By Brecken Branstrator
My Rocks On series, which features a different gemstone every month, is one of my favorite projects to tackle. Not only does it often lead to me meeting new designers and gemstone dealers when I interview them about what’s trending and what’s going on in pricing of the stones, it goes a long way toward helping me learn about colored gemstones.

In March, Rocks On featured jadeite. The article started out focusing on jade but quickly became narrower when I learned about the nuances of jade and all that’s included in that. Since not all that information made it into the story, we thought a follow-up blog delving deeper into the specifics of jade would be helpful.

Jeff Mason of jade wholesaler Mason-Kay hopped on the phone with me to help me understand what the term “jade” really means and the characteristics of the two different stones that are actually included in the word--jadeite and nephrite--especially as there remains some confusion, even within the trade.

Nephrite was discovered way before jadeite, some 5,000 years ago, and was highly valued by the Chinese Imperials. Before it began to be used as adornment, it was used for equipment like tools because of its hardness. When jadeite was discovered many years later, they thought that it was just a better deposit of the same stone.

Today, the only nephrite that has real value is the material that has excellent carvings or experts can actually trace back to ancient times. Otherwise there isn’t a huge demand for it when it comes to jewelry, and it’s not nearly as valuable as jadeite.

Nephrite is mostly green and white, both of which are more muted than their jadeite counterparts; due to oxidation, it also comes in some red and orange hues. It’s plentiful and originates from a number of sources, including Taiwan, California, Alaska, British Columbia, Wyoming, New Zealand and Russia.

Mason Kay Color ChartInfographic, courtesy of Mason-Kay, showing the varying colors of jadeite.
Jadeite, meanwhile, is a chemically different stone. This fact wasn’t established until well after it began showing up in China, when French mineralogist Alexis Damour made the discovery in 1863. Jadeite is much more vibrant in color than nephrite, more translucent, much more rare and valuable, and is almost always what is used in fine jewelry. (Though nephrite is readily available and comes in commercial qualities, meaning it can be available in calibrated sizes, it’s not often used.)

“You don’t see nephrite in fine jewelry much. We might see it once in a while, in lower-end, 10-karat jewelry,” Mason said.

Market conditions--supply is diminishing (Myanmar is really the only significant source of fine jadeite these days) but demand is increasing--have caused the price of fine jadeite to skyrocket. Mason added, “As the Chinese economy improves and there are more and more wealthy Chinese citizens, one of the things that they demand is fine jadeite, and they’re willing to pay what it takes."

Jadeite also comes in many more colors; in terms of popularity, the fine green is still tops, followed by lavender and then ice jade, which is starting to be a strong competitor for second place due to its translucency, especially in terms of prices at auction. Then far below those are the other colors--the reds, yellows, browns and whites.

One exception in terms of jewelry, Mason noted, is that most black jade used in fine jewelry is, unlike other colors, nephrite. Black jadeite is rare and somewhat expensive, therefore not used in jewelry too often.  Black nephrite is much more plentiful and not as expensive.

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