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. In Eastern Asia, Jade has much of the same allure that diamonds do in the West. In fact, the most desirable form of Jade, “Imperial Jadeite” (vibrant emerald green), has been sold for millions per carat on the modern market. Only a single gemstone, the vivid “Pink Star Diamond,” has commanded a better price per carat!
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. For example, in China a carving of a Jade mountain symbolizes the wish for a long life, while a Jade butterfly symbolizes the immortality of the soul and power of love.
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.
The greatest source for Jade lore comes from China. According to one legend, Jade is the petrified tears of dragons who have cried whenever China was conquered by invaders. Another story relates that Jade is the concentrated essence of true love. As a result, Jade is traditionally often given to newlyweds, and is said to assure the quick and easy birth of an heir. Newborn babies in the East have worn Jade amulets to protect them from childhood diseases for centuries. Countless generations of businessmen have carried Jade in their pockets to help them during negotiations, while many farmers traditionally bury Jade near their crops to protect them from both heavy rain and drought.