Whereas in Europe, coloured gemstones such as sapphires and rubies were used in particular, jade has been the most popular gemstone in South America and Asia for centuries. In China, jade has been a symbol of status and purity for millennia. The mineral jade actually consists of two mineral groups, jadeite and nephrite.
In South America, too, jade is a material with an ancient history. The Maya and Aztecs used jadeïet not only to carve religious and utilitarian objects, but also to make powder from it for medicinal purposes. The name 'jade' comes from the Spanish 'pietra de ijada'. 'stone of side pain'. Early Spanish explorers noticed that the inhabitants of South America tied pieces of the mineral around their waists to cure or alleviate various aches and pains.
Jade, however, is best known for its age-old relationship with Chinese culture. Nefrite jade was already used 3000 years before Christ. In China, they called the material 'yu', which means 'royal gemstone'. World famous are the shrouds, made of countless small nephrite jade slices, that have been found in tombs from the second century BC, from about 3000 BC. The first jadeïet reached China from Myanmar and early nineteenth-century sculptors created masterpieces that are still unsurpassed in concept, design and technical execution. The rarest variety was intended exclusively for the Chinese emperors. The mineral was considered so special that Chinese emperors even waged wars to obtain special pieces. To this day, jade symbolises prosperity, success and good fortune, and is therefore often worn as a talisman.
Many people are not aware that jade actually consists of two materials, nephrite and jadeite. Both are minerals that consist of very small mineral crystals that cannot be distinguished with the naked eye. Because jade actually consists of a combination of very small mineral crystals, the material is very strong and can be used to carve utensils: a well-known example of this are jade bracelets, which are made from a single piece of gemstone.
Jadeite comes in a wide range of attractive colours: many shades of green, yellow and reddish orange, plus white, grey, black, brown and lavender (often a light purple or light grey violet colour). The colour is often streaked or mottled, giving jadeite gemstones an interesting visual texture that sculptors can use to create imaginative and intriguing effects.
The quality of jade is determined in a different way than most other gemstones. Many gemstones are transparent and faceted to let light through. Jade is semi-transparent to opaque and is therefore usually cut into small sculptures. Jade is therefore primarily judged by the colour and brilliance of the material.
High-quality jadeïet is semi-transparent and has an oily sheen. Lower quality jade is opaque and has a less oily sheen. The best-known colour of jade is green, but the mineral occurs in a wide range of colours, from white to yellow and lilac to bright red, blue and brown. In Asia, white is the most valuable colour, but green and purple jade are also very popular. Nephrite is also accepted as jade in the international gem and jewellery industry. It ranges from translucent to opaque and can be light to dark green, yellow, brown, black, grey or white. The colours are more muted than those of jadeite, and the material is often mottled or striped.
(Modern gemologists use the word 'jade' as a collective term for both nephrite and jadeite. These gemstones have been associated with each other throughout history. In fact, the term jade has also been applied to a number of gemstones and decorative materials that resemble jade, and even to some man-made equivalents that resemble jadeite and nephrite).