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!
I never realized there were so many good luck charms until I started working at a jewelry store. Sure, I knew of the 4-leaf clover and the rabbit’s foot, but I’d never heard of the “ankh” and the “cornicello.” One of my more embarrassing moments came recently when a woman came in with her husband’s necklace. It needed repair so I wrote up a repair slip, describing the piece as a “hot pepper pendant on a gold chain.” Everyone laughed at me when I took it back to the shop. “That’s not a hot pepper,” chuckled the bench jeweler. “That’s a gorno.”
The “corno” pendant
“Huh? What’s a gorno?” Well, truth is, he wasn’t completely sure. And the fact is, it’s not a gorno. It’s a corno or a cornicello. Turns out this is the Italian word for “horn” or “little horn.” It apparently protects the wearer from the evil eye. The evil eye is a look, given to inflict harm or bad luck. There is widespread belief in the power of the evil eye, but, supposedly, it started in ancient Greece.
Now, the “evil eye” I’d seen before, a few months back when working with a different customer. It’s kind of confusing, because some people wear an amulet of an eye, as protection from evil. They call the amulet the evil eye. So I guess an “evil eye” can be either bad luck OR good luck.
I think every culture has their own version of a good luck charm. The “ankh”(pronounced awnk) is actually the Egyptian symbol for life. As the key of life, it represents zest and energy, and some people wear it as a protection from demons. It resembles a Christian cross, but has a loop at the top.
The “ankh” pendant
I guess we all can use a little good luck from time to time. Can it hurt to wear a good luck charm? It’s just nice to know there are so many options.
On the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, it seems like the perfect time to examine her taste in jewelry. Since few women have been photographed as often as the Queen, it’s very easy to see her style. She loves pearls, and often wears both the classic pearl stud earrings and three strand pearl necklace. If she has a special event, she’ll wear a tiara–she has several to choose from– and a gemstone-studded necklace. But what I found really interesting is how she accents her outfits with a brooch.
She’s received and worn brooches since she was a teenager. Her brooches come from all over the world, and her collection numbers well over one hundred. Many of them have names, like the Flame Lily and the Three Thistle. One of her favorites is the diamond brooch, the Jardine Star, which she’s wearing in the picture above. Some of the brooches are actually badges, representing specific organizations and are worn by the Queen as a mark of her ties to the groups. I found one blog that really gives a lot of detail and history about Queen Elizabeth’s brooches, and you can access it here. And if you just want to see pictures of them, click on this link.
three thistle brooch
The Queen has been in her royal role for over 60 years. She had her Diamond Jubilee Celebration in 2012. She has served her country and the commonwealth loyally. So, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! QUEEN ELIZABETH!!
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in their youth
Queen Elizabeth, youthful at heart!
The romance and history of colored gemstones has always fascinated me. I guess I’m just a sucker for a good story. Here are three I thought you might like.
TANZANITE: It’s said that we are all members of the “Tanzanite generation.” Discovered in 1967 by a Masai tribesman in Northern Tanzania, Tanzanite is mined in only one, 4 square kilometer, location. And the mines are getting deeper and harder to mine profitably. We will be the ones who can buy a new Tanzanite. Future generations will only see the stone in heirloom pieces. It’s estimated that Tanzanite One, the largest Tanzanite mining company, has less than 30 years of production left.
The gemstone was named by Henry Platt, great-grandson of the famous Louis C. Tiffany. Tiffany and Co. realized the importance of the gemstone and quickly made themselves the main distributor. Their marketing efforts made tanzanite one of the most popular gemstones by the 1990s. The beautiful gem hit the big screen with a “splash” as the Heart of the Ocean in the movie, Titanic.
MORGANITE: This pink to orange/pink variety of beryl was originally discovered in Pala, California in the early 1900s. It was named for J.P. Morgan, a great financier and collector of minerals. Tiffany’s gem buyer and gemologist, George Kunz, was the man who named the gem, buying up all he could find for his wealthy client. Incidentally, another pink gemstone, discovered at about the same time, was named Kunzite in honor of George Kunz. So, he got his own gemstone, too!
Morganite is the same species of mineral as Emerald and Aquamarine. Like Aquamarine, it is usually an eye-clean stone that can be cut in larger sizes. It’s a good thing, too, because a larger stone usually shows a more saturated color. Pale Morganite often needs that advantage. It’s generally heat-treated to improve its pink color and minimize its yellowish tint. The treatment is stable, so no fading occurs.
ALEXANDRITE: First discovered in Russia’s Ural Mountains in the early 1830s, Alexandrite is the quintessential color-change gemstone. It was found by miners who thought they’d found emeralds, until nighttime came and they were sitting around the campfire. Alexandrite’s trace elements of iron, titanium, and chromium make it greenish in sunlight and reddish in incandescent or fire light. Boy, were those miners surprised when, the next morning, their red gemstones had turned back to green!
Legend says that the gem was found on the 16th birthday of young Alexander II, future Czar of Russia. The stone became the National Gem of Czarist Russia. It was the perfect fit with the red and green color scheme of imperial Russia’s military. Every Russian had to have an Alexandrite. Unfortunately, for all of us, the Russian supply was depleted. Fortunately, other deposits have been found in Sri Lanka, East Africa, and Brazil.
Natural Alexandrites are very expensive, especially in larger sizes. Even the synthetic version is expensive, because it’s difficult to manufacture. But, if you’re lucky enough to own an Alexandrite, you have an “Emerald by day, and a Ruby by night.”
The general feeling among gemologists and gem merchants is that there is nothing wrong with any type of treatment as long as it’s fully disclosed to the customer, and the customer is being charged appropriately for the treated stone. As discussed in our last blog, many treatments have stable results. Enhancements such as bleaching, irradiation, and heating are commonly accepted by most in the jewelry industry because, not only are they permanent but they are also treatments that could have occurred naturally. Some enhancements, however, are not as stable or they lack that “natural” quality. Gemologists and gemstone merchants are wary of gemstones that have been coated or fracture filled.
Gemstones have been painted or coated for thousands of years. It’s not a new idea. Often the back side (pavillion) or girdle of a faceted gemstone is coated with a thin film of metal oxide paint. The well-known Mystic Topaz is actually colorless topaz with a thin layer of titanium on its pavillion. The coating causes interference with light and leads to Mystic’s rainbow of colors. Drusy quartz is another gem that can get coated with permanent metallic film, using a process called vapor deposition. Both of these processes are permanent as long as the gems aren’t exposed to high heat or chemicals.
If a gem such as emerald has tiny fractures or cavities that reach the surface of the stone, apparent clarity of the gem can be improved by filling the fractures with either oil or wax. Even diamonds or rubies can be fracture filled, although the filling is generally lead glass rather than oil. Glass fillings are more durable than oils or waxes. High heat, acids, or even vigorous cleaning in an ultrasonic cleaner can drain the emerald of its oil. New oil can be inserted but, until it is, the emerald will look like it has more inclusions than it had before. Many gemologists worry more about fracture filled diamonds. Emeralds have been oiled for centuries and bench jewelers know the special care that they need. But diamonds normally handle the heat of the jeweler’s torch. A fracture-filled diamond, however, cannot handle heat, and must be treated differently than a non-treated diamond.
This concludes our three-blog series on gemstones and their treatments. I guess the thought I want to leave you with is, if you’re buying nice gemstones, ask questions. Especially if you decide to buy off the internet, look at the fine print. Fracture-filled diamonds are a “fraction” of the cost, but they require special care and will never be as valuable as a diamond that’s not fracture-filled. Know what you’re buying.
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.