Nephrite

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A Jade Bi with Two Dragons, Eastern Zhou Dynasty

The term "jade" is currently used to refer to both the jadeite and nephrite varieties. This was not always the case. Ancient “jade,” revered throughout Chinese history, and the beautifully carved ancient objects so cherished and even worshiped by the Chinese, are all the nephrite variety of jade. The jadeite variety of jade was not introduced into China until 1784 when trade with Burma resumed after a long period of feuding. By way of a goodwill gesture, Burma sent China a relatively large quantity of a hard stone as yet unknown to the Chinese. In 1863 A French scientist named Damour analyzed the stone, found it was not nephrite and named it jadeite. From ancient times, until relatively recently, jade was simply nephrite.

Confucius stated nearly twenty-four hundred years ago:


the wise have likened it to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of the intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, although they seem sharp, represent justice; the pure and prolonged sound which it gives forth when one strikes it represents music.

Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through the transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and water, represents the earth. Used alone without ornamentation it represents chastity. The price which all the world attaches to it represents the truth. To support these comparisons, the Book of Verse says: “When I think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade.” And that is why the wise set so great store by jade…[1]

In Chinese culture, jade is valued more highly than gold. Ancient Chinese contests of skill awarded ivory for third place, gold for second and jade for the winner. Only the highest ranking royalty were permitted to ceremonial use of the finest jade.


An ancient Chinese legend tells us that even within the earth jade and gold are worlds apart, that they repel each other, since gold is of the material realm and jade is of the spirit. [2]

The term jade has its linguistic roots in the translation by Spanish navigators bringing this supposedly medicinal stone back from Mexico. In 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh wrote about jade (in Spanish piedra de ijada) as being useful “for spleen stones.” This was translated in to French as pierre de l’ejade but a printer’s error turned it into le jade and in English it quickly became jade. Also known in Spanish as piedra de los riñones “stone of the kidneys” become lapis nephriticus in Latin, nephros in Greek which evolved into nephrite in English.

Carved Jade Dragon Zhou dynasty c.5th to 4th century B.C. © Trustees of the British Museum.

For over two thousand years nephrite jade has been mined in the Yarkland and Khotan regions of Turkestan. Nephrite was probably first collected from the rivers, but was later mined upriver in the K’un Lun Mountains and carried by camel caravan back to the Chinese capitol Peking (Bejing). Marco Polo noted that a bustling business in “chalcedonies and jaspers” found in the Turkestan region was being done. What he was probably witnessing were the nephrite caravans.

Another visitor to the area, Jesuit Astronomer, Benidict Göes noted in 1603 that mining methods required splitting vast blocks into slabs and then working them into sizes suitable for carrying on a camel. Some of the methods used included building a fire near a vein of jade thereby heating the stone. Vast temperature drops overnight would cause the stone to crack and jade harvesters would return in the morning to place wood wedges into the cracks and pry away the stone. The “winter” technique required holes to be drilled in the stone, filling them with water and waiting for them to freeze. The freezing process would crack the stone and the jade harvesters would return to collect the newly cleaved stones in the spring.

Jade Dragon, Western Han Dynasty c.202 BC – 9 A.D.

There are many legends to explain when the Chinese began carving nephrite and using nephrite objects like knives, utensils and weapons, but it is hard to say when exactly the use of Jade began in China. The art of jade carving had already been known for centuries by the time the Zhou Dynasty began (1046-256BC). Iron was introduced during this time and the apex of the Chinese bronze era occurred, yet nephrite continued to be used to make important ceremonial vessels and religious representations. In fact the Chinese never stopped using nephrite after the introduction of bronze as happened in other cultures.

Objects of worship, utensils and ornaments carved from jade had been buried with the dead of the Shang Dynasty (prior to the Zhou Dynasty). These tombs served to preserve this ancient treasure. The modernization of China, specifically, building a transcontinental railroad, lead to the discovery of these treasure troves of ancient carved jade. Since the Chinese had guarded, revered and protected their ancestral gravesites for centuries, they were undisturbed until the building of railroads unearthed their heritage. Grave robbers soon followed and a booming business in ancient Chinese jade resulted with pieces being bought and sold – no questions asked. This chaotic reclamation of these ancient works of art made dating the objects difficult. Comparisons with known objects, dynastic symbols and catalogs of tombs explored in a more scientific manner had to be used to date the items from these collections.

I Ching states “Jade is Heaven”. Confucians carried jade to purify the mind. Taoists called it Yang and Buddhists used it to reach the state of Samadhi. Jade holds a unique place in in many Chinese religions. Almost every object or force in nature is found in jade symbolism. Flora, Fauna, Animals, the directions on a compass and celestial bodies.

The Six Ritual Jades - Widely Used in Burial Rites
Sky Blue Pi Yellow Ts'ung Green Kuei Red Ch'ang White Hu Black Huang
Donut Shaped Flat Disk Round Cylinder in a Square Container 5 Sided Knife Shaped Tablet Kuei Cut in Half Tiger or Beast of Fantasy Semicircle (half Pi) Carved as a Fish or Dragon
Under Body On top of Chest At the Left Below the Feet At the Right Above the Head
Worship is Paid to Heaven Worship is Paid to Earth Worship is Paid to the East Worship is Paid to the South Worship is Paid the the West Worship is Paid to the North

Nephrite’s fibrous nature makes it quite difficult to carve and shape, but its toughness allows those shapes to be paper thin and for chains to be cut from solid blocks.

Supply of nephrite around the world is dwindling. Other sources are Lake Baikal in Siberia, South Island New Zealand, Jordanow Slaski, Poland, Frazer River Valley British Columbia, Kotzebue Alaska and Lander Wyoming California United States locations. As a result of this dwindling supply, the prices for raw nephrite material are much higher.

The Colors of Nephrite and Their Symbolism
Yellow Black White Red Green
Earth Water Air/Metal Fire Wood
Earth North West South East
Saturn Mercury Venus Mars Jupiter

Not included as one of the special five, Blue Nephrite symbolizes Heaven.

Gemological Information

Gemological information for nephrite
Color Grayed green, yellow, white and black
Crystal structure Monoclinic
Refractive index 1.60-1.63
Durability Very durable
Hardness 6.5
Similar Stones Jadeite, Serpentine, Hydrogrossular, Idocrase, Chalcedony, Maw-Sit-Sit
Treatments Wax Impregnation, Dyeing, Bleaching
Country of origin China, Myanmar
Nephrite care
Ultrasonic cleaning Usually safe
Steam cleaning Not safe
Warm soapy water Safe
Chemical attack Avoid
Light sensitivity Not stable
Heat sensitivity Not stable

Notes

  1. Gump, p.23-24
  2. Gump, p.15-16

Sources Consulted

Gem Reference Guide, Los Angeles: Gemological Institute of America, 1988. Pp. 146-150.

Gump, Richard. Jade: Stone of Heaven, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962.

Liddicoat, Richard T. Handbook of Gem Identification, Los Angeles: Gemological Institute of America, 1962. Pp. 219-220.

Lang Antiques
Lang Antiques