Gemstones are part of my life. I’m around them all day at work! But many people feel that their interaction with gems and jewels is minimal. Our language, however, is quite “loaded” with references to gems. This pervasiveness means that it’s literally impossible to live life without some knowledge of gems.
Many women, and some MEN!, are named after gemstones. Have you ever met an Amber, a Ruby, or a Jade? Other well-known names include Beryl, Pearl, Opal, Jett, and Jasper. Names like Gemma and Crystal aren’t gemstone names, per se, but they mimic the idea of gems. And there are plenty of less-common names like Jacinth, Sapphire, and Garnet.
Beryl Markham, Aviatrix, and character in the movie, Out of Africa
Pearl S Buck, author of The Good Earth
Amber Tamblyn, actress. Starred in Two and a Half Men
Companies like Crayola and Pantene have borrowed names from gemstones to describe their colors. Do you remember coloring with crayons labeled Aquamarine or Amethyst? What about Pantene’s Color of the Year last year–Rose Quartz! Names like Ruby, Emerald, or Turquoise bring colors vividly to mind. The gemstone names can be colorful adjectives, and the entertainment industry has used them for years. Remember Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz with her RUBY red slippers? Or how about Dolly Parton singing about Jolene and her eyes of EMERALD green?
Even gemstones with little or no color get used a lot in our language. Diamond is the most popular gemstone used in songwriting. Pearl is the runner-up. Over 1200 songs were counted as having the word, Diamond. Rhianna has a recent song, “Diamonds”, which, I’m sure, is quite popular. My mind goes back to my 8th grade synchronized swimming program, when we swam to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” by Ethel Merman. (I guess that dates me, doesn’t it?)
There are sayings and quotations about gemstones. For example, “Diamond in the Rough” means that something or someone is valuable and good, but not polished or finished. “Pearls of Wisdom” means rare and worthy words of advice. Even the Bible contributes to the list with “Pearls before Swine” which talks about not giving out words or things of great value to those who won’t appreciate them. In general, gemstones are used as synonyms for something or someone rare, valuable, and special.
I love these funny quotations about gemstones and jewelry that I came across while researching for this blog.
Diamonds are only chunks of coal, that stuck to their jobs, you see. by Minnie Richard Smith
Jewelry takes people’s minds off your wrinkles. by Sonja Henie
I think men who have a pierced ear are better prepared for marriage. They’ve experienced pain and bought jewelry. by Rita Rudner
But I want to end with a reference to gemstones that we all learned from early in our youth. This is proof, in my opinion, that one can’t go through life without some knowledge of gems:
Twinkle, twinkle little star– How I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high–Like a diamond in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle little star–How I wonder what you are.
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.
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.
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!
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
The Earth is very hot–over 10000 degrees Fahrenheit at its core. Over the millions of years that gemstones formed in the earth, some have been subjected to high temperatures. Interestingly enough, this heat can alter the light absorption of the stone, changing its color. Sometimes heat “improves” the color of the stone, perhaps taking a gray, brown, or almost colorless stone and turning it to a cheerful blue or a regal purple.
Man has found a way to heat stones that Earth neglected to heat. The most common types of heat treated gemstones are ruby, sapphire, topaz, tanzanite, and zircon. If you buy one of these stones, you can be quite certain that it’s been heated by man. You’d pay a huge premium to have beautiful color without man-made heat. The time spent heating, the temperature, and the other treatments that may be combined with heat will all vary depending on the raw material.
Non-heat treated tanzanite on the left and heat-treated tanzanite on the right
Our planet also naturally irradiates stones. Irradiation can change the arrangement of the protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up the atoms of the stone. This can alter the color of stones as well. Man has figured out how to irradiate gemstones in order to improve color. They can be treated to high energy radiation at a gamma ray facility that uses cobalt-60 so that there is no residual radioactivity. Diamonds are sometimes irradiated to create beautiful fancy colored diamonds. Colored diamonds can occur naturally, but it’s rare for them to be blue or green. That’s why famous gems like the Hope Diamond or the Dresden Green are so amazing. If you see a blue or green diamond, chances are man has irradiated it. Blue topaz is another irradiated gem stone. It’s the combination of irradiation and heat treatment that brings out that beautiful Swiss or London Blue in topaz.
The sun gave us inspiration for bleaching. Stones often look prettier if they are whiter or less brownish. Pearls and jadeite are both commonly bleached–and not by the sun. The process involves hydrogen peroxide or some type of acid. Pearls, even if they are natural in color rather than dyed, are still often bleached to lighten and brighten the color nature gave them.
Unbleached jadeite on the left and bleached jadeite on the right
Most people in the jewelry industry accept these three treatments. Since heating, irradiating, and bleaching could have all occurred naturally, it seems that man is helping out by making a natural process accessible to more gemstones. And since all of these treatments are permanent, no one has to worry about their gemstone changing over time. Finally, without these treatments, colored gemstones and pearls would be much more expensive and exclusive.
Our final post of this series will be about treatments that are not as commonly accepted. These are treatments you, as the consumer, should definitely be aware of before you buy. Treatments such as surface coating and fracture filling can enhance the look of the stone but may not be permanent. Remember to ask questions if you want to know about treatments on a gemstone you’re planning to purchase.