Collecting guide: Jadeite jewellery

Prized for its translucency and the aqueous quality, jadeite has been one of the most sought-after gemstones in China for centuries. Illustrated with pieces offered at Christie’s

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.

A jadeite and tortoise shell hair pin. Set to the top with a jadeite arc, joined to a tortoise shell double hair pin, mounted in gold, hair pin 11.1 cm. Sold for HK$32,500 on 29 May 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A jadeite and tortoise shell hair pin. Set to the top with a jadeite arc, joined to a tortoise shell double hair pin, mounted in gold, hair pin 11.1 cm. Sold for HK$32,500 on 29 May 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

A superb jadeite bangle. The semi-cylindrical jadeite bangle of brilliant emerald green colour and high translucency, inner diameter approximately 53.7 mm, width approximately 13.8 mm, thickness approximately 8.2 mm. Sold for HK$40,440,000 on 27 May 2014 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A superb jadeite bangle. The semi-cylindrical jadeite bangle of brilliant emerald green colour and high translucency, inner diameter approximately 53.7 mm, width approximately 13.8 mm, thickness approximately 8.2 mm. Sold for: HK$40,440,000 on 27 May 2014 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

A suite of jadeite and diamond jewellery. Comprising a necklace, set with 15 oval jadeite cabochons, each within an oval-shaped diamond surround, to the pear and marquise-cut diamond floral spacers, a ring and a pair of earrings en suite, mounted in gold, largest cabochon approximately 17.8 x 15.2 x 7.2 mm, necklace 37 cm, ring size 6, ear pendants 2.4 cm. Sold for HK$24,060,000 on 29 November

A suite of jadeite and diamond jewellery. Comprising a necklace, set with 15 oval jadeite cabochons, each within an oval-shaped diamond surround, to the pear and marquise-cut diamond floral spacers, a ring and a pair of earrings en suite, mounted in gold, largest cabochon approximately 17.8 x 15.2 x 7.2 mm, necklace 37 cm, ring size 6, ear pendants 2.4 cm. Sold for HK$24,060,000 on 29 November 2016

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.

A jadeite and tourmaline pendant necklace. Suspending a jadeite carving, one side depicting a boy and a bat, the other side carved with foliate motifs, to the tourmaline bead and length adjustable silk cord, carving approximately 35.8 x 22.2 x 8.5 mm. Sold for HK$562,500 on 29 May 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A jadeite and tourmaline pendant necklace. Suspending a jadeite carving, one side depicting a boy and a bat, the other side carved with foliate motifs, to the tourmaline bead and length adjustable silk cord, carving approximately 35.8 x 22.2 x 8.5 mm. Sold for: HK$562,500 on 29 May 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

A superb jadeite and diamond bracelet. Designed as a line of six oval jadeite cabochons, alternating with circular-cut diamond collets, mounted in gold, largest cabochon approximately 14.9 x 12.9 x 5.9 mm, bracelet 18.2 cm. Sold for HK$15,040,000 on 31 May 2016 — a world auction record for a jadeite bracelet

A superb jadeite and diamond bracelet. Designed as a line of six oval jadeite cabochons, alternating with circular-cut diamond collets, mounted in gold, largest cabochon approximately 14.9 x 12.9 x 5.9 mm, bracelet 18.2 cm. Sold for HK$15,040,000 on 31 May 2016 — a world auction record for a jadeite bracelet

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 Jadeite and Diamond Necklace. Composed of sixty-nine jadeite beads, measuring approximately 8.2 to 10.8 mm, spaced by a pair of jadeite hoops and an oval-shaped diamond, weighing approximately 1.50 carats, to the similarly-cut diamond clasp, weighing approximately 3.02 carats, mounted in platinum, largest hoop diameter approximately 18.6 mm, thickness approximately 6.8 mm, necklace 73.5 cm. Sold

A Jadeite and Diamond Necklace. Composed of sixty-nine jadeite beads, measuring approximately 8.2 to 10.8 mm, spaced by a pair of jadeite hoops and an oval-shaped diamond, weighing approximately 1.50 carats, to the similarly-cut diamond clasp, weighing approximately 3.02 carats, mounted in platinum, largest hoop diameter approximately 18.6 mm, thickness approximately 6.8 mm, necklace 73.5 cm. Sold for: HK$33,700,000 on 29 May 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

An extraordinary jadeite bead, ruby and diamond necklace. Composed of 29 graduated jadeite beads, measuring approximately 14.7 to 15.9 mm, to the cabochon ruby and old-cut diamond clasps, mounted in gold, 48.0 cm. Sold for HK$95,725,000 on 28 November 2017 — Christie’s auction record for a jadeite bead necklace

An extraordinary jadeite bead, ruby and diamond necklace. Composed of 29 graduated jadeite beads, measuring approximately 14.7 to 15.9 mm, to the cabochon ruby and old-cut diamond clasps, mounted in gold, 48.0 cm. Sold for HK$95,725,000 on 28 November 2017 — Christie’s auction record for a jadeite bead necklace

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.

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 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

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.