Know Your Gemstones: Amber & Jade

Whether set into sacred objects, jewelry, ornaments, or decorative objects, gemstones have long been prized by artisans, collectors, and admirers.  In this “Know Your Gemstones” blog series, we’re bringing you the history, science, and lore behind some of the most beloved stones.  This week, we’re looking at amber and jade.

Catch up on this blog series – Click here for Part I: Carnelian and Tiger’s Eye, click here for Part II: Chrysoprase and Lapis, or click here for Part III: Moonstone and Turquoise.

Forever Amber

Beads. 6th–12th century. Attributed to Egypt. Amber, opaque and clear. Via

Amber is a unique gemstone in that it is organic; it was formed from hardened resin of ancient pine trees.  The resin fossilized over many centuries and often contains insect or plant inclusions (some larger gemstones contain entire snails, frogs, and lizards!).  Nearly 1,000 extinct species of plants and animals have even been identified due to their preservation in amber.   The oldest gemstones date back approximately 320 million years to the Upper Carboniferous Period.

“The word ‘amber’ was derived from the Middle Persian word ‘ambar'” and was originally used to refer to ambergris, a substance found in the intestines of sperm whales.  Amergris was used to produce perfumes and other fragrances.  It wasn’t until the 14th century that “amber” was used to reference the gemstone and not ambergris.

Amber is typically a deep orange-red or yellow color.  Blue amber, however, can be found in the Dominican Republic.  This rare amber’s blue hue is caused by fluorescence.

With a hardness of 2-2.5 on the Mohs scale, amber is a fairly soft gemstone.  It is also one of the lightest stones and will float in saltwater.  Amber is very sensitive to alcohol, perfume, acid, gasoline, and other substances.

Amber should not have prolonged exposure to water (which will ruin the gemstone’s polish).  It should be cleaned with a soft cloth; never with ultrasonic cleaners or other cleansers. 

Mysterious Jade

St. Theodora Cross set with jade.

Coveted across the world for thousands of years, jade has enjoyed a magnitude of popularity as a beautiful material from which jewelry, decorative objects, weapons, and more have been made. But, did you know that what we know as “jade” actually refers to two separate minerals?

Both jadeite and nephrite fall under the “jade” umbrella.  It wasn’t until 1863 that the stones were even distinguished from one another.  While they are both metamorphic rocks and look fairly similar to the naked eye, they are fairly different.

Jadeite was prized by the Mayans and Aztecs for its beauty and spiritual qualities.  In fact, the name “jade” come from the Spanish phrase “piera de ijada,” or “stone in the pain in the side.”  “Early Spanish explorers named it after they saw natives holding pieces of the stone to their sides to cure or relieve various aches and pains.”

Jadeite is also the rarer of the stones and comes in a rainbow of colors – yellow, orange, white, lavender, grey, black, and brown.  However, it is the green jadeite that is the most precious.  The most valuable jade is a deep, emerald-green jadeite which only occurs in Burma and is referred to as “imperial jade.”  When polished, jadeite has an almost greasy sheen to it.

Nephrite, on the other hand, occurs in a smaller array of more muted colors – dark green, yellow, white, black, grey, and brown.  However, nephrite has a more glass-like lustre to it once polished.  Nephrite jade has been utilized since prehistoric times, carved into weapons and tools.  It was widely used in China to create ornaments and decorative objects (until the superior jadeite was introduced around the 18th century).

In China, jade is held in the highest regard.  “The Chinese refer to jade as “yu”, which means “heavenly” or “imperial”.”  One Chinese saying declares that “gold is valuable; jade is priceless.” Jade is believe to strengthen health and influence prosperity and Chinese artisans carve jade into symbolic motifs from bats (to bring happiness) to bi (a flat, circular disc with a central hole which means “heaven”).

Whether your jade is to bring you happiness, celebrate the 12th anniversary, or you simply enjoy its many hues, it should be cleaned with warm, soapy water and a soft cloth (never with harsh chemicals or ultrasonic cleaning).

Main image:  Bracelet. Mughal period (1526–1858). 18th–19th century. India. Jade (nephrite) with gold, enamel, and stone inlays. Via
Jade Description –
Jade History & Lore –
Jade Gemstone Information –
What is Jade? –
The Gemstone Amber –
Amber Gemstone Information –
Amber –
Amber Description –
Amber History & Lore –
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