How to Tell Jade From Soapstone

By Ma Wen Jie
Jade sculpture piece

The term "jade" is used to refer to a number of minerals. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Chinese word for jade, "yu," legitimately refers to a range of minerals that include soapstone. In Chinese, soapstone is called "lao yu" or "old jade." Gemologists, collectors and minerologists, however, limit the term jade to nephrite or jadeite. Due to linguistic and cultural confusion, a soapstone carving may be legitimately called "jade" in one situation, while it might not qualify as jade in another.

Soapstone dragon sideways

Look at the stone. Fine jadeite and nephrite can be translucent, although they are not always. Soapstone, as a softer stone, can usually not be carved thin enough to be translucent.

Green Burmese imperial jade ring and bangle

Look for a crystalline structure. Jadeite and nephrite sometimes have a crystalline structure that is visible to the naked eye. If you can't see a crystalline structure, examine the stone under magnification. Soapstone does not have a crystalline structure.

Plate of nephrite

Look at the surface of the stone. Jadeite and nephrite are more shiny with a harder looking surface. Soapstone looks softer and has less of a sheen. Because waxing is an acceptable way of finishing jades, soapstone can sometimes look as if it has a hard surface.

Solid Chinese jade tea set on green Italian marble

Examine the stone for signs of scratching. Soapstone is much softer than jadeite or nephrite. In older pieces, soapstone is likely to have signs of wear like scratches. Though jadeite and nephrite can also scratch, especially if they have been waxed, you should not see many signs of wear on jadeite or nephrite.

Tip

Look at the price of the piece. A fine jade of between 1-1/2 and 2 inches in height can cost thousands of dollars. Lower quality jades of that size will usually be worth more than $150. If the price is low, the jade may be dyed, altered or made from a different material like soapstone.

Warning

Don't rely on color. Although jade is often thought of as green, both jadeite and nephrite come in a wide range of colors, including white, purple, pink, brown, orange, blue-green and green.

About the Author

Although he grew up in Latin America, Mr. Ma is a writer based in Denver. He has been writing since 1987 and has written for NPR, AP, Boeing, Ford New Holland, Microsoft, RAHCO International, Umax Data Systems and other manufacturers in Taiwan. He studied creative writing at Mankato State University in Minnesota. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, English and reads Spanish.