China’s Stone of Heaven. Two materials with one name—a grand 5,000-year-history as China’s most revered material—and gems often priced higher than diamonds. Jade is all that and more. It has a well-documented history longer than almost any other gemstone. And it has value throughout Asia beyond what most Westerners can appreciate.
When jadeite reaches fine levels of color, clarity, and translucency, it sells for as much or more than diamonds or emeralds. Because of historical accidents (all explained in the Ward’s new jade book), two different materials, nephrite and jadeite, are known to the world as jade.
Nephrite, China’s long revered Stone of Heaven, is also the jade of New Zealand’s Maori Tiki figures and other native sculptures. Used mainly for carving over thousands of years, today’s nephrite is relatively inexpensive. Available in a variety of colors, nephrite is the toughest material found in nature. China built its culture around nephrite. The emperor spoke to heaven (or God) using a jade disc. A contest’s first-place winner received jade; gold went to second place. Confucius equated the qualities of nephrite to the qualities of a scholar and a gentleman.
Many exciting nephrite objects are made from the unprecedented deposits in Canada’s British Columbia, now the world’s largest jade supplier. Much of the nephrite becomes sculptures, some beads and cabochons for jewelry. There are also numerous exciting possibilities, such as jade tables, bookends, and other very large objects. Enormous jade Buddhas attract viewers around the world. Carvers seek nephrite from Big Sur, California, Wyoming, the Yukon, and Washington.
Jadeite is a relative newcomer to the world’s jewelry scene, but is almost universally what people think of when they hear the word “jade.” Historically, Mesoamerican cultures, Mayan, Olmec, Aztec, Toltec, and Zapotec, regarded jadeite as their most precious material. They fashioned their finest masks and elaborate stone carvings from jadeite. In the late 18th century the Burmese discovered jadeite and introduced it to China, and thus to the world. China’s imperial court was enthralled with jadeite”s brilliant colors and superb polish. Almost instantly, jadeite used for both carvings and for jewelry surpassed all other things as objects of desire in China.
Usually we think of jadeite as green, a green that can rival the color of emeralds. But like nephrite, jadeite also comes in a variety of other colors, from black to red, orange, yellow, lavender, white. Bright, clear, intense green jadeite is the most expensive of all jade. Fine Burmese jadeite, cut in China or Hong Kong, finds its most receptive market in Asia. The second most expensive color is bright deep lavender. All collectors seek the unusual. There is even a unique jadeite named “Galactic Gold,” a rare find in Guatemala. Careful chemical analysis has revealed that this rich black material is laced with colorful precious metal inclusions.