Collecting guide: Jadeite jewellery

Prized for its translucency and aqueous quality, jadeite has been one of the most sought-after gemstones in China for centuries. Illustrated with pieces offered from The World of Heidi Horten, offered in May 2023 at Christie’s in Genava

An exceptional Bulgari jadeite and diamond necklace from the collection of Heidi Horten

Exceptional Bulgari jadeite and diamond necklace. Sold for CHF4,885,000 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

Jade or jadeite — what’s the difference?

The term ‘jade’ is actually a catch-all term that encompasses two separate minerals: nephrite, which is more opaque and traditionally used for sculptural objects and ornaments; and jadeite, which is more translucent and can be polished to a high lustre, making it more suitable for jewellery.

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A jadeite and diamond ring. Oval jadeite cabochon measuring approximately 18.60 x 17.40 x 11.40 mm, pear-shaped and round diamonds, 18k gold. Sold for CHF541,800 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

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A jadeite and diamond ring. Oval jadeite cabochon measuring approximately 26.80 x 21.30 x 11.80 mm, round diamonds, 18k yellow gold. Sold for CHF630,000 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

In ancient China, whatever a stone was actually made of, if you thought it beautiful enough then you could call it ‘jade’. Now we have the technology to examine the chemical properties of a stone and discover whether it is jadeite or nephrite.

When did jadeite become popular in China?

Unlike nephrite, which has been an important material in Chinese art for more than a thousand years, jadeite only arrived from Burma in 1784. By the beginning of the 19th century it had become widely sought-after, its popularity perhaps boosted by the Empress Dowager Cixi’s enthusiasm for the stone.

As a result, military officers and noblemen amassed as much jadeite as possible so that they could gift it to the royal household and wear it themselves, leading to an astronomical rise in value.

Today, owing to limited production in Burma and the stone’s continued popularity among Chinese buyers, jadeite is still considered one of the top gemstones in the Eastern market, alongside coloured diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

A jadeite and diamond pendent necklace. Oval jadeite cabochons, the largest measuring approximately 22.80 x 18.30 x 9.50 mm, round diamonds, 18k white gold. Size/dimensions: pendant 4.8 cm; chain 44.0 cm. Sold for CHF390,600 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

Why is jadeite so prized?

One of the reasons jadeite is so prized for jewellery is what is referred to as its ‘water content’ in Chinese. Its crystalline structure enables rays of light to penetrate the stone easily, to reflect and refract light. This translucency makes it look as if there is water inside the stone itself, which is what makes jadeite so special.

A magnificent pair of jadeite and diamond ear studs. Each set with a thick high-domed jadeite cabochon of very even brilliant emerald green colour and high translucency, to the brilliant-cut diamond gallery, the back enhanced by diamond-set scrolls, mounted in 18k white gold, cabochons approximately 26.41 x 21.81 x 11.08 and 26.40 x 21.92 x 11.61 mm. Sold for HK$51,640,000 on 25 November 2014 — a world auction record for a pair of jadeite earrings

What does jade symbolise?

Prized by scholars and collectors for centuries, jade has traditionally symbolised purity, knowledge and righteousness, as well as protection. Many still believe that the stone protects its wearer from harm, and promotes wealth.

A pair of jadeite and diamond earrings. Oval jadeite cabochons, the largest measuring approximately 18.80 x 16.10 x 8.60 mm, marquise-shaped and round diamonds, 18k white gold. Size/dimensions: 2.7 cm. Sold for CHF378,000 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

How are jewellers able to create such intricate designs with jadeite?

When it comes to precious stones, it’s important to distinguish between toughness and hardness: diamond is the hardest material in the world, but brittle; jadeite is much tougher. When you apply force to a ruby, a diamond or a sapphire, it can easily break, but you can carve and pierce jadeite without damaging it.

Jewellers are therefore able to apply intricate designs onto jade, such as a spiderweb or honeycomb motif, which would be impossible on other gemstones.

Does size matter?

There are only two sizes that matter in the jadeite market — simply put, these are small and large. Small generally indicates beads with a diameter between 8 and 11 mm, while large beads would range from 12 to 17 mm in diameter, or even more.

A superb two-strand jadeite and diamond necklace. Two strands of sixty jadeite beads measuring approximately from 14.60 to 11.70 mm, square-shaped and round diamonds, 18k white gold, clasp detachable and wearable as a brooch, clasp signed Cartier, numbered. Size/dimensions: 40.2 cm shortest strand; clasp-brooch 3.7 cm. Sold for CHF1,618,000 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

In ‘large’ bead necklaces, the biggest three or five pieces might be over 15 or 16 mm in diameter, but you’ll often find that the beads close to the clasp are only 12 or 13 mm in diameter. Truly remarkable pieces are those that have beads of a uniform size.

The bead necklace is the most valuable and sought-after style of jadeite jewellery because it’s difficult to match the quality and size of the beads. In 2017, Christie’s in Hong Kong offered a rare necklace that was composed of 29 jadeite pieces, with every bead a consistent 15 mm in diameter. From a low estimate of HK$56.8 million, the final price was HK$95 million — about US$12 million.

A Tamara Comolli jadeite and diamond bracelet. Eight jadeite cabochons (closed back), the largest measuring approximately 15.60 x 13.60 x 6.30 mm, round and oval-shaped diamonds, 18k yellow gold. Size/dimensions: 16.0 cm. Sold for CHF516,600 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva


An exceptional Bulgari jadeite and diamond necklace. Twenty-five jadeite beads measuring approximately 21.1 to 15.9 mm, carved jadeite, round diamonds, 18k white gold. Estimate on request. Offered in The World of Heidi Horten Part I on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

How important is colour?

Another contributing factor to value can be colour: jadeite comes in many colours, with green the most common. Others include lavender, yellow, red and brown; some stones are even black or colourless.

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When it comes to green, there are myriad different tones that can affect the value of the stone. Some greens are too dark, greyish or yellowish. The best is what we call ‘strict’ green, with the highest saturation and a medium to medium-dark tone, almost like a ‘vivid emerald’ green, also known as ‘imperial’ green.

How much does jadeite cost?

Unlike diamonds or other prized gemstones, jadeite can be bought for as little as HK$1,000 — but this won’t bring you the best quality.

It’s important to check that the jadeite has not been treated: it must be natural, untreated and from Burma. You also have to take into account other considerations such as colour, translucency and size.

Where possible, to get a real sense of a stone’s beauty, you should see it in person. Diamonds, rubies and sapphires tend to reveal most of their characteristics in photographs and still look visually appealing, but jadeite is difficult to capture accurately on film. Handling a piece, and examining it under different lighting conditions, will give you a true appreciation of its qualities.

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