A History of the Jade Gemstone

The study of gemstones, especially those that have enjoyed long, uninterrupted popularity, can be as much a look into the history of human culture as a study of hard science. Of all the historical gemstones, this is definitely the case with jade. It was not until the 19th century that mineralogists discovered that what was known as jade was actually two different and separate materials, now known as nephrite and jadeite, each having similar properties. Obviously, this scientific fact was of little concern to the cultures that had developed such a deep appreciation for jade over thousands of years. Despite the differences between the two, both are considered to be true jade.

Not many gemstones can boast a 7000 year history. Amazingly, the history of jade unfolded around the globe as cultures that had no contact with each other discovered the beneficial, ornamental, and sometimes violent uses of jade. The toughness of jade allows it to be ground extremely thin and still hold up to hard use. The earliest jade items were tools, such as hammers and axes formed from jade cobbles, but it was also used for weapons. The Maori of New Zealand preferred local nephrite to fashion a short club called a mere that they used for close quarters fighting. As it became more practical to use metal for tools and weapons, jade came into its own as an ornamental material. With a history as the royal gemstone of China since rough 3000BC, jade is closely associated with Asian jewelry and art objects. Over thousands of years Chinese artists developed carving it into an art form and pushed the limits of what was possible. The toughness and durability of jade, which is considered to be greater than any other gemstone, may seem to be a hindrance to detailed carving. However, both types of the stone proved to be perfect for lapidary work. Other cultures also discovered the amazing properties of jade. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica it was highly valued for ceremonial objects. Olmec warrior masks are fine examples of the precision workmanship and capabilities of the stone. Researchers were puzzled about the source of Mesoamerican jade until it was rediscovered in the late 20th century in present day Guatemala.

The properties of jade that were so informed through history are no less applicable today. As a gemstone it can be used for handmade jewelery in more ways than just about any stone.