Jade reigns as the universal symbol for good luck and has been treasured in China as the royal gemstone for 5,000 years. The Chinese character for jade resembles a capital “I” with a line across the middle. The top of the character represents the heavens, the bottom the Earth and the center section humankind. It has been considered a symbol of love, virtue and status for thousands of years and remains popular today. Jade is traditionally given as a 12th anniversary gift and is believed to strengthen the body and bring longevity to life.
Jade is the term applied to forms of both jadeite and nephrite. The ancient jade carved in China was what we today call nephrite. In the nineteenth century, it was discovered that the material from the new world was not the same mineral as the jade from China. This new and different jade from Central America was called jadeite to distinguish it from the original nephrite. Both are similar in appearance, yet jadeite is considered the true jade and commands higher prices. Though both are quite durable and tough, ranking 6.5-7.0 on Mohs Scale, jadeite is slightly harder than nephrite due to its microcrystalline structure.
Jadeite has a much more vivid green color with finer translucency than nephrite. It is most treasured for its vivid greens, but it also comes in lavender, pink, yellow and white. Nephrite, however, is found in less intense spinach green, white, brown and black colors. While overall color is the most important factor in considering the value of jade, other important criteria are translucency, texture and pattern. Jade is most often sold by the piece rather than per carat. Because of its smooth and even texture, it has long been a preferred material for carving. When placed in jewelry, it is usually cut into smooth dome shapes called cabochons.
Jadeite is primarily mined in Myanmar. Each year, the state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise holds the Myanmar Gems, Jade and Pearl Emporium where boulders are sold to top jade dealers from around the world. The dealers take some high-risk gambles with the jade boulders they purchase. Boulders are sold intact, with only a tiny window cut in the side to expose a small section of the interior. The buyer has no idea what lies inside, whether there is valuable green jadeite or only white or brown-stained inexpensive material. Relying on instinct, buyers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for what may turn out to be exquisite gemstones or huge losses.
The most valuable form of jadeite is known as imperial jade. It is a vivid emerald green color and comes from Myanmar. The Emerald Buddha, a sacred image that is enshrined at Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok, Thailand, is actually beautiful green jadeite. A leek green variety called "Russian Jade" is found near Lake Baikal in Russia. In addition to Myanmar, small quantities of jadeite can be found in Mexico and Central and South America, while nephrite is mined in Australia, Canada, Taiwan and the United States.
In ancient China, Jade was thought to preserve the body after death and was placed in emperors' tombs. One tomb contained an entire suit made of jade, thought to assure the physical immortality of its owner. In Central America, the Olmecs, Mayans and Toltecs also treasured jade and used it for carvings and masks. In Europe, although prehistoric axes and blades carved from jade have been found by archeologists, the gemstone was not popular for jewelry use until the sixteenth century when jade objects were imported from China and, later, Central America. The Portuguese brought home jade pieces from their settlement in China and called jade “piedre de ilharga,” which meant “stone of the loins” because they believed it to be strong medicine for kidney ailments. Jade objects brought to Spain were called by the Spanish version of this phrase, “piedra de hijada.” This became the French word “ejade,” which led to the English word jade.