Jadeite and Nephrite are two distinct minerals, both of which are commonly called “Jade.” Jade has been treasured since the dawn of history in Eastern Asia and Mesoamerica, where the two most important Jadeite deposits are found. In China and Japan, as well as in the Aztec language, the words for “Jade” and “precious stone” are, in fact, identical.
Long before the dawn of civilization, early man was attracted to Jade, for both utility and beauty. Jade can hold an edge better than most stones, and so was made into prehistoric ax-heads, hammers, carving implements, and other sharp tools. The oldest known Jade tool has been dated between 8000-9000 BCE! Because Jade can be easily carved and polished, it has also been used to make statues and charms for thousands of years. Jade carvings often carry deep meanings, making them more than just simple decorations.
Because Jadeite and Nephrite look very similar, they were not scientifically distinguished as two separate minerals until 1863. However, master Chinese craftsmen have long noticed that some Jade (specifically that from Myanmar/Burma) is harder and denser, and also is somewhat easier to carve and takes a higher polish. As a result, it became the preferred variety, especially since it has a wider range of vivid colors. This type of Jade is now known as Jadeite. The more common variety is called Nephrite.
Jade was properly introduced to Europe by explorers returning from the New World, and it is from this period that we can trace the etymological origin of the names, Nephrite and Jadeite. In Europe, Jade was originally called by the Greek names, lapis nephriticus (stone for the kidneys) and the Spanish name, piedra de hijada (stone of the flank) since Jade was used by the Aztecs to treat kidney and bowel conditions. Over time, piedra de hijada became first l’ejade, and then simple “Jade.” When gemologists discovered that Jade was actually two minerals in the nineteen century, they called the more precious variety “Jadeite” and used “Nephrite,” from lapis nephriticus, for the more common variety.