The mineral Jade has been valued since the neolithic era, when it was fashioned into beads and ceremonial axe heads used as currency across Japan and China. Whilst western nations traditionally valued gold, silver and the so-called cardinal gems the value of jade in the eastern world surpassed all of these metals and minerals.
Diamonds only found their way to china in the 1980s, passing through Hong Kong to the mainland, but rather than being viewed as objects of adornment they were typically fashioned into implements for cutting jade. Similarly, gold was used as a means to store wealth rather than as jewellery - thus neither of the most valuable materials known to westerners was used for decoration. Jade, on the other hand, was carved into a tremendous variety of items and shapes for the nobility and ruling families of many eastern nations.
Varieties of Jade
Jade is not one mineral, but two different species which are both recognised as jade: Jadeite and Nephrite. The distinction between the two substances is subtle, and difficult to discern with the naked eye alone, but each has its own particular character and history.
Traditional Chinese jade sculptures and jewellery is exclusively nephrite, as the country has no jadeite deposits. Whilst this mineral comes in a variety of colours it is most often light or dark green. It has a resinous lustre - similar to amber.
The densely packed crystals within this type of jade are often invisible to the naked eye, allowing its surface to be highly polished, and to take on a myriad of forms that can be truly spectacular when carved by a master craftsman. The interlocking nature of the crystals also makes this type of jade more resistant to damage, so despite being less dense it is actually the more resilient of the two species.
All nephrite jade was considered extremely precious, but the most valuable by far was white jade, which is rare to find in its pure form. Most white jade contains some other colouration, so pure white jade carvings, ornamentation and jewellery was reserved almost exclusively for the rulers of China.
In contrast to nephrite jade, jadeite is composed of grainy crystals which give it more of a vitreous (glass-like) lustre than its cousin mineral. Jadeite initially made its way into China via Burma (now named Myanmar), and came in much more varied colours than the jade they were accustomed to. Whilst nephrite occasionally exhibits reddish or yellowish hues, jadeite can be yellow, black, white and even lavender.
Jadeite forms the most rare and valuable jade in the world, a bright green substance known as “Imperial Jade”. Its colouration is so vibrant because it contains traces of chromium, the same chemical which creates the beautiful green of the emerald. This type of jadeite is slightly translucent, making it a brighter stone whose value is evident when seen.
Antique Jade Jewellery
Whilst the most ancient and valuable pieces of jade jewellery come from the east there was a great fascination with this verdant stone during the Victorian era, and many western jewellers began to work it into pieces more familiar to a western audience.
Chinese jade was traditionally worked in isolation. A jade bracelet, for example, would be carved from a single piece of jade, with no metalwork or accompanying gemstones. Craftsmen of the west blended the carving of jade with their honed skills in goldsmithing, creating galleries to hold the carved stone and shanks or clasps to transform them into bracelets, earrings, pendants or rings.
Although both varieties of jade are quite resilient (6 on Mohs Hardness scale) it is not impervious, and the inclusion of metals allowed it to be supported and protected when worn. Many pieces of Victorian jade jewellery are not only beautifully crafted, but have survived in remarkably good condition.
The working of jade was also popular during the Art Deco movement, as this ancient material could be worked with the new processes, and according to the new designs of this innovative movement to create exceptional new forms.
Modern Jade Treatments
Modern scientific developments have allowed for a number of treatments to be applied to jade to artificially improve the more valuable characteristics. This has necessitated the introduction of a categorisation which separates pure jade from those which have undergone synthetic improvements. These categorisations only apply to jadeite, and the relative abundance of nephrite makes treatment less prevalent.
Type A jadeite is completely natural, and is the most valuable. Type B jadeite has been subjected to bleaching to improve its colour and impregnation by polymers to strengthen it. Type C has been dyed, and often heat-treated to improve its colour
At Laurelle Antique Jewellery we have many years of experience in seeking out and acquiring the very best antique jade jewellery. You can view our full collection of jade jewellery here.
Have a question about a particular piece of jewellery? Our expert staff are always happy to help. Why not get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone on England: 0333 700 4500