A large polished piece of Greenstone
In late September I was in Swede’s, the famous light blue jewelry and rock store in the middle of Copper Harbor, Michigan. The feisty woman in charge, 83-year-old Mary Billings, asked me as I walked in–“What is the gemstone of Michigan?”
When I answered, “Isle Royale Greenstone,” she looked at me with new respect.
“You’re only the thirteenth customer this season who has answered that question correctly. And we’ve had a lot of people who’ve walked through that door.” She shook her head, a little disgusted that Michiganders weren’t commonly aware of their state gemstone.
Most people, if they have any idea at all, would probably say Petoskey is the state’s gem. And it IS the state rock. But Isle Royale Greenstone, or just Greenstone, has been Michigan’s official gem since 1973. Found mainly on Isle Royale or the Keweenaw Peninsula, Greenstone has the fancy, scientific name of Chlorastrolite, which is a variety of the mineral Pumpellyite. It’s often found in and around copper mines, which are abundant in the Keweenaw. The mineral makes its home in amygdaloidal basalt. If you’re like me, that phrase holds no meaning. I had to look it up, so I’m happy to share its meaning. Basically it’s a pit or cavity in the stone. So amygdaloidal basalt is cooled and hardened lava with lots of cavities in it that have been filled in with minerals.
Once the Greenstone is removed from its host rock, it can be cut and polished. But it’s a tricky stone to work with because it’s not really hard–only a 5-6 on the Mohs’ Scale– and it can have its own cavities and hollow spots within it. Cutters want to expose the best “turtle-back” pattern that they can and eliminate any bad spots. But removing a top layer of the stone is likely to reveal a different, and not necessarily better pattern. The goal is a clear pattern showing some chatoyancy. The best stones will demonstrate that change in luster as they are tilted back and forth in the light.
Tumbled Greenstone with pink Thomsonite
Greenstone is not a particularly expensive gemstone to buy. Even with the labor involved in finding, mining, and cutting it, there’s just not a huge market for the material. But it isn’t an easy gem to own. Since the year 2000, it’s been illegal to take Isle Royale Greenstone off the island. The island is, after all, a national park. And even Keweenaw Greenstone isn’t easy to get unless you have access to the copper mine areas. Most jewelry stores, even in Michigan, don’t carry Greenstone. So plan on spending some time searching for your perfect piece of Michigan’s gemstone. Whether you spend time looking along the shoreline for a rare small piece of it, or whether you search for jewelry stores that carry the gem, enjoy the journey.
My piece of Keweenaw Greenstone! I love it!!
Egyptian Faience Necklace at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, drawn by Ellyn Marmaduke
After last week’s group tour to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, I had to decide which artifacts to focus on. One of the first display cases we stopped at had this beautiful faience necklace worn in Egypt between 1991-656BC. How many of you know about FAIENCE? The word sounded vaguely familiar but was totally out of context. Still, I was drawn to the beautiful blue color and vowed to learn more. Turns out that Egyptian faience is very different from French faience, which is that pottery with the detailed painted decoration on it. Egyptian faience could better be described as a combination of clay and glass. It’s the oldest known type of glazed ceramic. They can track its existence back to 4000BC. It molds like clay, but its chemical make-up is powdered quartz. Since quartz is basically silica(silicon dioxide), the same main elements as in glass, a better phrase for Egyptian faience would be glassy paste or sintered quartz. The “faience” was glazed with a blue or green vitreous coating, perhaps to resemble turquoise, which was highly prized at that time.
The other jewelry pieces I wanted to learn more about were Roman rather than Egyptian. They were described as LUNATE and BULLAE. Again, I felt totally confused by the words. Our guide told us that young girls wore the lunate pendant, the one that’s shaped like the crescent moon. Young men wore bullae pendants, the hollow, pillow-like pieces in the upper right of the drawing.
Roman Lunate and Bullae Jewelry displayed at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, drawn by Ellyn Marmaduke
Jewelry has often been used to silently tell the wearer’s status. Females wearing a crescent moon were known to be unmarried virgins. The young moon meant a fresh start, with hopes and wishes for a bright future of matrimony. For thousands of years the moon has been a feminine symbol–the waxing (crescent) moon, the full moon, and the waning moon were associated with a young maiden, a matron, and the elderly woman. Since maidens in that time period married between the ages of 12 and 17, this was not a necklace they wore for very long. Young males were given a bulla to wear soon after birth. It had two purposes. It was believed to protect them from evil spirits. In the Roman culture, children were seen as being very vulnerable and needing protection. It also let others know that the child was freeborn rather than a slave. Wealthy boys had bullae of gold while poorer boys had ones made of leather, but anyone with a bulla was free. These pendants were worn until manhood, at age 16.
These were just a few artifacts found at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Each one tells a wonderful story if you have the time and inclination to do some digging. It was fun finding out more about these pieces of jewelry. And I always love learning the meanings of words! I hope you can go to the museum and find your own fascinating stories.
Want to spend a couple of hours lost in the ancient worlds of the Romans and Greeks? Take a pleasant drive to Ann Arbor and visit the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. As an alumnus of the Gemological Institute of America (G.I.A.), I was recently invited to attend the Michigan chapter’s tour of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. What a fun and educational experience!
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
Tied to the University of Michigan, the museum is situated on South State Street in Ann Arbor. It’s not a large place, but it’s packed with delightful artifacts from ancient cultures. The focus is on classical Greek, Egyptian, and Near Eastern archaeology. Over 100,000 artifacts are housed there, with about 1500 on permanent display. On our tour we saw Greek and Roman coins, Egyptian jewelry, and Etruscan pottery. We also toured their special exhibit called “Less Than Perfect,” celebrating the lessons learned from failure. It showcases art that went deliberately awry.
The museum is named after a professor at U of M back in the early 1900s. Born in 1858, Francis Kelsey grew up in New York, went to school in Chicago, and was hired as a Latin professor in 1889. During his 38 years in Ann Arbor, he led two archaeological expeditions to Egypt, the near East, and Asia Minor. Many of the artifacts in the museum were unearthed during these expeditions. Kelsey lived during a time when there was huge fascination for all things ancient. Discoveries like Pompeii and King Tut’s tomb contributed to this fascination. He was able to gain funding for his expeditions and his collection by seeking help from financiers like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. Kelsey worked tirelessly to create a collection that would help educate archaeology students, right up until his death in 1927.
I hope you can go to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. For me, it was just the right size museum. It’s open year-round and every day of the week except Mondays. And it’s always free, although donations are appreciated. For more information, the website is https://lsa.umich.edu/kelsey/
Garnet: January birthstone
Most of my life I’ve wished I was born a few days earlier, mainly because my birthstone would be an emerald instead of pearl or alexandrite. When it came time to buy my high school class ring, I chose the emerald green stone rather than the pale purple one. When my husband and I designed our 30-year anniversary ring, we designed it with an emerald for the center stone, even though pearl is the traditional gift for the 30-year anniversary. As you can see, I’ve always just gone with what I wanted rather than what I was ‘supposed’ to want. But my decisions got me to thinking about the origin of birthstones. Who deemed that each month be represented by a different gemstone? When was this decision made? And why?
My research on these questions has revealed an interesting and somewhat nonsensical journey. Most sources say that the idea of birthstones started with the Bible and Aaron’s breastplate. Aaron had 12 stones in his breastplate, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. No one knows for sure what the 12 stones were, but chances are high that they were pretty rocks, like jasper or lapis. These are rocks that were native to the area.
A first century historian named Josephus supposedly made the numeric connection between the 12 stones and the 12 months of the year. For centuries the idea was to have 12 stones, carrying a different one each month. They weren’t really birthstones because they weren’t associated with the owner’s birth. They were associated with months of the year. The individual stones were supposed to bring good luck and good health during each one’s specific month.
But somewhere along the way, the idea changed. Experts say that between the 15th and 18th centuries, people began to see themselves as having one stone, corresponding to the month of their birth, that would bring them good fortune. These stones, with a few exceptions, are very different from the birthstones of today. Have you ever heard of bloodstone? It’s an opaque green stone with red spots. It was the birthstone for March. How about sardonyx? That’s a banded, rusty brown-colored, translucent chalcedony that was the birthstone for August.
Bloodstone: March birthstone
Sardonyx: August birthstone
In 1912, Jewelers of America, an association with a definite interest in marketing gemstones, sought to standardize the list. The official list of birthstones had garnet, amethyst, aquamarine, diamond, emerald, pearl, ruby, peridot, sapphire, opal, topaz (the orange-yellow-brown kind), and turquoise. Some of the months had two birthstones, partly in deference to the traditional stones. So March had aquamarine AND bloodstone. August had peridot AND sardonyx. But, let’s face it, if you were born in March, which gem would you rather have? A transparent medium blue one or an opaque dark green one with red blemishes? It didn’t take long to drop these traditional choices.
The 1912 list has had few changes in the last 100+ years. In 1952, alexandrite was added as a birthstone for June and citrine was added as a birthstone for November. December’s traditional birthstone of lapis lazuli was replaced with blue zircon. In 2002, tanzanite, the blue-purple gemstone that had been discovered in 1967, was added to the list for December. And, most recently, in 2016, spinel was added as a birthstone for August.
Why the additions? Many people would say it’s a marketing move. Birthstones aren’t really seen as bringing good luck or good health anymore. They don’t have the significance they used to have. They’re just fun. So why not have more choices? I’m really happy for all you August babies who no longer feel confined to the yellowish-green of peridot. Spinel offers great variety! (See my blog on spinel–July 28, 2016).
So, what do we make of this idea of birthstones? To me it sounds like a complicated game of Telephone. Do you remember that game when someone whispers a phrase to someone else, and it goes around the circle? The final uttering of the phrase bears no resemblance to the original. That’s how I feel birthstones came to be. From Aaron’s breastplate to the writings of Josephus to the Jewelers’ list, it’s a crazy, convoluted path. But this is where we are and what we have. My suggestion? Adopt your favorite gemstone, the one that has meaning to you, and make it YOUR birthstone.
Amethyst: February birthstone
Have you ever heard of Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas? The place where you can sift through the dirt and look for the sparkle of a diamond? I so wish my parents had taken me here when I was a kid!! Even though the possibility of finding a diamond is small–only about 1-2% of all visitors leave with one–the probability of having a good time is very high.
Crater of Diamonds has been a state park since the early 1970s. The park encompasses over 900 acres, but 37 of those acres sit on a volcanic pipe. This pipe, which was part of a 95 million year old volcano (long since eroded), carried diamonds to the Earth’s surface. Today, Crater of Diamonds is the only diamond-bearing site that is open to the public. For eight dollars you can search from morning til night. The park has exhibits and videos that give you the history of the area as well as good tips on how to search for diamonds. It has equipment you can rent, things like shovels and sifting screens, or you can bring your own. Over the years the park has been the location for some remarkable stories.
The biggest diamond ever found there, or anywhere in the U.S., was a 40.23 carat stone called Uncle Sam. It was found back in 1924, when the area was still owned by a diamond mine. Other big finds have been made over the years. As recently as 2015, an 8.52 carat diamond was found, and has been named Esperanza. Most of the diamonds found, however, are small. Approximately 90% of the diamonds are less than 1/4 carat, which is only about the size of a match head . The diamonds from this site are yellow, brown, or colorless. They are not easy to find, but one feature that helps is that they look polished, almost as if they have an oily film on them. Also, they’re usually translucent, which means you can see into them but you can’t see through them. If you’re not sure what you’ve found, there is an expert at the site, ready to help you with identification.
The park is a popular place. It had 168,000 visitors last year. In addition to looking for diamonds, there is a water park and camping. It sounds like the place for a perfect day, if you’re a kid. Go get dusty and dirty looking for rocks, and then get cooled and cleaned off at the water park! Heck, it sounds great even if you’re not a kid!!
If you’d rather look for colored gems, amethysts, garnets, and agates have also been found at Crater of Diamonds. But there are, perhaps, better locations in the U.S. if you’re rockhounding for colored gemstones. Check out Gem Mountain in Montana for sapphires. Or Emerald Hollow Mine in North Carolina for emeralds, rubies, and aquamarine. Morefield Mine in Virginia is a source for amazonite, beryl, garnet, amethyst, and topaz.
It’s not too early to start planning next summer’s vacation. Ask your kids and they’ll tell you–“We want to dig for gemstones!”
Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and how Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden was published in 2015. A friend bought me the book, and it may well be one the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. Gemology and history are two of my favorite subjects, and this book intertwines them into eight fascinating stories. Each chapter is a stand-alone story, of places, events, and peoples as varied as the Spanish Armada and World War I or Marie Antoinette and Kokichi Mikimoto.
Aja Raden writes with a sense of humor and an irreverence for how humans can behave when they desire something. Her stories are intriguing and revealing, and I love how she ties gems and jewelry into topics like economics and politics. As the author states, jewelry isn’t just a set of objects, but symbols–“tangible stand-ins for intangible things.”
In a nutshell, the chapters discuss the following:
- How glass beads bought Manhattan
- History and rise in popularity of the diamond engagement ring
- Emeralds and their significance to the Spanish Empire
- The necklace that “started” the French Revolution
- The pearl, Le Peregrina, that stirred the rivalry between two queens
- How Faberge’ eggs hurt Tsarist Russia and fueled Communism
- How Mikimoto’s cultured pearls saved the Japanese economy
- How wristwatches served in World War I
I enjoyed each chapter and feel that anyone who reads a jewelry blog would like this book. If you read it, please share your thoughts through our website.
I have some very good news for all of you born in August. Just recently, the American Gem Trade Association and Jewelers of America announced that SPINEL has been added to the birthstone list as an alternative to peridot. Not everyone is a fan of peridot’s yellowish-green color, and the gem stone has a narrow range of hue. Spinel, on the other hand, comes in almost every color of the rainbow! The most prized color is red. Pink and blue are two other popular hues. So, because spinel is a relatively unknown gemstone and because changes to the birthstone list don’t happen often, it seemed important to write about it.
Many people have never heard of spinel. It was recognized as a separate mineral about 200 years ago, but, until then, red spinel was often mistaken for ruby. Some famous gems, like the Black Prince’s Ruby, which is set in England’s Imperial State Crown, are actually red spinel. Those who have heard of it often associate it with something “cheap” or “common.” Synthetic (aka man-made) spinel has been used for years to make the stones for high school class rings because it’s inexpensive to produce in lots of different colors that mimic birthstones like emerald, ruby, and sapphire. Synthetic spinel is also used as the top, bottom, or both of a “triplet” that substitutes for a natural gemstone.
Natural spinel is a beautiful mineral made of magnesium, aluminum, and oxygen. It’s colorless unless a trace element such as chromium, iron, or cobalt makes its way into the recipe. Chromium leads to a pink or red spinel. Iron and cobalt lead to violet and blue spinels. A combination of trace elements produces orange or purple spinels. These colors need no enhancement, so spinel is rarely heat-treated or irradiated. It’s a fairly hard gemstone, scoring 8 on the Mohs Scale, and it forms in the cubic crystal system. These qualities mean that spinel is hard enough to take a good polish and easy enough to cut and facet. And the gem is usually eye-clean when it comes to inclusions.
Spinel is traditionally associated with Asia–especially Myanmar, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. More recently deposits have been found in Tanzania and Madagascar. Large crystals are quite rare, so the value goes up exponentially, not only for great color but also for size. While not as expensive as fine ruby or pink sapphire, natural spinel is not an inexpensive gem. Red spinel would cost approximately 30% of the cost of a similarly sized ruby. And pink spinel would be about 85% of the cost of a same size pink sapphire. It’s not easy to find spinel in a jewelry store. Maybe that will change now that it’s a birthstone, but, up until now, it’s been more of a collector’s stone.
So, take heart all of you who longed for another birthstone! It’s spinel to the rescue!! Ask your jewelry store for a peek at its spinel. Here’s a peek at ours.
1.28 carat pink spinel
Flawless Quartz Crystal Sphere at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (106.75 lbs)
This crystal sphere is the largest cut piece of flawless quartz in the world, weighing in at 242,323 carats! It symbolizes our fascination with something so beautiful and yet so common. Quartz is found around the world, in large quantities, and is considered one of the most common minerals on Earth. It’s found in sand, dirt, and dust. Yet, when fashioned by gem cutters and put in a stunning piece of jewelry, it can be breathtaking.
Quartz is a complicated gemstone. One of the reasons it’s tricky is because the term “quartz” is used for varieties of gems, as well as for a species of gem and as a group of gems. So, for example, Rose Quartz is a variety of the species Quartz. So is Citrine, Amethyst, and Tiger’s Eye! All these varieties, and others that are couched under the species of Chalcedony, such as Agate and Jasper, are considered to be members of the group, Quartz. Very confusing!!
Perhaps it’s best to start with the fact that mineralogists and geologists see any mineral with the chemical makeup of silicon dioxide, SiO2, as Quartz. Regardless of whether the crystals making up that stone are large, small, or microscopic, it’s all Quartz. Gemologists, on the other hand, separate the gems into those whose crystals are larger and those too small to see without a high-powered microscope. Those with larger crystals are called Quartz and those with microcrystalline structures are labeled Chalcedony.
Under these two species are many varieties that are used in jewelry. Probably the most commonly known variety of the quartz species is Amethyst. That regal purple has been admired for centuries. The purple color comes from natural irradiation acting upon a trace element of iron. The saturated, medium to deep reddish purple is the most prized color, but amethyst ranges from a light, pinkish purple to that deep purple hue. Amethyst is not rare, but the prized color is more rare because usually only the tips of the amethyst crystals have that depth of color.
Agate and Amethyst, showing the deep purple tips of the quartz crystals, as well as the microcrystalline Agate, which is part of the Chalcedony species.
Other varieties of the Quartz species include Citrine, the orange-yellow gemstone that’s November’s birthstone, and Rock Crystal, which is colorless because it has no trace elements. There’s also Rose Quartz, Smoky Quartz, Prasiolite (aka Green Amethyst), and Ametrine (a bi-colored gem combining the purple of Amethyst and the yellow of Citrine).
Members the Chalcedony species have been used in jewelry even longer than Amethyst! Agates, which exhibit wavy bands of color, were used in amulets and talismans over 3000 years ago. They were also used to make cameos. Carvers would reveal a differently colored band by carving down around the subject of the piece. Today you’ll see agate slice pendants that are sometimes dyed to accentuate the banding.
Probably the most valuable member of the Chalcedony species is Chrysoprase. This translucent gemstone is beloved for its natural apple-green color. It owes its color to the presence of nickel. A big discovery of Chrysoprase was made in 1965 in Australia. Because its color can resemble fine jadeite, it’s sometimes called “Australian Jade.”
Other varieties of the Chalcedony species include Black Onyx (dyed black chalcedony), Carnelian, Jasper, and Fire Agate. Most chalcedony is translucent to opaque, so it’s rarely faceted. Most often it’s fashioned into beads, slices or cabochons. But, just like all Quartz, it registers a 7 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, making it a good choice for rings and bracelets as well as earrings and pendants.
There’s so much that can be said about this beautiful mineral that surrounds us everyday. But I want to end with the sentiment– “How wonderful when something so common can also be so special!”
Custom-made Ametrine Ring in our showcase!
Maybe you’ve seen the ads on TV. A laughing couple in a car, sharing a private moment as they drive a country road. They are in love. But they’re also best friends. And that’s the story of the two-stone engagement ring. It represents the dual nature of their relationship.
The two-stone ring is the latest in a fairly long line of styles promoted by De Beers, the diamond company that, for most of the last century, was the biggest supplier of uncut diamonds. Their ability to create demand for diamonds started with the famous phrase from the 1940s–A Diamond is Forever. And it worked so well that Ad Age, a magazine that analyzes and reports on the marketing world, named it the number one slogan of the 20th century.
A decade ago, it was all about the three-stone engagement ring, or, as it was sometimes called, the trinity ring. The three stones signify your relationship’s past, present, and future. Or the trio can be seen as signifying friendship, love, and fidelity. The most common version of this ring had smaller stones on the left and right with a larger stone in the middle.
Also around ten years ago, the journey necklace was advertised widely as a sentimental way to think about your journey together with the person you love. Their were several styles, for example the ladder, circle, heart, or S, but most had five or seven diamonds.
Other pieces De Beers promoted were the diamond tennis bracelet (1988), the bezel-set diamond solitaire necklace (1998), and the right-hand ring (2003). I laughed when I saw the date on the bezel-set necklace. My husband bought me my necklace in 1999. It’s funny because I’ve never thought of advertising as being influential on my husband or myself. We don’t watch much TV and we hardly ever pay attention to commercials, except for the Superbowl ads. But good advertising does work, and the company that advertises for De Beers is very, very good at it.
And their goal is obvious. They want you to buy more diamonds and especially smaller diamonds. Why smaller? Because there are many, many more small diamonds than large. That’s also the reason why buying a carat’s worth of small diamonds is much less expensive than buying a single, one carat stone. As a quick test, I looked at one diamond vendor’s pricing on one carat, one-half carat, and one-third carat stones. The pricing follows a more exponential pattern. Keeping the other variables of cut, color, and clarity stable, a 1/3-carat stone was about $1000, a 1/2- carat was $3000, and a 1-carat was around $9000. A three-stone or two-stone ring, by carat weight, can be quite cost effective.
The point of my blog is this: Buy a style of ring you love rather than the style that is being promoted at the moment. Don’t get swayed by the sentimentality of the story. Your ring should represent what you want it to represent–not some story made up by someone in advertising.
When men come in to the store to make their decision on a wedding band, most of them think that the decision will be an easy one. They don’t know that men’s bands come in so many different metals. Here are the pros and cons of some of the most popular metals.
GOLD(14 or 18 karat) PROS: 1) As a precious metal it has value and has a better chance of retaining its value: 2) Can be soldered, sized, and re-formed by jewelers, so you don’t have to replace your ring if you gain/lose 20 pounds; 3) Has a nice weight to it, not too heavy but not too light. CONS: 1) More expensive than non-precious metals; 2) Softer metal, so it scratches. (At the same time, jewelers know how to buff gold and get it back to its former glory.)
TITANIUM PROS: 1) Very inexpensive (You can buy a wedding band for $100.); 2) Resists scratching better than gold; 3) Hypoallergenic, so it won’t react with sensitive skin; 4) Natural rather than a compound metal. CONS: 1) Light weight, so it has kind of a “cheap” feel; 2) Cannot be soldered or sized.
COBALT CHROME PROS: 1) Looks and feels like white gold, because it has a similar weight and color; 2) Hypoallergenic; 3) Resists scratching even better than titanium. CONS: 1) More expensive than titanium, but less expensive than gold; 2) Cannot be sized or soldered.
TUNGSTEN CARBIDE (aka TUNGSTEN) PROS: 1) Extremely scratch resistant; 2) Comes in different colors–white, black, and gray; 3) Hypoallergenic; 4) Very inexpensive CONS: 1) Cannot be soldered or sized; 2) Cannot be cut off your finger in an emergency, but instead must be cracked using vise grips; 3) Can shatter if dropped; 4) Heavy weight, so can feel uncomfortable.
To give you an example of cost, I called a company we work with and asked for prices on a basic men’s ring, size 10. The titanium version was $105, the cobalt chrome was $225, and the 14 karat white gold version was $850. They didn’t make a tungsten carbide version, and there’s a very good reason for that.
The man who patented tungsten carbide is currently involved with many lawsuits because of what he calls “copy-cat” Chinese manufacturers. Tungsten carbide rings are either made in China and exported to the U.S., or they are made by companies that pay royalties to the inventor. It’s a complicated situation, and the company we work with doesn’t want to be involved. However, the company makes rings out of tungsten ceramic, which is a different compound than tungsten carbide.
There’s a lot to know about men’s wedding bands, and picking the metal is one of the main decisions each couple must make. My suggestion is to pick a precious metal like gold, or even platinum. Your ring is a symbol of your union, which you plan to have for the rest of your life. You’ll be happier with a timeless, classic ring that can also be with you through life.