All that glitters is not gold, and all green stones are not jade. Not that you’d know it considering every money-grubbing seller of semi-precious rocks and stones is more than willing to claim whatever cheap-ass stone they are trying to convince you to buy is in fact jade. The sad thing is that 80% of the time they are telling the truth, it just might not be the ‘jade’ you are thinking of.
With Valentines Day just around the corner, a quick primer on buying jade seems to be in order. Sure roses, chocolates, and cute plush animals bearing hearts are more traditional gifts (and probably cheaper too). And sure your boy du jour would rather have something in gold (‘cuz that is easily convertible into baht). But no Asian worth his salt will ever turn down a piece of jade. Jade has a long history in Asia. It’s considered to bring good luck and protect from danger and harm. And the real stuff, the jade that can easily max out your credit card, all comes from Burma. Which, I understand the locals now pronounce Myanmar. ‘Jade’ however they still pronounce the same: big bucks.
From both a legal and gemologist viewpoint, there are two types of real jade. Jadeite and nephrite. Those are the ones you really need to know about. We’ll come back to them in a sec. First lets talk about all the fake jade, the majority of which can be sold legally as jade.
I know what you’re thinking. Sounds like Thai logic. But in this case the ability to scam a customer legally is a world-wide problem. Like all scams, it requires greed on the part of the buyer. Unlike most scams it does not require dishonesty on the part of the seller. Well, not much.
You can legally call stones that are not jade, jade as long as you add a descriptive word first. In Hong Kong, one of the favorite terms is ‘old’ jade, followed closely by ‘new’ jade. There’s also Soo Chow jade, Hunan jade, Chinese jade, and Hong Kong jade, among others. Then there’s all the colors of the rainbow: yellow jade, pink jade, purple or lavender jade . . . you get the picture. And if you are not careful, you also get to pay jade prices for an inferior stone. (By the way, I’m personally responsible for the term Butter Jade. I started selling cheap pieces of yellow aventurine as butter jade decades ago and now you’ll find that term used all over the world. Mmmmmm, I think I need to start a Wikipedia page.)
A reputable dealer selling real jade will refer to it as jadeite or nephrite. But then part of the problem is that some will say Burmese jade, which is where most of the world’s supply of jadeite comes from, and others – because natural (kinda) color determines value – will make a big thing out of the piece they are selling being lavender jade. If the seller knows you are knowledgeable though they will instead describe the stone, for example, as jadeite from Burma, or lavender jadeite.
Most fake jade is actually serpentine, a cheap stone that often mimics the color of nephrite jade and which can be found all over the world. Some sell aventurine as jade too, and it is even more common and less expensive than serpentine. Soapstone is another favorite fake jade. If it is a rock and green in color, you can bet someone out there is selling it as jade. And the real crooks will try to pawn off glass or plastic as jade.
As for the real stuff, jadeite is the more precious of the two. The most desirable colors of jade are the deep emerald greens of imperial jade. White and lavender jade are also highly regarded for their rarity. Jadeite also comes in browns, oranges, pale yellows, and greys. Jadeite has a glassy luster and a translucency that is hard to match. This is the jade that fetches thousands of dollars for a simple piece of jewelry. While the highest quality jade is transparent and is compared to the consistency and clarity of honey, jadeite can also be opaque, lacking the depth that drives the higher prices. So you can find cheap jadeite, though comparable to other stones it will still not be inexpensive.
Nephrite, a more plentiful type of jade, comes out of many areas of the world from China to the United States and Canada. Nephrite jade tends to occur in shades of brown as well as green and white. It generally has a darker, more mottled color and a waxy look to it. While generally much less expensive than jadeite, when worked by a master carver a piece of nephrite can run into the thousands of dollars too. Nephrite that comes from some areas is highly valued because of its color, and the price of nephrite from New Zealand, where it is called pounamu, is expensive due to both its amazing luster and because it is a protected export under the Treaty of Waitangi.
It’s easy to confuse the two. In fact it wasn’t until the 19th century that a French mineralogist determined that jade was in fact two different materials. Even in China where jadeite reigns supreme, before the late 1800s when jadeite began to be imported from Burma, it was nephrite that was considered to be the stone of the emperors. A chemical analysis can be conducted to determine if a piece of jade is jadeite or nephrite, but for most purchases that’s an expensive step that the cost of the stone doesn’t justify. While a cheap piece of nephrite will never pass as jadeite to a knowledgable consumer, a good piece can. But then it may be worth the price anyway. The best test for the amateur is the feel of the stone. Nephrite has a slightly waxy feel to it, jadeite always feels cool to the touch.
Perhaps not surprisingly, nephrite is seldom enhanced while jadeite is almost always treated to improve its appearance, especially to make its color greener. The treatments are usually either impregnating the stone with dyed polymers, which fills in the fissures and cracks in the jade, or heating, which intensifies the natural color. (80% of the gemstones on the market today are treated, by the way, usually by heat or radiation, as consumers have shown preference for vivid color over untreated, less colorful stones). Some jade is just dyed, though these pieces are usually quite inexpensive to begin with. Both lavender jade and the vivid apple green of imperial jade in their natural state are quite pricey. So if you find a piece of lavender jade for under $50, it has been dyed (that same piece in natural lavender would run you over $5,000.)
A grading system is used by reputable dealers to identify which, if any, type of enhancement has been used on a piece of jadeite. Grade A is jadeite that has not been enhanced, it is natural and usually commands top dollar. Grade B is treated to remove brown or yellow impurities between grain cracks and boundaries, and then a clear polymer resin is used to fill the void left by the impurities. The polymer will improve the transparency and color of the jade. Grade B jadeite is still quite expensive, the treatment is considered to be used to refine the piece rather than to mask its faults as in the case of Grade C.
When a piece of jadeite has been dyed or stained to give it better color it is Grade C. The stone loses its translucency in this treatment, and over time the color will fade. Grade C jadeite should be relatively inexpensive, but unscrupulous dealers will try to sell Grade C jadeite as natural jade. Really poor piece of jadeite get both the Grade B and Grade C treatments and are basically worthless. But that’s the jadeite you’ll see sold at street markets and on on-line auctions.
Treatment aside, the value of jadeite is determined by color, clarity, and transparency. Color is the most important factor in the quality of jadeite. The hue, saturation, tone, and color distribution of the piece all come into play. Top quality jadeite is pure green (hue), its color appears intense even from a distance (saturation), it is neither light or dark (tone), and the color is even throughout the piece (distribution). Note however distribution means the piece is of a single color and not marred by impurities not that the saturation of the color is the same throughout. Real jade is not uniform in color, fake jade is.
Clarity refers to imperfections that impair the passage of light. The finest jadeite has no inclusions or other defects that are visible to the naked eye. Transparency means the piece has depth and you can see through it, the best jadeite is semi-transparent. Opaque jadeite or material with cloudy patches typically has the least value. Interestingly, even if the overall color is uneven or low in saturation, jadeite can still be quite valuable if it has good transparency.
Short of hiring a professional gemologist or hiring a lab to test your piece, how do you know you are buying real jade?
Most will tell you jade is a hard stone and not easily scratched. They’re right. Both nephrite and jadeite are harder than steel, if you can scratch a stone with a knife it is not jade. But try and perform a scratch test on a piece you are considering buying. Make sure a friend is capturing you on video when you do ‘cuz you’ll have a hit for YouTube. Yes, Jade should not scratch when you run a piece of metal against it, but that’s worthless advice; you’ll never get away with scratch testing a piece of jade whether it’s fake or the real thing. However, there are a few tests you can get away with:
Texture. Jade has a shine and luster to it unlike any other stone. Even the cheapest piece accepts a high polish. Run your fingernail across the stone. If it feels bumpy then it is probably not jade.
Weight. Jade is dense, it’s heavy, you can feel the weight of the stone. Nephrite and jadeite are both heavier than glass and most other rocks of similar size.
Temperature. It’s not unusual to see Asian buyers touch jade to their cheeks to feel its temperature. Jade is cool to the touch. Even in a warm environment, jade should feel cool to the touch. If you are unsure, clasp the jade piece in your closed hand until it has warmed to the same temperature as your body. Then set the jade aside for 30 seconds. Touch it with the tip of your finger (or tongue if you want to gross people out). Real jade does not retain heat well and should feel very cool.
Sound. Jade lets off an amazing tone when hit with other stones, metal, or glass. It will chime like a bell if it is authentic. Think of it as the sound of crystal versus glass. Real jade pieces produce a pleasant and resonating sound; fake jade sounds like marbles rattling in a jar or glasses clinking. This is also one of the ways to determine if the stone is A, B or C grade jade because the more natural and untreated the stone is the more chime-like tone it will produce.
There is also the ‘hair’ test. Wrap a piece of hair tightly around the jade, then use the flame from a lighter and wave it underneath the hair. If the hair burns it is not jade. If left unburned then the stone is real jade. But this test is just a step above the scratch test and you’ll be hard pressed to find a dealer, reputable or not, who will allow you to start burning his stones.
Jade is one of the most highly prized semi-precious stones, with good reason. It has a look and feel that is unsurpassed. Knowing just a bit about the differences of the two types of jade, and how to spot fake jade can help you to make a confident purchase and get a good deal on the piece you buy. Probably the best piece of advice in buying jade is to not be greedy. If the price seems to good to be true, it probably is. Then that stone just became a lucky piece of jade for the seller. Especially if it wasn’t really jade.
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