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.
In ancient China people believed that whatever the substance was, if you thought it was beautiful enough then you could call it ‘jade’. Now there is technology that can look into the chemical and physical properties of a stone to 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 1,000 years, jadeite only arrived from Burma in 1784. By the beginning of the 19th century it had become widely sought-after, its popularity perhaps due to the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was a great enthusiast of the stone.
This led to military officers and noblemen amassing as much as possible so that they could gift it to the royal household and wear it themselves, which resulted in an astronomical rise in value.
Today, due to limited production in Burma and its continued popularity among Chinese buyers, jade is still considered to be one of the ‘top gemstones’ in the Eastern market alongside coloured diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
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. The crystalline structure of jade is finer, enabling rays of light to penetrate the stone more easily to reflect and refract light. This translucency produces the effect of water inside the stone itself, which is what makes jadeite so special.
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 creating factors.
Jewellers are therefore able to apply intricate designs onto jade, such as spiderweb or honeycomb motifs that would be impossible on other gemstones.
What does jade symbolise?
Prized by scholars and collectors for centuries, jade symbolised purity, knowledge and righteousness, as well as protection. Many still believe that the stone protects its wearer from harm, and promotes wealth.
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.
When appraising ‘large’ bead necklaces people generally refer to the biggest three or five pieces being 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 an estimate of HK$56.8 million, the final price was HK$95 million — about US$12 million.
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, brown or even black or colourless stones. 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 so that it is almost like a ‘vivid emerald’ green, also known as ‘imperial’ green.
How much does jadeite cost?
Unlike diamonds or other prized gemstones, the entry point to jadeite can start from 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. Budget is very important, but you also have to take into account other considerations such as colour, translucency and size.
Where possible, one should see jade pieces in person to truly appreciate a stone’s beauty and effect under light. Unlike diamonds, rubies and sapphires — which tend to reveal most of their characteristics under camera and still look visually appealing — it is difficult to accurately capture jadeite. Handling the piece, and examining it under different light, will give you a true appreciation of its mutable qualities.