While we tend to think of all jade as the same, there are two main types of jade – nephrite and jadeite. They may look similar at a glance, but these two varieties of jade have major differences, impacting price, beauty, and value.
This article will break down how jade is classified, and what differentiates nephrite and jadeite from each other.
The Classification of Jade
From the very beginning of its use, all jade items were perceived to be made of the same material. However, a few hundred years ago, Chinese craftsmen noticed a difference in the density of jade obtained from different areas. For instance, jade obtained from Burma was denser than most and the easiest to work with, giving a better luster after polishing.
This cluster of jade came to be known as “Imperial Jade” and fetched premium prices compared to the others. In fact, this fine-grained type of jade was reserved only for emperors and the rich, much like high-quality diamonds or amethysts in the past.
What these craftsmen didn’t know at the time was that they had identified jadeite and generally classified the different types of jade. In 1963, Alexis Damour, a Frenchman, augmented the work of these craftsmen by making the scientific differentiation of jade types.
Based on Alexis’ discovery, even though the jadeite and nephrite have very similar physical properties, their chemical compositions are different, with jadeite being high in aluminum pyroxene and nephrite being high in magnesium amphibole. They also differ in terms of availability and even durability.
Even with the difference in the chemical composition being so apparent, the two can be difficult to differentiate by the naked eye.
What is Nephrite?
Nephrite is the common variety of jade – it’s abundant and more affordable than jadeite. Much of the jade you find on the market is nephrite.
This magnesium-rich gem has a pale color, and even though the iron in its composition gives it some green hues, it is most valuable when it comes in shades of white or close to white. In historical China, Nephrite was used to make ceremonial objects, battle armor, and tomb decorations. On the other hand, the Maori used it to make tools and gifts used to seal business deals.
In terms of hardness, nephrite is about 6-6.5 Mohs, which though it may be hard, is still sensitive to scratches. To differentiate between nephrite and jadeite, you can turn the gem onto a side meant to be less visible and scratch it to see if it leaves a small mark. If it does leave a small white mark, then you have in your hands a nephrite – well, if not fake jadeite.
What is Jadeite?
Jadeite is the more valuable variety of the two, and also the more sought after. It’s much rarer than nephrite and commands high prices.
As earlier mentioned, jadeite has very high levels of aluminum which blesses it with a range of colors. The most common types range from apple green to deep green, or even azurite blue-green. In the Olmec community, most of the jade came in Olmec blues, a color they valued for ceremonial ornaments. Additionally, in Central America, the most loved shades of jade are pink, lavender, and black. Safe to say, dark green gems with an almost clear translucency make for the most valuable of all jadeites, while Olmec blue comes in second.
Jadeite is further classified based on the treatment it has gone through to give it luster, color, and stability. Some of the treatments, which have been in use since prehistoric times, include heating, waxing, dyeing, bleaching, and polymer injection. Based on these treatments, jadeite found in stores will be classified into three: A, B, or C.
Type A Jadeite
This is the jadeite that attracts the most serious buyers. This is jade in its natural form. Even though it’s natural, this variety of jade will still go through an enhancement process. After production, the jadeite is boiled in water and dipped into molten wax, which is then wiped off after cooling. This process ensures that any and every irregularity is filled up, giving it a very bright luster and a smooth finish.
Type B Jadeite
These jadeites are polished by soaking in either hydrochloric or sulphuric acid, a process that serves to remove both sodium and oxidation stains. It is further infused with wax to give it lustre and a smooth shine similar to that of type A.
Due to the similarity of the end products, most people are unable to differentiate Type A from Type B. It is important to be careful with the detection of the difference because the treatment applied to the Type B gems can cause their appearance to fade out with time. Yet, if not properly informed, you may buy it at the same price as the premium type A.
Type C Jadeite
These gems undergo the same chemical and wax treatment as type B, but they are dyed to add color and shine. Unfortunately, the dye does not last long, so they may not look the same over time as they did in the beginning. Tests involving spectroscope, gemological filters, or a microscope can often identify these varieties.
Jadeite vs. Nephrite – Which Should I Buy?
Both nephrite and jadeite have their pros and cons. If you’re looking for a valuable, high-quality gemstone, opt for Type A jadeite. These stones retain their value and are the best of all jade types.
However, if you’re looking for the look without a huge price tag, nephrite jade makes for a great gemstone. It’s more affordable, easy to find, and there are endless designs incorporating nephrite.
In terms of their wearability, jadeite is only slightly harder than nephrite. It’s still highly wearable and extremely tough.
Jade Uses Throughout History
One of the most popular gemstones with an extensive color range, jade is used to make jewelry and ornaments. What many may not know, however, is that the gem was traditionally used to make sculptures, tools, and other objects. Additionally, this gemstone is so tough that in prehistoric times, it was used to make weapons, axes, and other hammering and scrapping tools.
Moreover, these stones do not only come in the commonly known green luster but also in grey, white, orange, blue, lavender, red and yellow. It is the beautiful colors and brilliant luster that saw the gem start being used to make ornamental objects and talismans.
Traditionally, the gemstone’s name varied from culture to culture, where they were named based on the illness they were believed to cure. For instance, the Romans referred to jade as “Lapis Nephiriticus”, because they believed that they cured kidney stones, while the French called them “Ijada, L’ejade” and finally “Jade” because they believed they could cure colic and other sores if they rubbed the gemstone against the afflicted area.
Jade in Different Cultures
Jade has roots in different geographical areas, including Asia, Europe, South Africa, South America, New Zealand, and North America, among others. Interestingly, in all these civilizations, the most sacred objects and gifts for rulers were made of jade, mainly because of its beauty and appeal.
However, it is in China where this precious stone found the most reverence. In fact, the Chinese refer to jade as ‘Yu’, meaning “Royal Gem”. This is because Chinese emperors came up with magnificent items made of jade that they used for trade, a feat that consequently put China on the map as the biggest manufacturer and consumer of jade items. Moreover, for any gift to be worthy of a big event such as a wedding, birthday, or anniversary, it had to be made of jade.
No matter the type, Jade stones are valuable and extremely beautiful. As such, they are a great gem to use for jewelry. Always purchase from a reputable seller so you can ensure that the jade you’re purchasing is what it’s claimed to be.