In the modern world, many people use the word “jade” to generalize two different precious gemstones — “Jadeite” and “Nephrite”. So what’s the difference?
There are 49 official colors of jade (nephrite and jadeite). Just over a third of these are green. The second biggest color is lavender, and we then have white jade, yellow jade, honey jade and lastly black jade.
Both jadeite and nephrite are available in almost all of these colors. The two big exceptions are both lavender jade and honey jade, which has a rich reddish-orange color. If you want either of these colors then you will be buying jadeite. Therefore in short, jadeite has a slightly wider color palette than nephrite.
The big difference. Nephrite colors are more muted, and Jadeite colors are bold.
When you see Nephrite you’ll think of beautiful watercolor paintings, or how mountains look like during the soft light of a beautiful Autumn evening. In contrast, Jadeite has big bold deep colors and its likely when you think of traditional jade jewelry you think of deep green Jadeite. Also, Jadeite has a granular watery luster to its color while Nephrite has a fibrous silky luster.
Nephrite has a wonderful, deep, cultural history. Put simply any piece of Chinese jade jewelry, household item or carving that is older than 1740 is Nephrite as the Chinese only discovered Jadeite in the late 18th century.
When we think of ancient China and all its emperors and historic dynasties from 5000 BC to 1740 AD, all the beautiful jade we see in museums around the world, we are looking at Nephrite.
Nephrite therefore has a cultural history stretching almost 7000 years, whereas Jadeite’s history is a mere 250 years.
The highest quality Jadeite is from Burma and is highly collectible. In 2014, a Cartier jadeite necklace composed of 27 graduated jadeite beads of translucent emerald color. The necklace was sold for USD 27.6 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction!
Both Nephrite, especially when it’s old jade with an illustrious history, and Jadeite can be very expensive to buy. Both therefore make good investment pieces, and so far at auction Jadeite jewelry is the most expensive.
Jadeite is slightly harder than Nephrite, rated 6.5 to 7 of the Mohs hardness scale vs. 6 to 6.5. (In comparison gold is 2.5 to 3, pearl is 2.5 to 4.5, quartz is 7, and diamond is 10.)
This is because Nephrites are usually found in lower pressure metamorphic rock. In contrast, whilst Jadeite is also found in metamorphic rock it is formed under much higher pressure and often a lower temperature. Therefore Jadeite is harder than Nephrite.