treatment.
“C” jade contains dye.
Jade pieces with both polymer treatments and dyeing are designated “B+C” jade.
Jadeites are more likely to undergo treatments than nephrites.
Notable gem-quality sources include the following:
Myanmar: source of “imperial jade.”
Guatemala: rare blue stones.
Russia: apple green-colored material at some localities; also fine translucent, Cr-rich material at the Kantegir River, West Sayan.
San Benito County, California: lenses and nodules in chert, various colors.
France; Italy; Japan; Kazakhstan; Mexico; Turkey.
How to Care for Jadeite Jewelry
Natural, untreated jadeites may withstand mechanical cleaning. However, acid treatments can create cracks in an otherwise very durable material. Not sure if your jewelry or carving has received treatments? Stick to warm water, detergent, and a soft brush or have your piece examined by a gem lab. Consult our gemstone care guide and gemstone jewelry cleaning guide for more recommendations.