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Old Chinese Jades: Real or Fake?
by Eric J. Hoffman

December 10, 2007

When President Nixon stepped off the plane in Shanghai in 1972 he did more than just restore relations with China. His visit led to a series of increasingly impressive exhibits in the United States of ancient Chinese artifacts that excited the public’s interest. Ancient jades, bronzes, paintings, calligraphies—previously the domain of a few academics and connoisseurs—captured the imagination of collectors worldwide.

Chinese jades are a particularly fascinating area of Chinese decorative arts. No material is more closely associated with China than jade, a stone the Chinese have used and revered for over 7000 years. But whenever growing numbers of collectors are chasing a fixed number of archaic and antique items, a profusion of copies, reproductions, and fakes arises to meet the demand. This article provides some hints on how to avoid being taken in when collecting Chinese jades. The focus is on older Chinese jades, which are typically carved from nephrite jade. A future article will provide some advice on jadeite, the most common jewelry jade.

A collector about to acquire an old Chinese jade confronts three fundamental questions: Is it jade? Is it Chinese? And, most challenging of all, is it old? Let’s address these one at a time.

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Is It Jade?

The name “jade” refers to two different stones, nephrite and jadeite, which have similar properties. Nephrite, the jade carved in China for thousands of years, is a calcium magnesium silicate with hardness of 6 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale (slightly softer than quartz). Although not especially hard, nephrite’s structure of tightly packed microscopic fibers makes it uniquely tough. In fact, it is the toughest (hardest to break) of all stones, which makes it the perfect material for delicate carvings. Translucent to opaque, nephrite’s subdued colors include creamy white, celadon, spinach, russet, and yellow.

Jadeite (fei cui in Chinese) is a sodium aluminum silicate, slightly harder to scratch and a bit less tough than nephrite. Jadeite’s colors are more vivid and include green, white, russet, black, and a delicate lavender.

Nephrite’s combination of moderate hardness and extreme toughness makes it difficult and tedious to carve. This was all the more true for carvers long ago, who worked solely by laborious abrasive grinding using foot-powered treadle lathes. Although nephrite is not all that rare in the common colors and grades, there is a strong temptation to foist a cheaper, easier-to-carve pseudojade onto the unwary buyer. These lesser hardstones are sometimes offered, dishonestly, as “a type of jade.” So when buying jade, first assure yourself that what you are buying really is jade.

Nephrite’s imitators include serpentine, bowenite, white chalcedony, aventurine, and even Peking glass. These are often sold with deceptive names, such as Honan Jade, Soochow Jade, or New Jade for serpentine. Without becoming a mineralogist, how can the collector tell jade from pseudojade? First, of course, is to see and handle as much true jade as possible. Jade, especially, is a tactile material. There is even a story that the famous blind jade dealer A. L. Gump (of Gump’s in San Francisco) was able to judge jade solely by the touch of his fingertips. So begin by learning what jade looks like and what it feels like. Books, museums, and friends’ collections can prove educational.

A visual inspection can reveal much. Jade’s translucence lets you see slightly below the surface, creating a visual effect quite unlike most of its imitators. Older jades that were polished using soft abrasives will often reveal a slight “orange peel” effect on the surface. And although true jade comes in a range of colors, it will probably not show the sickly yellow-green of certain serpentines or the dull, opaque white of many chalcedonies.

Jade’s hardness can provide another quick test. The sharp point of a steel pen-knife blade, which is just under 6 in hardness, should not be able to nick or scratch the material. This test should of course be done with great care and with the owner’s permission. Choose a polished, hidden portion and press hard. Remember that you need only make the tiniest (1/32”) nick, or even just feel the bite of the point into the stone to determine that the hardness is less than 6. In that case, the material is likely a softer pseudojade such as serpentine or even soapstone. A word of warning about “scratch tests”: bowenite (a hard variety of serpentine) will sometimes “pass” the test if it is not done properly. Chalcedony (a form of quartz), being actually harder than jade, will always pass the test. Fortunately, chalcedony imitations are not as common as those in softer pseudojades. And of course, true archaic jades that have undergone millennia of surface degradation cannot be tested this way.

A more definitive test is to measure the material’s specific gravity. Specific gravity is a measure of density—in other words, the ratio of the item’s weight to what an equal volume of water would weigh. For a simple shape, such as a cube or sphere, specific gravity can simply be calculated as weight divided by volume. But for the typical jade carving, the “hydrostatic” method is more practical. Invented by Archimedes over 2000 years ago, this involves weighing the item in air and then again while it is fully submerged in water. A beam-balance is often used, with the test item suspended in water from a thread beneath the balance. The specific gravity (SG) is then

SG = (weight in air) / (weight in air – weight in water).

Nephrite (SG = 2.90 to 3.00) and jadeite (SG 3.33) can be readily distinguished this way from most pseudojades, which are typically 10% or so lighter. In fact, after some years of handling jades, one can learn to tell jade from pseudojade simply from the “heft” of the piece in the hand.

Some very deceptive jade imitations have been made from glass, particularly the dense, opaque variety known as Peking Glass. Glass reveals itself, under a 10x lens, by its tiny swirls and bubbles. Several of the references listed at the end of this article discuss pseudojades and how to recognize them.

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Is It Chinese?

This second question would seem to be easier than the first one. After all, who but the Chinese carve jade? But in fact, jade has been found and carved all over the world in many cultures, from Mayan to primitive Swiss lake dwellers. Some time spent with good books or museum collections will quickly teach how to distinguish these from Chinese carvings (although some striking similarities between Central American and Chinese design motifs have led to intriguing hypotheses about cross-Pacific contact thousands of years before Columbus).

Probably the only non-Chinese jades that might confuse the collector are Mughal jades. Carved in northern India from the 1500s to the 1700s, these are remarkable for their egg-shell thin carvings and florid designs, often inlaid with fine gold filigree, rubies, and emeralds. Also called Hindustan jades, these are so rarely encountered as not to be a practical problem for the collector. Again, books and museum collections can teach the difference between Mughal jades and Chinese jades. We can thank the emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1795) for the only possible confusion here. He became such a devotee of these Indian-made jades that he established a palace workshop, staffed by his own lapidaries, to produce copies. Today, even museums have difficulty distinguishing Chinese-made from Indian-made Mughal-style jades.

Is It Old?

This brings us to the third and most difficult question by far. There are many reasons why a collector might buy a particular carving. Perhaps it is the design, the artistry, or the craftsmanship. Perhaps it is the beauty or rarity of the material. Or, sometimes, it is the desire to possess an old, possibly even “ancient” artifact of China. When the principal value of a jade lies in its age, the collector can get into trouble. Many experts estimate that 95% to 99% of the “antique jades” on the market today are modern reproductions. There is, unfortunately, no scientific, objective way to date jade. There is nothing comparable to carbon-14 dating of organics or thermoluminescence testing for ceramics. So dating jade still relies mainly on art-historical methods and examination of tooling marks, both subjective. It’s this loophole that fake makers (and some dealer co-conspirators) exploit so readily.

Before looking at these methods, some definitions might be useful.

Archaic Jade—An authentic piece actually carved in the period stated. “Archaic” in Chinese arts usually means pre-Han dynasty, that is, before about 200 B.C.
Archaistic Jade—Carved in a vaguely archaic style, or more often a mixture of styles and periods. Often done to “honor the ancient” with no intent to deceive.
Reproduction—An intentional copy of an archaic jade. Sold as a reproduction, with no intent to deceive.
Fake—A reproduction fraudulently offered as “of the period.”

The Chinese have a long tradition of “imitating the ancient,” going back 1000 years to the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) and earlier. This copying was not meant to deceive, but rather to honor the ancient Chinese styles. Fanggu jades, “made in respectful imitation of antiques,” are also a first step in training an apprentice to become a master carver. It is only when such jades are offered as “of the period” that fraud occurs.

Usually it is archaic jades that are faked. Jades from the Hongshan and Liangzhu periods (roughly 4000 to 6000 years ago), because of their small size and simple motifs, are widely faked. However, there have been copies of styles as recent as Qing dynasty (1644–1911). The collector has three main defenses: stylistic analysis, technical considerations, and provenance.

Stylistic Analysis

When considering an allegedly old jade, the first step is to stand back and consider how it looks. Each period of Chinese jade carving embodied a “signature look” for that era. These have been well documented in numerous jade books and museum collections. The collector should be alert for anachronisms, ambiguities, distortions, and other anomalous features that might suggest a fake. Incongruous or never-before-seen motifs, unusual iconography, and unlikely or incorrectly written dates or inscriptions are grounds for suspicion.

The collector can “train the eye” by studying museum collections—preferably making the acquaintance of the curator—and by building a solid reference library. But those same excellent, well-illustrated publications that are so useful to the collector have also become “pattern books” for the fake-makers (who sometimes make hilarious mistakes, because they can't see the back of the piece).

Questions the collector should ask include:
• Is the motif proper for the period claimed?
• Is the piece “drawn” correctly overall?
• Are surface decorations drawn properly for the period claimed?
• Do the shape and decoration compare favorably with well-documented excavated and museum examples?
• Is the motif an “archaistic” mixture of themes and styles?
• Are the “character and spirit” representative of an original artwork, or do they suggest a copy?

To quote jade author Louis Zara, “Today, China continues to produce jade of splendid style and finish. However, a practiced eye can tell the new from the old. The flesh of the jade may be magnificent, but only rarely is the spirit there, too.”

Technical Considerations

Although no truly objective, scientific test exists for dating jade, technical analysis can be less subjective than stylistic, art-historical methods. A careful study of the tooling methods used to produce the carved jade is perhaps the single most reliable method of dating ancient jades.

Jades are not really “carved” like wood. They have always been worked by a laborious process of abrasion. The abrasives used by the ancients were barely harder than the jade itself, beginning with quartz sand and progressing through the millennia to crushed garnets and powdered corundum. In the pre-metal period, string-cutting and stone “files” were used, and holes were bored by bamboo charged with sand. In the Shang period (roughly 1300 BC), bronze tools became available to drive the abrasive powders. By the Warring States period (475–221 BC), tiny iron tools allowed magnificent detail work. The collector should make a careful study of the cutting, carving, and hole-drilling techniques used in each period, examining known museum examples, preferably under 10x magnification.

Observe whether the piece was worked with care or with haste. In the old days, jade was considered too precious a material to waste on anything less than perfect workmanship. A craftsman beginning a jade carving knew he was settling in for months, or even years, of work before it would be completed.

Aside from tooling considerations, the jade material itself can provide technical clues. Is it jade or a pseudojade? Ancient carvings in stones other than nephrite are of course known, but in general a pseudojade carving should raise a red flag. Assuming the material is nephrite, is it of a type typical of the period claimed? Each period had types and colors of jade for which it was noted, and other types that were never seen in that era. Advanced chemical analysis can even identify the source of the raw material, which helps narrow down the era it was carved.

Questions to ask include:
• Is the method of bulk cutting and shaping appropriate to the period claimed? For example, is the thickness of flat pieces absolutely uniform (indicating modern diamond saws), or uneven?
• Is the method of cutting surface decorations appropriate to the period claimed?
• Is there evidence of using faster (harder) abrasives than were available in the period claimed, or of using electrically powered tools? Fully rotating cutting wheels replaced the traditional bidirectional treadle lathe in the late 1800s. Fast-cutting carborundum became available in the early 20th century. Even harder diamond tools, electrically driven, became widespread around 1950. These fast-cutting tools and abrasives leave tell-tale marks and often produce sloppy work and over-shooting of lines.
• Is the method of drilling holes consistent with the period claimed? Holes can be extremely revealing.

Much can be learned from studying the surface finish, in other words, the “feel” of the piece. Is the polish appropriate to the period claimed? In the old days careful polishing with slow abrasives created a “soft and satiny” finish quite different from modern diamond polishing. And the old-time craftsman took the time to polish every nook and cranny. Is there a surface patina of fine scratches from handling and use? Are edges sharp and raw, or are they worn smooth from much handling? Has the piece been intentionally sandblasted to imitate pitting? Is there a residue of modern abrasive or polish materials?

“Alteration” of the jade’s surface, due to “weathering” or other environmental exposure, is a controversial topic. Authentic jades from thousands of years ago will often look fresh and bright; many a recently made fake may look distressed and ancient. It is worth noting whether the jade has been dyed (as revealed by examination under a 10x lens). Is there an odor of paint or varnish? Dyeing jade was relatively uncommon prior to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Tomb jades will sometimes show an opaque white alteration (erroneously called “calcification”) that fake-makers often attempt to imitate using strong acids or alkalies or intense heat. These “acid dipped” fakes are produced in vast quantities to sell to the gullible. Sometimes the fake is encrusted with soil to imply that it was excavated (and to make examination of the workmanship more difficult). Viewing and handling authentic examples can teach you to recognize these shams.

In evaluating ancient jade, the collector should be alert to two more possibilities. First, a modern fake-maker might use fast-cutting modern tools to rough out a piece, and then do the final detailing by slower handwork. Second, it is not unheard of for a genuine but insignificant older jade to be reworked into a more saleable object.

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Provenance (the history of the item’s ownership) is the third defense against fakes. A significant jade that mysteriously appears on the market out of the blue should raise suspicions. What is the chain of ownership and academic history of the piece? What collections has it been in? Where has it been exhibited and what has been written about it? Of course, provenance can be faked, too, but should matters ever come to court, forged and fake documents provide further hard evidence of fraud.

In the ideal world, you the collector would have been present when the tomb from which the piece came was opened, or a reputable, accredited archaeologist was there when the piece was discovered. Neither is likely, especially since such pieces would be illegal to own under current Chinese law.

Alternatively, is the piece documented as coming from a museum or old family collection? Such claims should be supported by older documentation, not merely a “Certificate of Authenticity.” Such certificates should always raise a red flag. Schedel reminds us in his jade book of the old German expression “Paper is patient.” He means that paper doesn’t object to having the most egregious lies written upon it, and so a “certificate” is only as good as its issuer. Remember that museum collections are not infallible, either. Some museum pieces could just be fakes of the past, perhaps from a famous collection documented during the Qing dynasty.

Is the piece documented as coming from a reputable dealer specializing in old jades who is known for thorough scholarship and conservative dating? Such dealers, unfortunately, are few and far between. Or, did the piece come from a major auction house experienced with older jades and listed as “of the period” in their catalog?

Finally, apply some common sense. Does another replica exist on the market at more or less the same time? Does the dealer keep offering the same kind of pieces? Are there obvious fakes among the dealer’s other pieces? Is the deal “too good to be true”? If it seems so, then it probably is.

Final Thoughts

Studying and collecting old Chinese jades can be a fascinating hobby. But with a growing number of collectors chasing a limited supply of older jades, conditions are ripe for fakes. Most fake “archaic” jades are so obvious they are readily dismissed. But if a talented fake-maker is willing to search out the correct material, “draw” the piece accurately, use old-time tooling and polishing methods, and apply “secret” aging treatments, he can fool you every time. So study, learn, and keep your wits about you at all times.

Acknowledgement: The author is indebted to Herbert Giess (Friends of Jade) and Kenneth Fung for their valuable suggestions.

Copyright © 2005 by Eric J. Hoffman


Douglas, Janet G. “On the Authentication of Ancient Chinese Jades Using Scientific Methods,” Orientations, February 2000, p. 77.

Hemrich, Gerald I. The Handbook of Jade. Mentone, CA: Gembooks, 1966.

Hsien Ho Tsien (Ed.). Mineralogical Studies of Archaic Jades. Acta Geologica Taiwanica No. 32, Special Issue. Taipei, 1996. (English, with Chinese summaries)

Lally, James J. Archaic Chinese Bronzes, Jades and Works of Art. N.Y: J. J. Lally Co., 1994.

Palmer, J. P. Jade. London: Spring Books, 1967.

Rawson, Jessica. “The Surface Decoration on Jades of the Chou and Han Dynasties,” Oriental Art XXI, No. 1 (1975).

Schedel, J. J. The Splendor of Jade. N.Y: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1974.

Wilson, Ming. Chinese Jades. London: V&A Publications, 2004.

Yang Boda. Zhuanshi Guyu Banwei Yu Jiankao. (Commentaries on Archaic Jades and Their Fakes.) Beijing: 1998. (Text in Chinese)

Friends of Jade

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