While not the primary attraction for most visitors to California's Big Sur area, deposits of green nephrite jade have a special draw for adventurous rock hounds, divers, and casual beach-goers.
There is much confusion surrounding jade and how to identify it. There are several types of jade, and other green stones that look and feel just like jade when wet. In Big Sur, we're dealing with nephrite jade and serpentinite, a green stone that many beginners mistake for nephrite jade.
There are two types of gemstone grade jade: jadeite and nephrite. The main physical difference is that jadeite is composed of interlocking granules, while nephrite is composed of interlocking fibers. Japanese artisans discovered long ago the difference in the two types of jade, but Western culture did not document the difference until the late 1800s. This is why both forms are known today by the one word, jade. Jadeite is more rare, and includes famous types of jade such as Imperial Jade known well to some Eastern cultures.
All jade is formed under similar conditions, from near-surface to 50 km underground with up to 20 atmospheres of pressure, and temperatures ranging from 200-500 degrees C. It is found primarily in areas where tectonic plates meet, specifically oceanic plates. Superheated, serpentite-infused liquid penetrates silicon-bearing rock under high pressure and the crystalline deposition process that makes nephrite and jadeite begins. The addition of chromium 3 gives the green color. It's younger and softer than the surrounding rock, so it requires unique conditions to make it up to the surface without being crushed into dust over millions of years. Often found surrounded by serpentinite and serpentine deposits, no coincidence then that we find a large serpentine vein protruding out into the water below Jade Cove in Big Sur. Jade Cove itself is the "SP" labeled area at the top of the image below, which is another serpentine deposit
If you really want to find significant amounts of jade, SCUBA diving is the way to go. This blog post does not go into detail for the divers as others do. For those who don't have SCUBA gear or certification, the following should help you a bit.
Nephrite jade is tough to find on the beach these days. The old timers say that back in the 60's, a collector would have so much extra material that only the best nephrite would be taken back up the trail. Since then, smart dirty hippies have been pulling up 400 lb. boulders of jade and floating them onshore. Today, the jade-bearing beaches are constantly sifted for new material and only the most patient collectors will succeed. The surf can be brutal and the cove is only accessible on the calmest days. The trail itself can be a barrier for access to many. The main path down to the collection area had a washout in the rainy season of 2018 and while there is currently a loosely-secured rope over the bad part of trail, adventurers should have good shoes on and be ready for a bit of class four terrain as you approach the bottom of the trail. This is a sketchy place to explore alone because of the fall and water risks. On a nice day there will be a few other people there, but in bad weather you'll be alone. No cell-signal, but the nearest help is close at the fire station at Plaskett Creek, just to the North of the campground nearby.
If you are able to make the long drive, find the trail head and negotiate the washed-out trail on a day with good weather and small waves, then you have a tiny chance of finding some nephrite jade. If you have any money at all and want to leave the area with some jade, check out the booth at Ripplewood, our friends: https://www.davidscoastalcollections.com/ . Also check out my attached shop with Big Sur jade jewelry.
If you are determined to find your own, get into SCUBA and read the blogs with info on that. If you are super patient and just want to sift pebbles for a few hours, then grab a small rake and get to it. On a good day you'll find a few pebbles of jade.
Between the day-sifters and the SCUBA pros, there are the semi-dedicated and equipped adventurers like myself. With a wetsuit and booties, I've found some nice pebble sized pieces while rummaging around in the creases between boulders in waist-deep water. This is dangerous stuff and you should have a partner. Waves sneak up and will smash your head against a boulder. Free-divers frequent the location and some are able to find decent amounts of nephrite. Jade has been found all along a 3 mile region of coastline around jade cove, so maybe try another beach and you might have luck if the first one doesn't pan out.
Any questions, post a reply below.