NEW YORK — Jade is having a bit of a moment, which is a pleasant surprise. Until recently, the gemstone was thought of as too traditional, strictly belonging to Grandmother’s or Auntie’s generation. Today, Instagram is filled with photos of young women flaunting their prized jade jewelry, and desirable pieces are bringing strong prices at auction.
What is called jade is actually one of two minerals: jadeite or nephrite. For centuries, both have been coveted for their beauty. The best examples of each have consistent coloring, a high degree of translucency and a fine texture thanks to small crystal structures in the stone that allow light to pass through evenly.
Both are made from a silicate of calcium and magnesium, rendering them hard and resistant to scratching and making them well-suited for jewelry. Jade is commonly found near or along fault lines of serpentine group minerals (aka serpentinites, which are named for their resemblance to snake skin). Countries rich in these deposits include Canada, Myanmar, China, Russia and New Zealand.
Nephrite jade has sometimes been referred to as Chinese jade, as the country is well known for its deposits of nephrite. Jade is a cultural icon in China, regarded as auspicious and said to symbolize heaven and worship. Nicknamed the stone of heaven, jade was thought to have such purity as to ward off decay after death and bring living wearers to a higher spiritual state while offering them luck and protection.
Jadeite comes in several colors, from pale purple to russet brown and even black, but green jadeite is, of course, the top choice for many collectors. The green coloration comes from the presence of the chemical element chromium, which gives jadeite this cherished hue. Owing to its translucency, color and rarity, jadeite is often more expensive than nephrite.
While nephrite jade can come in several colors, from translucent white to a rich green often called imperial green, many prefer examples boasting a bright, candy-like shade of green. Possessing the green hue most coveted by jade collectors is a Burma jade Guanyin pendant set in 18K gold and surrounded with diamonds that attained $800,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Huamao Auction House in August 2020. The Buddha is a traditional motif in Asian art and jewelry.
Color is one of the most important factors that collectors look for when purchasing jade jewelry. Careful buyers note the intensity of the color saturation and how evenly it is distributed through the piece of jade, or if it is in patches. They will also note the brilliance of a piece, which can range from dull to bright. A gemologist’s report will indicate whether the stone is natural or dyed and if any heat treatments were applied.
Jade is ranked according to a system developed in China in which jadeite that is natural or polished with wax only earns an A grade, while B-rated jade describes stones that were bleached with acid, followed by the addition of a polymer resin. Dyed jade invariably receives a C rating. An icy green jadeite pendant that realized $350,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Empire Auction House, Inc., was described as natural and A-class. Auctioneers will often obtain gemological reports when selling jade or valuable gemstones and will include the class of the jade in its online catalog listings in order to attract buyers.
Jade is particularly rich in symbolism and jewelers often imbue other symbolic features into a piece, as seen in a pair of David Webb 18K scepter jade and hammered gold drop dangling earrings that sold for $48,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Joshua Kodner. The shape of a scepter is thought to have religious importance as a symbol of the lotus, which is a sacred flower in Buddhism.
Another traditional shape is the bi disc, a classic form that dates to the Neolithic era. A carved white jade bi-disc pendant achieved $310,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Bellaire’s Auction in December 2019. A highlight in that jewelry auction, the pendant takes the shape of a flat circular jade piece with a hole in the center and it is typically decorated with auspicious symbols. This type of jade is highly prized in China. Given how hard jade is, it’s easy to appreciate the craftsmanship required for the intricate and delicate carving of this piece.
Because jade is a hard material, bangle bracelets can be carved from large raw slabs of the gemstone without fear that the finished piece would easily break. These bangle bracelets can be left plain after they are polished or carved with elaborate details. A Qing dynasty-style jade emerald bangle that made $700,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018 at Harvard Auction Inc is elegant in its simple design — the better to showcase the jade’s beauty.
While jade is tough and resilient, owners of jade jewelry should take care to clean pieces only with water and a mild soap, drying them quickly and gently. Also, those who own dyed modern jade pieces should not display them at length in sunlit areas, lest they fade. And, of course, collectors should fully enjoy their jades, no matter the color, the size or the shape, knowing that the stone has been adored by countless generations past.