Monday, September 3, 2012

The Two Faces of Jade

Carved Chinese Nephrite Basin
Photo Credit: Cultural China--Arts

For over 7,000 years jade has remained firmly seated on the throne in China as the most favored gemstone. The ethereal green stone (the most favored color of jade) has oft been more highly valued than even gold or diamonds, especially in Asian cultures. At one time, it was thought to be the stone of the gods, and it has frequently been used to distinguish the upper crust of China's elite.

Similarly, for over 3,000 years jade ranked as the most precious gemstone among the ancient people groups in Mesoamerica (Central America and Mexico), starting with the Olmecs, then the Mayans, and later the Aztecs. Jade remained the stone of choice in the Americas until the Spanish brought gold fever to the Gulf Coast in the 1500s.

As different as the Chinese are from the Mesoamerican people groups, so is the distinction between Olmec jade and Chinese jade. Though the Olmec people discovered their bluish-green jade as early as 1200 BC, it wouldn't be until the late 1700s AD that the Chinese would get their hands on this more illustrious jade, sourced not from the Americas, but instead from Burma (now Myanmar).

Olmec Jade Carving, circa 10th-6th cent. BC
Photo Copyright 2000-2012, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo Credit: The Photograph Studio

It would be another 100 years or more after this "new jade" began circulating in China that the mineralogical differences between the two would be proven categorically by a French professor named Alexis Damour. China's traditional jade was called nephrite, a variation of nephriticus, the Latin word for kidney.

The Burmese jade, like the jade found in Mesoamerica, was named jadeite, a variation of the Spanish phrase piedra de ijada, which means "stone of the side." Both types of jade had long been used by ancient peoples on both continents to cure all manner of kidney and stomach ailments.

In addition to its use as a healing stone, both types of jade were carved into tools, weapons, personal adornments, ornaments, and ritual objects. Today, jadeite reigns as the king of jade, being the most commercially traded of the two types. Though jewelry is made from both nephrite and jadeite, emerald green jadeite, also called "Imperial Jade," is the most prized for making pendants, rings, and earrings.

Read more about Jadeite Jade.

Read more about jadeite's fraternal twin, Nephrite Jade.


1. "China, Ming Dynasty, Buffalo, 1368-1644." Accessed September 29, 2012.
2. Jacobs, Andrew. "Jade from China's West Surpasses Gold in Value." The New York Times, Published online September 20, 2010.
3. Keverne, Roger, ed. Jade. New York: Lorenz Books, 1995.
4. "Research Features Jade: Stone of Heaven." University of Cambridge. Last modified May 1, 2008.
5. Roberts, Stephanie. "Jade: The Stone of Heaven." Fast Feng Shui. Last modifiied December 14, 2005.
6. Sun, Tay Thye. "The Changing Face of Jade." SSEF Alumni Newsletter, No. 3, January 2006, 5-6.

*Clip art courtesy of The Graphics Fairy

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