Mention jade, and most people think of a green stone, when in fact, jade comes in a variety of colors. In addition to the familiar rich green hues, antique jade may be white, lavender, yellow, brown, gray, or reddish-purple.
Another important thing to understand about jade is that there are two different types of jade stones: nephrite and jadeite. Both can be found in river beds, or mined at depths of ten to twenty feet, and both come in all colors, though nephrite’s colors are less vivid than the colors of jadeite. Hence, identifying the two stone types can be difficult.
Nephrite has been used in China since prehistoric times for weapons and ritual objects. It wasn’t until the 18th century that large quantities of jadeite were imported from Burma, the country recognized as having some of the best jadeite in the world. The finest, emerald green pieces were much favored by the Qinlong Emperor, resulting in the term “imperial jade.”
Imperial jade is not the only sought-after form of antique jade. Collectors also prize fine, white nephrite carvings for their translucent surface. Some jade contains dark russet inclusions, which early jade carvers would often work into the design of their pieces. Beautiful inclusions may also increase the value of a piece of jade.
The preference for “imperial jade,” especially in fine jewelry, has resulted in various substitutes for real jade. Aventurine and calcite are among the most common. Organic dyes may also be used to enhance or color nephrite, jadeite, or their substitutes. Stones must be carefully inspected with a magnifying glass to look for traces of dye. A gemologist can also test for dyes.
If you’re interested in purchasing antique jade, imperial or other, it’s important to inspect the pieces carefully to understand the differences and ensure authenticity.
Identifying Jade: Nephrite or Jadeite?
• The surface of jadeite tends to be vitreous or glassy.
• Nephrite’s surface tends to appear waxy or greasy.
• Real jade is cold to the touch and quickly absorbs the warmth of your hand. However, several substitutes will also pass this test.
Connoisseurship of jade requires more than a quick examination. To learn what qualifies as the best examples, or to ensure that a piece of jade is real, I recommend consulting with an expert. It also helps to visit fine jade collections at museums, galleries, and auction houses. Handling the pieces and asking questions about their provenance, history, and value is the path to understanding and enjoying the magical qualities of jade.
Our next Asian Works of Art auction on September 21st and 22nd, 2012 features a fine selection of jades. You’re welcome to join us at the preview in Boston starting on September 19th.