Nephrite Jade Value, Price, and Jewelry Information
Nephrite is one of the two distinct minerals commonly known as jade. While nephrite doesn't match the variety or the fine green colors found in jadeite, it's even more durable as a gem material for jewelry and carved objects.
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Nephrite is one of the two distinct minerals commonly known as jade. While nephrite doesn’t match the variety or the fine green “imperial jade” colors found in jadeite, it does occur in attractive colors, including green, and is even more durable as a gem material for jewelry and carved art objects.
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China is the principal popular consumer market for both jadeite and nephrite. Elsewhere, the market is dominated by collectors. Although jadeite is the more highly coveted jade variety, nephrite is more abundant. Thus, green nephrite that approximates jadeite’s color is prized as an alternative. White nephrite or “mutton fat” jade remains a traditional favorite and the most popular nephrite variety on the Chinese market. Siberian nephrite, with a dark “spinach green” color and black graphite inclusions, is considered the most valuable green nephrite variety for Western consumers.
What's the Difference Between Nephrite, Jadeite, and Jade?
Nephrite and jadeite are both considered jade, but they're distinct minerals with different properties and natural formation processes.
As gemologist Jill Hobbs writes, for thousands of years, Chinese artisans made incredible jewelry and works of art from a stone they called yu, but in the mid 18th century, fei-ts'ui, an intense green-colored stone, entered China from Burma (Myanmar). Both materials soon became known as one mineral in the West, jade, due to their similar external appearance.
In 1863, the mineralogist Alexis Damour distinguished jade as two distinct minerals. In effect, this reaffirmed the distinction the Chinese made originally. What the Chinese called yu, scientists identified as nephrite.Fei-ts'ui was identified as jadeite.
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.
What is Nephrite?
Nephrite belongs to the tremolite-actinolite mineral series. Stones closer to tremolite have higher magnesium content and lighter colors, such as the celebrated, creamy white "mutton fat" jade. Higher iron content gives nephrites closer to actinolite darker colors, like green. Combinations of these elements as well as traces of other elements and inclusions can create yellowish, grey, and brown varieties. Skilled gem carvers can utilize a brownish skin or surface on green stones to create a cameo-like effect.
Generally, green nephrites are less bright and intense than green jadeites. With few exceptions, nephrite shades usually appear dark and somber.
Does Nephrite Make a Good Jewelry Stone?
Although less hard than jadeite, nephrite's dense, fibrous structure makes it tougher for carving purposes. With hardness of 6 to 6.5, nephrites do have some susceptibility to scratching, so protective jewelry settings are recommended, especially for ring use. However, for practical purposes, both nephrite and jadeite make excellent jewelry stones.
Is Nephrite Hazardous?
Both actinolite and tremolite, the end members of the mineral series that includes nephrite, are considered asbestos. However, nephrite is not considered to be an asbestiform mineral, despite having a fibrous structure. Wearing nephrite jewelry and handling rough or finished pieces pose no health risks.
Nevertheless, lapidaries should take precautions when cutting nephrites. Lapidary Dick Friesen points out that working with nephrites might pose a risk of silicosis and recommends wearing a respirator, wet-grinding, and wet-mopping the work area.
For more information, consult our article on lapidary health hazards and safety tips.
What is Pounamu or New Zealand Greenstone?
The Maori people of New Zealand have a long history of working jade for a variety of beautiful artistic pieces as well as utilitarian objects. The Maori used nephrite, which they knew as pounamu or greenstone. They also classified bowenite, a green variety of serpentine, as pounamu. Although bowenite and nephrite are distinct minerals, they are both very durable, with properties very suitable for carving. (Of course, jadeite and nephrite are also distinct minerals that have been grouped together as "jade").
For the Maori, pounamu objects held great spiritual significance. Hei-tiki, pendants carved from pounamu, were passed down for generations. The Maori also had a long-standing tradition of gifting pounamu to others and used it to seal bonds and show gratitude. The importance of this material was also reflected in the Maori language. The Maori concept of tatau-pounamu, a "greenstone door," meant a peace agreement between warring parties. Each party chose a hill to symbolize a door that would remain closed to those who wanted violence.
Is There Cat's Eye Nephrite?
Taiwan has produced chatoyant nephrites. However, there is some dispute over what to call this material. Although these stones also belong to the tremolite-actinolite mineral series, their structure differs from nephrite's. Parallel fiber arrangements cause their chatoyancy. These cat's eyes come closer in composition to tremolite and, more commonly, actinolite. (Ferroactinolite content = 10%).
The cat's eyes colors include greenish to honey yellow, dark green, dark brown, and black. Their properties are:
- Optics: a = 1.613-1.616; β = 1.626; γ =1.632-1.637.
- Birefringence: 0.016.
- Specific gravity: 3.01-3.05.
Are There Synthetic Nephrites?
However, many natural gems and synthetic materials can simulate nephrite's external appearance. Possible natural lookalikes (or candidates for misidentification) include amazonite, chrysoprase, pectolite, and serpentine gemstones such as bowenite and verd antique.
Artificial glass material such as "Imori Stones" can approximate nephrites in appearance. However, they have a lower specific gravity.
Do Nephrites Receive Gemstone Enhancements?
Due to its dense structure, nephrites seldom receive dye treatments. They may still receive impregnations, bleaching, and heat treatments to improve color. However, these treatments are more common in jadeite than nephrite.
Where are Nephrites Found?
The principal sources of gem-quality nephrite are Canada, China, and Russia.
- Fraser River, British Columbia, Canada: dark-colored nephrite.
- Russia (Lake Baikal): dark, spinach green color with abundant graphitic black inclusions or spots, very distinctive fine color.
- China (Xinjiang Province): generally light in color. (As June 21, 2022, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act bans the importation of Xinjiang nephrite into the United States).
- Fengtien, Taiwan: spinach green to pea green, in seams in rock; despite abundance of material on market in former years, large pieces are very scarce. Also cat's eyes.
Other notable sources include the following:
- United States: Alaska (green colors, in very large masses, sometimes fibrous and chatoyant); California (alluvial material, various green shades, in boulders up to 1,000 pounds); Wisconsin: (gray-green color, not too attractive); Lander, Wyoming (boulders mottled green with white, very distinctive material).
- Cowell, South Australia: material similar to New Zealand; large amounts potentially available.
- New Zealand: "greenstone," in situ and in boulders, usually dark green to black.
- Poland: creamy white to gray-green, with green patches (near Jordansmuhl).
- Germany; Italy; Japan; Mexico; Mashaba district, Zimbabwe.
Alluvial boulders of several tons are not uncommon in certain localities.
Chinese artists have long mastered the art of carving this material. Some carvings use only one side of a boulder, leaving the rough shape as a background. Immense nephrite brush pots and statues grace many museums around the world. Of special note is the M. M. Vetleson jade collection that occupies an entire room at the Smithsonian Institution.
Large fine pieces are always carved, such as the sculpture Thunder, by Donald Hord, in Wyoming jade (145 pounds).
- American Museum of Natural History (New York): displays a huge block of nephrite from Poland, weighing 4,718 pounds.
- Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC): displays a boulder of several hundred pounds, sliced open, with a thin slab backlit to show the color.
How to Care for Nephrite Jewelry
Untreated nephrite jewelry requires no special care, so you can use mechanical cleaning systems such as steam and ultrasonic. However, use a soft brush, mild detergent, and warm water for treated material or if you're uncertain of treatment. Gemology labs can confirm what, if any, treatments your jewelry has received. See our gemstone jewelry cleaning guide for additional care recommendations.
Joel E. Arem, Ph.D., FGA
Dr. Joel E. Arem has more than 60 years of experience in the world of gems and minerals. After obtaining his Ph.D. in Mineralogy from Harvard University, he has published numerous books that are still among the most widely used references and guidebooks on crystals, gems and minerals in the world.
Co-founder and President of numerous organizations, Dr. Arem has enjoyed a lifelong career in mineralogy and gemology. He has been a Smithsonian scientist and Curator, a consultant to many well-known companies and institutions, and a prolific author and speaker. Although his main activities have been as a gem cutter and dealer, his focus has always been education. joelarem.com
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