Breaking down jade sources
Nephrite jade is a silicate of calcium and magnesium, and prized for its extreme toughness (it is the toughest of any natural gemstone), its alluring translucency, and smooth polished feel. Its colour ranges from pure white to all shades of green, yellow, and black.
Canada is home to one of the largest producers and exporters of this material, with three mines in northern British Columbia, about 100 miles east of Alaska’s border (Figure 4). Nephrite is also found in the Yukon, but there has been no production from that area in the past five years.
Kirk Makepeace, owner of B.C.’s Jade West, a Canadian nephrite producer, estimates about 7000 tonnes of jade have been exported from Canada in the last 30 years, resulting in a steady supply of a stone once reserved exclusively for the Emperors of China. Today, the bulk of Canada’s jade production is used for traditional jade carvings and jewellery mainly in China, Taiwan, and New Zealand.
Russia produces two types of nephrite jade: white and green. Much of what is sold at premium prices in China as Hotian Yu (i.e. Chinese white nephrite) is really of Russian origin and difficult to distinguish from Chinese jade. Siberian white jade is also mistaken for Hotian Yu, hence its dramatic increase in value in the past few years.
Although most Russian green nephrite is virtually indistinguishable from Canadian jade, one deposit—known only as ‘#7 mine’—may actually surpass our homegrown material. In its highest grade, nephrite from this deposit is devoid of black and/or green spots. Unfortunately, the deposit is reportedly almost exhausted, and green nephrite buyers from China are now looking for the only alternative that is still available, gem-grade Canadian green nephrite. Additionally, Russia is perceived as a somewhat unreliable source, given certain export restrictions and the difficulty of getting permits, which makes legal mining very difficult to do.
Chinese nephrite jade—also known as ‘Stone of Heaven’—has been revered in China for more than 5000 years. Hotian town is bisected by the famous White Jade River, the historic source of the best white jade in China. Jade prospectors typically pan in the rivers to collect jade pebbles. Famed Hotian white nephrite surpasses gold in value, while natural white nephrite ‘nuggets’ sold throughout Shanghai and Guangzhou sell for $2000 to $10,000 apiece. If the material can be confirmed as Hotian, the best white is considered ‘whiter’ and commands the highest prices. Unlike gold, this stone is sold not by weight, but rather colour, shape, and size. Many pieces are in the 1-oz to 5-oz range, thus the comparison to it being more valuable than gold. The white ‘cabbage’ jade from China’s Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) seen in Figure 5 (page 3) is valued at $900,000 US.
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has produced the best-quality jadeite jade for centuries, and its production ranks first in the world. The country has both primary deposits without skin and secondary, better-quality boulders. Although the government holds jade auctions in Rangoon, most jadeite produced in Burma is sold illegally into China and Thailand.
Guatemala is another source of jadeite jade. Mesoamerican cultures paralleled China in their devotion to this stone, using it for ceremonial worship. Japan and the United States are two other sources, but the average quality is considered only fair.