What is Jade?

“Jade” is a cultural term used for a very durable material that has been fashioned into tools, sculptures, jewelry, gemstones and other objects for over 5,000 years.

It was first used to manufacture ax heads, weapons, and tools for scraping and hammering because of its toughness. Then, because some specimens had a beautiful color and could be polished to a brilliant luster, people started to use jade for gemstones, talismans and ornamental objects.

Although most people who think of jade imagine a beautiful green gemstone, the material occurs in a wide variety of colors that include green, white, lavender, yellow, blue, black, red, orange and gray.

Are all jades the same? Originally, all jade objects were thought to be made from the same material. However, in 1863, a Frenchman, Alexis Damour, discovered that the material known as jade is really two kinds of metamorphic rock, jadeite and nephrite, that look exactly the same. Scientists can tell them apart using chemical tests and x-rays.

Like quartz, both jadeite and nephrite are chains of silicon and oxygen atoms. Jadeite is a simpler chain and nephrite is a double chain. Because these two materials can be difficult to distinguish, and because the word “jade” is so entrenched in common language, the name jade is still widely used across many societies, industries, and academic disciplines.

The piece of jade on loan to the Nylander Museum by Nelson Ketch, president of the Nylander board and a great-grandson of Olof Nylander, was found in a jade museum in Alaska in 1993.

This column is the work of members of the Nylander Museum’s Board of Trustees.

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