Synthetic Gemstones–What are the Advantages? Disadvantages?

The history of lab-created or synthetic gemstones is much longer than you might think.  Scientists began making synthetic ruby back  in the late 1800’s.  Initially, rubies were made for industrial rather than decorative purposes.  Ruby is harder than steel, so it can hold up to moving metal parts.  It actually helps reduce friction in devices like watches or compasses, allowing the metal pieces to move with a consistent pattern.  

In the early 1900’s, a young boy named Carroll Chatham tried to grow diamonds in his garage.  He was fascinated with the work of Henri Moissan, a French chemist who also tried to grow diamonds but ended up with Moissanite.  Making diamonds requires more heat and pressure than Chatham could produce at the time, so he re-directed his focus to emeralds. Even then, the work wasn’t easy.  In fact, his first emerald crystals were accidentally formed.  By this time Chatham was in college, and it took him three years to figure out how to replicate the “accident.” 

          Lab-created Emerald Rough Crystals

Lab-created Cut and Polished Emerald

 

 

 

 

By 1938, Chatham had perfected the process of growing emeralds for jewelry, and he moved on to creating other valued gems like sapphire, ruby, opal, spinel, and alexandrite.  Chatham began selling his lab-created gems under the Chatham label.  The company is now 80 years old and is one of the leaders in the making of lab-created colored gem stones.  Carroll never gave up on his dream of growing diamonds and, in the late 1980’s, the company was successful.  Unfortunately, Carroll didn’t live to see this dream come true.  

In 2018 there are many, many companies that produce diamonds–companies like Brilliant Earth, Clean Origin, and EcoStar.  Years of refining the High Pressure, High Temperature technique has led to better quality diamonds.  While diamonds have many industrial uses, today’s lab-created diamonds are beautiful and can also be used in jewelry.  Anyone purchasing an engagement ring today has a decision to make that his/her parents and grandparents didn’t have to make–Should the center stone be natural or lab-grown?  

                                    Photo courtesy of Rogers & Holland

There are pros and cons to purchasing a synthetic diamond or colored gemstone.  Some of the advantages are 1) synthetics are less expensive than their natural counterparts; 2) growing synthetics is kinder to the environment than mining for natural stones; and 3) gem cutters can sacrifice more synthetic material to create the perfectly cut gem because, well, you can always grow more!  Partly because of these advantages, we’ve seen more customers move towards this option.  

One big disadvantage of a synthetic stone is that it’s, well, synthetic.  Fine jewelry symbolizes pure and natural feelings of love, gratitude, or friendship.  How will it feel to wear or give jewelry that has a lab-created stone?  Another disadvantage is that synthetic stones will only go down in value.  They are a manufactured item and, as the technology improves in the making of them, the cost to produce will decrease.  Fine natural gems are rare, and that rarity will keep values high.  

It’s a decision every consumer has to make for him/herself.  What’s imperative is that consumers are presented with clear options, and that they know what they are buying.  Gemstones are not obviously natural or synthetic, so customers must rely on reputable jewelers to distinguish between the two.  For an important jewelry purchase, go to an A.G.S. (American Gem Society) member store.  There you will find associates dedicated to the highest integrity in the jewelry industry.  Ask questions and do comparison shopping.  And feel lucky to live in a time when there are so many gem stone options.

Pantone’s Color of 2018, Ultra Violet, Suggests New Gemstones

Ultra Violet, Pantone’s 2018 Color of the Year

In December, Pantone came out with its Color of the Year.  This year it’s Ultra Violet.  My mind goes to the gemstones that exhibit this glorious hue.  Many people will think of Amethyst and Tanzanite.  I’d like to introduce some other options– two gems most people have never heard of and two gems most people have heard of but never in this hue.  

SUGILITE was first identified in 1944 by  Ken-ichi Sugi from Japan.  But gem quality Sugilite wasn’t discovered until 1979 in South Africa, making it a very new gem in the jewelry industry.  The color ranges from a pinkish purple to a deep bluish-purple.  The hardness is between 5.5-6.5 on the Mohs scale.  Sugilite is generally cut as a cabochon because it’s opaque.  It usually has veining and a mottled appearance. 

CHAROITE is another “young” stone.  Named after the Chara River in Eastern Siberia, the only place it’s ever been found, it was discovered in the 1940s but not really known until 1978.  The stone ranges from lavender to purple in color, is usually opaque, and is readily identified by its swirling, fibrous appearance.  Considered a rock rather than a mineral, its hardness on the Mohs scale is listed as 5 – 6.

Sugilite

Charoite

 

 

 

 

 

JADEITE has been known and valued for centuries.  It comes in many colors, not just green.  Lavender jade is beautiful!  It can be semitransparent to opaque and is usually cut into cabochons or beads.  It comes from many different places–Myanmar, New Zealand, Russia, and Canada to name a few.  Jade is a harder, tougher stone than either Sugilite or Charoite.  But it also has the possibility of being dyed, which brings down the value.  Neither Sugilite nor Charoite undergo treatments.  Always ask if the jadeite has been treated or enhanced before you buy!  

PURPLE SAPPHIRE is very rare, coming usually from Sri Lanka or Madagascar.  Again, sapphire has been valued as a gemstone for centuries, but most people don’t know that it comes in so many different colors.  Most sapphire is heat-treated, but purple, lavender, and violet sapphires usually don’t need to be.  Purple sapphire has a Mohs hardness of 9, so it’s the most durable of the options presented here.  Because it’s hard and transparent, this gem is usually faceted.  Not surprisingly,  it’s also the most expensive option listed. 

Lavender Jade

Violet Sapphire

 

 

 

 

Amethyst and Tanzanite are lovely purple gems, and they would work well with this year’s fashions.  But now you have LOTS of options if you want to be “styling” with the Color of the Year!

 

 

 

 

Tanzanite-Birthstone of a Generation

Tanzanite, that beautiful violet-blue gemstone with the interesting history, doesn’t seem that rare.  Most jewelry stores have at least a few pieces.  Most consumers recognize the name, tanzanite, and can’t remember when it wasn’t available.  But we are actually the lucky “generation” to have this precious gem.  Going to the store and buying a new piece of tanzanite jewelry will probably not be an option for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  

The history begins back in the late 1960s, when the blue-purple variety of the mineral, zoisite, was first discovered.  Found in the Merelani Hills of Tanzania, near Mount Kilimanjaro, the gem quickly gained the attention of Tiffany’s president, Henry Platt.  It was Tiffany & Co. that named the gem, Tanzanite, and began marketing it in 1968.  The popularity of the gemstone grew over the next few decades and, in 2002, Tanzanite became an official birthstone for December.  It also is the gemstone for the 24th wedding anniversary.  

Most gemstones are found in various places on Earth.  But the geological circumstances that allow tanzanite to form are very rare and have only been found in the Merelani Hills.  All the mines are located within eight square miles!  A big reason for this is that vanadium, the trace element responsible for the violet-blue color, is not a common element.  And it was very rare during the formation time of tanzanite.  Another reason for tanzanite’s rarity is that only in this one location has erosion of the Earth’s surface tipped the scales enough to allow the continental crust, where the gems were formed, to be pushed up by the oceanic crust.  Bringing the gemstones closer to the Earth’s surface has allowed mining to be profitable. 

For how much longer will mining be profitable?  In the early 2000’s money was invested in understanding the conditions ripe for tanzanite.  Mining became more efficient and production increased.  Recent reports, however, point out that mines have to go deeper to find more tanzanite.  At some point, the cost of mining will be prohibitive.  When production slows and the jewelry industry can’t count on a steady supply, it will look to other, more available, gems.  This may lead to a downward spiral of demand and supply for tanzanite.

You are part of the “generation” that can still go to your favorite jewelry store and buy this beautiful gem.  Unless some other deposit is discovered, future generations will have to buy previously owned tanzanite.  So, if you love tanzanite, don’t delay in getting your special piece of it.

Our pieces of tanzanite, currently in stock

 

 

Made in Michigan Jewelry

Michigan isn’t known as a state rich in gemstones.  We have Petoskey (our state stone) and Isle Royale Greenstone (our state gem).  There are no sapphires, emeralds, or rubies, but this hasn’t stopped us from making our own gems.  Be thankful for the ingenuity of artists who use the materials readily available to them.  If you’re a Michigander, you can be proud of our “Made in Michigan” gems. 

Detroit is the Motor City.  Henry Ford started making automobiles around the turn of the 20th century.  Little did he know he’d be helping the jewelry industry!  But Fordite, or “Motor Agate” as it’s sometimes called, is made from the same kind of lacquer or enamel paint that graced the cars of the mid-1900s. Today the material is used to make such things as pendants, earrings, and cuff links.  

Fordite Pendant made from Cadillac Paint

For decades, automobiles were spray painted by hand in rooms called painting bays. The painted car frames sat on skids that could then be moved to the oven when the paint was ready for curing.  Over time, excess paint on the skids, baked hard by many trips to the oven, made the skids less efficient.  Workers would chip big chunks of psychedelic enamel off, and, at some point, they realized that the colorful chunks could be cut and polished.

According to experts on the material, the heyday for Fordite was in the 1970s, because such a variety of color was offered.  Experts can look at a piece of Fordite and know, approximately, when the piece was formed. For example, bright colors of red, green and yellow were popular in the 1960s.  Earthtones of olive green and brown were popular in the 1970s.  Experts can also distinguish Fordite from the creations of contemporary jewelers who can make their own “Fordite-like” pieces.  Obviously, the “natural Fordite” is more valuable.

By the late 1980s, innovation in the painting process reduced the amount of wasted paint.  Today’s cars are painted with robotic arms and a magnetic process which eliminates the chance of overspray.  Sadly, colorful Fordite is no longer made.  If you want to own a piece of Fordite, don’t wait too long!

Fordite isn’t the only example of recycling in jewelry.  In the town of Leland, near Traverse City, jewelry is made from the slag by-product of an iron smelting process.  Back in the late 1800s, Leland was home to the Leland Lake Superior Iron Company.  Situated close to the harbor, right on Lake Michigan, the company separated iron from the raw ore.  The glass-like slag, made of silicon dioxide and metal oxide, had useful purposes when the company was in business, but when it folded in 1885, heaps of unneeded slag were dumped into the harbor.  Within a few years green, blue, gray, and even purple pieces of the slag were coming up on shore like beach stones.  Snorkelers find larger chunks of the slag further out in the harbor.  No one seems to know who first decided that the material could be shaped and polished for jewelry, but it’s been used for at least 30 years. Today, almost any jewelry store in the Leelanau Peninsula has jewelry made from Leland Blue. 

Leland Blue Rough

 

Let me mention one final example of recycled material in jewelry. A young company, Rebel Nell, figured out how to use another of the Motor City’s commodities. They make sterling silver jewelry from peeling and fallen graffiti paint. The process Rebel Nell uses to stabilize the paint is a trade secret, but it’s no secret that they are doing great work. The mission of the company is to employ, educate, and empower disadvantaged women living in local shelters.  The work they do, making bracelets, rings, pendants, and earrings, allows the women to transition to an independent life. 

 

Graffiti paint bracelet, made by Rebel Nell

Recycling is a strategy that only grows in popularity.  Michigan jewelers take slag, paint, and other things that have little value (think beach glass and copper nuggets) and make new treasures from them.  It’s the Michigander way!

 

 

Pearls 101

At some point you may be in the market for pearls. It’s a complicated topic, but it’s nice to know at least a little bit about what you’re purchasing. Think of this blog as a quick course to help you understand the lingo when you are shopping for pearls. Reading this will also help you understand the wide variation in pricing for pearls.
Lesson 1: All the pearls you see in the store are cultured pearls, which means that they were made with man’s help. Since Mikimoto started growing pearls in the early 1900s, the industry has grown tremendously. Oysters or mussels are tended to by pearl farmers and, when they’re old enough, they get implanted with a piece(s) of tissue(usually from a mussel) or maybe a bead. If all goes well, the mollusk responds to this “irritant” by secreting nacre around it. With time and a lot “babying” on the part of the farmers, these mollusks will produce a pearl. Some mollusks can produce several pearls at one time.
Lesson 2: Different types of mollusks produce different types of pearls. The four main types of pearls you’ll see for sale are Akoya, Tahitian, South Sea, and Freshwater. Of the four, Freshwater pearls are the most economical, partly because many pearls can be harvested from each mussel. Freshwater pearls come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Akoya pearls are usually white or cream-colored. They’re known for great luster, and they are quite round. Tahitian pearls are gray to black in color, and they’re usually bigger than Akoyas. South Sea pearls can be bigger still, and they are silver or gold in color.

Lesson 3: The shape of a pearl can vary due to many factors, some of them under man’s control. Shape can be described using many different terms. Sure, you’ll hear round, near-round, tear-drop, and button. Those are fairly self-explanatory. But what about BAROQUE? This just means that the pearl isn’t a traditional shape. It’s irregular. Many freshwater pearls fall into this category, because they are normally nucleated with just a small piece of tissue. EDISON pearls refer to freshwater pearls that have been nucleated with round beads rather than tissue. They can be quite big and round because of this. FIREBALL pearls are also bead-nucleated, but they have a “tail” because of the way the bead is placed into the mollusk. MABE, or BLISTER pearls are formed when a half-bead is attached to the inner side of the oyster. When the pearl is removed, a portion of the oyster’s lining is also taken. KESHI pearls are formed when the inserted nucleus is rejected by the oyster, but the nacre has started to gather. The result is a pearl that looks more like a single Kellogg’s cornflake. It is completely made of nacre. MOTHER OF PEARL is not really a pearl, but it’s made of the same stuff. It forms the lining of the mollusk, and can be cut out in thin layers to be used as inlay.

Lesson 4: Just like diamonds have 4 Cs (Cut, color, clarity, and carat weight) that determine their value, pearls have qualities that you should know about. LUSTER is a combo of surface shine and a deeper glow. Really good luster allows you to see your own reflection on the pearl’s surface. If the surface seems cloudy or milky, with more of a matte finish, luster is low. SHAPE, as we talked about in lesson 3, helps determine value. It’s rare to have a perfectly round pearl, but that’s usually the goal. SURFACE is important, too. Blemishes on the surface of the pearl detract from its value. SIZE influences value. Usually bigger is more valuable, because it takes the oyster longer to produce that size. You do have to keep the type of pearl in mind, however. A large Akoya would be a small Tahitian. COLOR is dependent on the type of pearl, too. But it’s important that the pearl have both a pleasing color and fairly uniform color. Finally, if you’re buying a strand of pearls, you need to think about how well they MATCH. Well-matched pearls in a necklace command top prices because it takes so many pearls to find ones that are similar enough to be strung together.

Lesson 5: (optional) If you do plan to buy a strand of pearls, there are some terms you should know. Most strands are made of pearls that are UNIFORM in size and shape. But you can also buy a GRADUATED strand. (No, that doesn’t mean it’s smarter.) It means that the pearls graduate in size, from small near the clasp to large in the center. You can buy strands of different lengths. A PRINCESS length is 18 inches. A MATINEE is 20 – 24 inches. And an OPERA length is 30 – 36 inches long! Or you can buy multiple strands that are worn together as a single necklace. If the strands nest inside each other, you have a BIB. If the strands are twisted together like a braid, you have a TORSADE.

Pearl Torsade

As I said before, buying pearls can seem quite complicated. But they are worth it! And, hopefully, Pearls 101 can help you feel confident.

My Tourmaline

In 1890 an author named Saxe Holm wrote a charming story entitled, My Tourmaline.  The young heroine possesses a crystal of tourmaline, which she finds in the roots of a large tree.  It brings her good fortune until she loses it.  Bereft until she finally finds it in someone else’s collection, she and her tourmaline are eventually re-united and live “happily ever after.” 

What is it about tourmaline that makes people feel so connected to it?  One reason is because of all the colors it comes in.  There is no other mineral that comes in as many hues.  This rainbow quality translates to a lightness and happiness that appeals to all.  It also suggests tolerance, flexibility and a compassionate understanding.  The Sri Lankans named the gem, “turamali”, meaning a stone of mixed colors.  

A rainbow of gemstones, all of them are tourmaline.

Another quality of tourmaline is its pyroelectricity.  If heated, it actually has magnetic properties.  As a result, the mineral has many industrial uses.  You can find it in hairdryers to calm static hair, in joint wraps to promote blood circulation, and in tuning circuits for conducting TV and radio frequencies.  In the metaphysical world, tourmaline is seen as a strong protector, reflecting negativity away from anyone possessing the stone.  It’s also seen as a grounding stone that promotes a sense of power and self-confidence.  

Finally, tourmaline is a popular gemstone, featured prominently as the birthstone for October and the anniversary stone for the 8th and 38th anniversaries.   It has a hardness of 7 – 7.5 on the Mohs scale, so it’s durable enough to be set in rings.  It’s not as expensive as ruby, emerald, or sapphire, but it can sometimes mimic these colors.  And it’s mined on almost every continent– from the state of Maine to the island of Madagascar.  

You may own a tourmaline and not even know it, because the gem has so many trade names.  If you own a rubellite, an indicolite, a verdelite, a siberite, an achroite, or a paraiba, you actually own a tourmaline. You may also have a bi-colored or parti-colored tourmaline, a watermelon tourmaline, or even tourmalinated quartz!  There are so many different looks to this versatile mineral.  If these pictures are motivating you to own a tourmaline (or a second one), stop in our store.  We’d be happy to introduce you to the ones in our showcase.

Parti-colored tourmaline

Watermelon tourmaline earrings with rubellite and green tourmaline: custom-made by our benchjewelers

 

Tourmalinated Quartz: The black crystals are the tourmaline, also called schorl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watermelon tourmaline, carved into butterfly wings, and made into a pendant by our benchjewelers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Business with Burma

I’ll never forget vacationing in Thailand, trying to decide whether to buy a pair of jadeite earrings.  The beaming salesman chanted to me, “Burmeeeese jade,” with a knowing nod. His smile implied that nothing could be better.

Imperial-quality jade. Courtesy of Mason-Kay.

Imperial-quality jade. Courtesy of Mason-Kay.

That was about eight years ago, when jade and rubies from Burma (Myanmar) were banned from the United States.  Retailers in the U.S. could not sell them.  Wholesalers could not import them.  Well, that recently changed, and the announcement got me interested in the story of how these gems came to be sanctioned.

It was back in 2003 when George W. Bush signed the trade embargo, prohibiting the import of Burmese goods.  The military ruling group, the “junta”, of the country had imprisoned the people’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.  Citizens of the country were having their human rights violated.  The embargo was a response to what was considered an unacceptable way to govern.

But there were loopholes in the 2003 document, and Burmese jade and rubies still found their way into the U.S.  If a “middleman” country got involved, either in the cutting or polishing step, it was still legal to import these gems to the U.S.  That is, until July 2008.

President Bush signed a new document, the Tom Lantos Block Burmese J.A.D.E.(Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, which closed the loopholes and effectively banned the import of ALL precious Burmese gemstones.  Wholesalers and retailers selling ruby and jade needed documentation to certify that the gems had not originated in Burma.

The jewelry industry was negatively impacted by the embargo.  Burma was considered the best source in the world for fine ruby and jade.  Different sources of the gems had to be found, and, over the years, they were.  Today many rubies come from Mozambique. Jadeite sources include Guatemala, Japan, and Kazakhstan.

The trade sanctions had the desired effect.  Myanmar began to make reforms in 2010. Over the next couple of years, democratic elections were held and many political prisoners were released.  In 2011, the U.S.  appointed an ambassador, and, in 2012, President Obama visited the country.  Using a cautious approach, President Obama lifted some of the sanctions in November 2012.  But the ban on rubies and jade remained in place.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now the nation’s State Counsellor (sort of like a Prime Minister), expressed patience, saying that “We believe that if we are going along the right path, all sanctions should be lifted in good time.”  And she was right!  On October 7th, 2016, President Obama signed an executive order to lift the remaining trade sanctions against Myanmar.

It will be interesting to see how this executive order influences the jewelry industry in the coming months and years.  It will take some time to establish or re-establish relationships with Burmese stone dealers.  But I believe it won’t be long before we see the deep blood-red Burmese rubies back in our stores.  And my “Burmeeeese” jade earrings (Yes. . . I bought them) may soon be easy to find in the United States.

Burmese, 25.29 carat Ruby, sold in 2015 for $30.3 million

25.59 carat Burmese Ruby, sold in 2015 for $30.3 million

The Michigan Gemstone

A large polished piece of Greenstone

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

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.

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My piece of Keweenaw Greenstone! I love it!!

History of Birthstones

garnet

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

Bloodstone: March birthstone

Sardonyx: August 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

Amethyst: February birthstone

A Crater of Diamonds

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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.

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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.

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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!!

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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!”