Jade is one of the most valuable colored gems in the world, and it has a beauty that inspires an otherworldly reverence. In ancient China, it was called a “bridge to heaven,” while the Mayans believed it could capture the soul. Author Pearl Buck described it as “the most sumptuous jewel against a woman’s skin.” But where did it come from, and where can we find it? Let’s dive into the jade history and meaning.
Where Does Jade Come From Originally?
Jade was originally found at least as far back as the Neolithic era in Europe. Would-be miners scaled the Italian Alps to a quarry located above the clouds. Here, they lit fires around massive jade boulders, using a thermal shock method to break off large flakes that were later shaped into perfectly smooth axes. These were likely used for religious rituals.
At a similar time across the world, the Jomon people of Japan gathered jade carried in and polished by the tides along what became known as the “jade coast.” Here, the jade was said to be so plentiful that the locals would keep only the finest pieces, tossing the rest back into the ocean.
The Mayan Empire found its jade in the Sierra de las Munus Mountains in what is now Guatemala. They used natural faults and fissures to pry out large chunks, which they worked into jewelry, statues, and even burial masks. Since they didn’t have metal tools, they likely used wooden tools with a grit made from nearby deposits of garnet to shape the sleek but unyielding material.
Why Is Jade So Special To The Chinese?
No ancient culture appreciated jade more than the Chinese. Due to its strength and translucency, jade was associated with purity and immortality. While these ancient cultures sensed jade’s special qualities and origins, modern science helps us fill in the blanks.
Nephrite Jade Vs Jadeite
We know that what was known as “jade” is actually two different rocks: nephrite and jadeite.
Both are silicates and possess similar qualities of strength and beauty, but nephrite is made up of microscopic crystal fibers, while jadeite consists of prismatic crystal grains.
Nephrite’s fibrous nature makes it tougher, but jadeite is harder and more dense. In fact, it’s much denser than many minerals made of similar elements.
Why is that?
How Was Jade Formed?
How Is Jadeite Formed?
Jadeite was formed very deep in the earth, where intense pressure made for an extreme compaction of the elements.
Jadeite formed due to subduction, which is a deceptively simple term for a major earth-shaking event where an oceanic plate is pushed under the continental plate. The higher temperatures below dehydrate the rock, releasing aluminosilicate-rich fluids that rise into the mantle.
Here, they can flow into small cracks produced by tectonic deformation. Jadeite crystallizes under heavy pressure in these cracks, while the water content often forms serpentinite around it.
Buried deep in the earth, this jade relies on even more tectonic activity to bring it to the surface. This is why jadeite is rare and is chiefly found near major faults in the earth.
How Is Nephrite Jade Formed?
By contrast, nephrite requires lower pressure and is formed much closer to the surface of the earth. Because of this, you can find nephrite in many more locations worldwide.
Where Is Nephrite Found?
So, what if you want to find some for yourself? You may be in luck if you’re in the western US or Canada. In fact, there are over 50 known nephrite occurrences in Canada alone.
British Columbia is the world’s largest commercial producer of jade, with major collecting sites like Mount Ogden and the Fraser River. British Columbia is located along a geologic belt favorable for nephrite formation, which begins in Alaska and extends intermittently through Canada, California, and all the way down to Mexico.
Jade has also been found in Washington, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The nephrite is chiefly found along riverbeds or outcroppings of older stone formations.
Recently, a rock hound in Washington followed a vein of serpentine up a ridge and discovered an 8-ton jade boulder.
If you want to do your own exploring, bring along a steel knife. Nephrite is harder than steel and shouldn’t scratch, but this will help distinguish it from the much softer and similar-looking serpentine that often surrounds it.
You also may need to bring a small hammer. Sometimes jade is covered by brown skin due to weathering, but due to its density, it should produce a unique ringing sound when hit.
Also, due to its density, it takes some time to absorb heat, so that it may feel colder to the touch. It might appear shinier or smoother than other rocks, its toughness allowing it to take a higher polish from weathering without breaking.
Underwater, jade pebbles will stick slightly to your hands or feet. Look for striations or show points of green. But you may ask, “What if I want to find that jade?”
Where Is Jadeite Found?
Well, though exceedingly more rare, jadeite has been discovered in California and Washington. Unfortunately, these occurrences are rare and usually low quality.
You could go to Japan and do a once-over on the Jade Coast, but after centuries of gathering here, the pickings are rather slim.
Due to its origin along major fault convergences, you often have to go to remote areas with wild, untenable landscapes to find quality jadeite.
One place you should not go is Northern Myanmar, also known as Burma. Here you would find jadeite in volumes unmatched by the rest of the world, but you would also find a brutal climate with mines in a dense jungle cut off from the rest of the world.
During monsoon season, elephant travel is often required to navigate the thick mud. In dry months, that mud becomes a dust cloud covering entire valleys.
Beyond the dust in the Kachin State mines, you might find imperial jade colored an intense green by trace amounts of chromium with high translucency. This is often considered the finest jade in the world. Of course, you may also encounter the Anopheles mosquito, known for carrying deadly strains of malaria which could kill you in 48 hours.
What Is The Jade Road?
For the final part of the jade history and meaning post, we will discuss the jade road. When the Chinese discovered this new source of jade in the 18th century, the Chiang Lang Emperor declared war on Burma and sent in troops to take the mines. This was a big mistake, as they were soon decimated by malaria and the unforgiving terrain.
Instead, the Chinese negotiated a peace treaty with Burma that opened up trade along a route that came to be known as the Jade Road.
Today, the jade trade here is still quite lucrative, with an estimated $31 billion value mined in a single year. That’s almost half the GDP of the entire country. Even a single kilogram of top-quality jade from here can fetch millions.
But don’t grab your pickaxe and bucket just yet. These mines are notoriously dangerous, with landslides killing dozens each year. The area is also politically unstable, and foreigners are forbidden from entering the mining areas.
So as much as we love gem ventures, this is one time it’s definitely best to stay home. How far would you go to unearth a precious gem?
Conclusion On Jade History And Meaning
Jade is a precious stone with a rich history and deep cultural significance. It has been revered for centuries by cultures around the world for its beauty, durability, and spiritual qualities. From ancient China to the Mayan civilization, jade has played a significant role in art, mythology, and even medicine. Hope this post on jade history and meaning may help you.
If you like this post, you may also like: