What is Jade?

“Jade” is a cultural term used for a very durable material that has been fashioned into tools, sculptures, jewelry, gemstones, and other objects for over 5,000 years. It was first used to manufacture ax heads, weapons, and tools for scraping and hammering because of its toughness.

Then, because some specimens had a beautiful color and could be polished to a brilliant luster, people started to use jade for gemstones, talismans, and ornamental objects. Although most people who think of jade imagine a beautiful green gemstone, the material occurs in a wide variety of colors that include green, white, lavender, yellow, blue, black, red, orange, and gray.

Are All Jades the Same?Originally, all jade objects were thought to be made from the same material. However, in 1863 a Frenchman, Alexis Damour, discovered that the material known as “jade” could be divided into two different minerals: jadeite and nephrite.

Because these two materials can be difficult to distinguish, and because the word “jade” is so entrenched in common language, the name “jade” is still widely used across many societies, industries, and academic disciplines.

Jadeite, Nephrite, and Science

Jadeite and nephrite have distinctly different mineral compositions. Jadeite is an aluminum-rich pyroxene, while nephrite is a magnesium-rich amphibole. However, the two minerals have very similar physical properties in the eye of the average person. Only trained observers with significant experience are able to reliably differentiate them without mineral testing equipment. This is why jadeite and nephrite were not properly distinguished by scientists until 1863.

 Jadeite, Nephrite, and ArtisansChinese craftsmen have been producing jade objects for over 5,000 years. A few hundred years ago, master Chinese craftsmen who worked with jade daily recognized that some of the jade obtained from Burma (now the Union of Myanmar) was different. It was harder, denser, worked easier, and produced a higher luster upon polishing. It gradually became the form of jade preferred by Chinese artisans and the jade most highly prized by the Chinese people. They realized this long before scientists differentiated jadeite and nephrite in 1863.Unknowingly, Chinese craftsmen had distinguished jadeite from nephrite and appreciated it enough to pay premium prices for jadeite. However, they didn’t have the knowledge and equipment of chemistry and crystallography to distinguish them in a formal way.

Rarely, the Chinese craftsmen encountered fine-grained jadeite with a bright translucence and a rich, uniform green color. This beautiful material was given the name “Imperial Jade” and regarded as the stone of highest quality. At that time in China, ownership of Imperial Jade was reserved only for the Emperor. Now, anyone who can afford it can own Imperial Jade. The best specimens can cost more per carat than high-quality diamonds.

Jade Types and TreatmentsFor thousands of years, the people who manufacture and sell jade objects have found many ways to improve their appearance. Heat, wax, dye, bleach, acid, polymer injection and other treatments have all been used to improve the color, luster and stability of jadeite and nephrite. Although many of these treatments are part of traditional jade manufacturing processes, today’s serious buyers of jade want to know about all treatments that were used in the manufacturing process.

Jade Misnomers

A “misnomer” is an incorrect name. In the gemstone trade many misnomers have been given to materials that look like a more popular or more valuable material even though that name is incorrect. The use of a misnomer can be innocent or derogatory, but the intent is often to associate a product with one that is much more popular or more valuable. Even when done without deceptive intent, the practice can be misleading to many buyers.

An example of a jade misnomer is the use of the name “Mexican jade” for the green-dyed calcite or travertine that is commonly used to produce vases, chess pieces, desk sets and other ornamental objects. Use of the name by a seller in the presence of potential customers can be misunderstood or deceptive.

In 2015 the Federal Trade Commission announced that the next revision of their Guides for the Jewelry, Precious Metals and Pewter Industries will state that “it is unfair or deceptive to mark or describe a product with an incorrect varietal name.” [1] Once that revision is published, anyone who makes commercial use of a jade misnomer could become a fair target for civil or criminal liability. A few of the many jade misnomers are listed below.

“African Jade” – a massive variety of green grossularite garnet found in the Transvaal Province of South Africa

“Amazon Jade” – amazonite, a blue-green microcline feldspar

“American Jade” – californite, a variety of vesuvianite

“Bowenite Jade” – a variety of serpentine resembling nephrite

“Garnet Jade” – a massive variety of green grossularite garnet

“Honan Jade” – a name used for a variety of jade substitutes including jade in quartz, serpentine, soapstone

“Mexican Jade” – green-dyed calcite or greenish travertine

“Indian Jade” – aventurine quartz

“Korean Jade” – a variety of jade look-alikes including glass, soapstone and serpentine

“Manchurian Jade” – soapstone

“Oregon Jade” – green jasper, green grossularite or other jade look-alikes found in Oregon

“Serpentine Jade” – varieties of serpentine that look like jade

“Soochow Jade” – name used for a variety of jade substitutes including jade in quartz, serpentine, soapstone

“South African Jade” – green grossularite found in the Transvaal Province of South Africa

“Transvaal Jade” – green grossularite found in the Transvaal Province of South Africa