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Alexandrite's Unique Properties

Alexandrite is renowned as a color-changing gem; a captivating wonder of the natural world. In daylight or fluorescent light, it appears as a vivid bluish green, but under incandescent light, it transforms into a rich purplish red. This mesmerizing color shift has earned alexandrite a reputation as one of the most sought-after and valuable gemstones.

The Rarity Factor

Adding to alexandrite's allure is its rarity - fine material is exceptionally scarce. Alexandrite is a variety of the mineral chrysoberyl, which forms under very specific geological conditions. It requires the presence of beryllium and chromium, elements that rarely occur together, making alexandrite deposits few and far between.

Birthstone and Namesake

June babies can claim this rare beauty as their birthstone, alongside pearl and moonstone. Discovered in 1830 in Russia's Ural Mountains, alexandrite was named after Czar Alexander II, who came of age that year. Its red and green colors matched the imperial Russian military colors, further cementing its noble appeal.

Evaluating Quality

As with most colored gems, color is paramount in assessing alexandrite's quality. The most prized alexandrites show a strong color change, with intense hues in both daylight and incandescent light. Clarity is important too, as inclusions can detract from the gem's beauty and value. Cut is less critical, with various shapes highlighting the color shift.

Symbolic Meaning

Alexandrite is said to bring luck, prosperity, and love to its wearer. It's also believed to strengthen intuition, creativity, and imagination. As a relatively modern gem in the world of crystal lore, alexandrite's metaphysical properties continue to be explored by gem enthusiasts.

Synthetic Alternatives

With natural alexandrite being so rare and expensive, synthetic versions have emerged on the market. While they display a similar color change, they lack the rarity and mystique of genuine, earth-mined alexandrites. As technology advances, discerning natural from synthetic becomes an increasing challenge.

Caring for Alexandrite

Despite its good hardness of 8.5 on the Mohs scale, alexandrite requires some care to maintain its pristine beauty. Protect it from hard knocks and abrasion, and avoid extreme temperature changes which can cause thermal shock. Clean with warm, soapy water and a soft brush, or use ultrasonic cleaners with caution.

Alexandrite's Enduring Appeal

The romance and rarity of alexandrite ensure its continuing popularity with gem collectors and jewelry connoisseurs. Its color-change properties, while not unique in the gem world, are arguably the most dramatic and captivating. Despite its challenges of scarcity and expense, alexandrite remains a perennial favorite - a true gem of the ages.

The Geology of Alexandrite Formation

Chrysoberyl Chemistry

Alexandrite is a variety of chrysoberyl, an aluminate of beryllium with the chemical formula BeAl2O4. Trace amounts of chromium are responsible for alexandrite's color change abilities, as well as its emerald-like green hues. Chrysoberyl crystallizes in the orthorhombic system, often forming twinned crystals.

Geological Conditions

The formation of alexandrite requires a rare geological recipe. Beryllium is typically found in silica-rich, aluminum-poor rocks like granite, while chromium is more abundant in silica-poor, magnesium- and iron-rich rocks like peridotite. For alexandrite to form, these contrasting rock types must interact under specific conditions.

Magmatic Origins

One geological scenario that can give rise to alexandrite is the intrusion of beryllium-rich pegmatites into chromium-rich mafic or ultramafic rocks. As the pegmatite magma cools and crystallizes, it reacts with the surrounding rocks, potentially forming alexandrite where the chemical ingredients mix in just the right proportions.

Metamorphic Transformations

Alexandrite can also form during metamorphism, the transformation of rocks under high temperature and pressure conditions deep within the Earth. If beryllium-bearing sediments or volcanic ashes are subjected to metamorphism in the presence of chromium-rich rocks, the resulting recrystallization may yield alexandrite.

Placer Deposits

Some alexandrite is found in alluvial placer deposits, having been weathered out of its original host rock and concentrated by rivers and streams. The tough, dense nature of chrysoberyl allows it to resist abrasion and accumulate in alluvial sediments far from its source. Placer deposits can provide an economic source of alexandrite.

Inclusions and Growth Patterns

Alexandrite often contains distinctive inclusions and growth features that provide clues to its geological history. Swirl-like growth patterns, sometimes resembling a cat's eye, are common. Needle-like inclusions of rutile, as well as liquid-filled cavities, can also occur. These internal characteristics can help gemologists distinguish natural alexandrite from synthetic imitations.

Companion Minerals

Minerals often found in association with alexandrite can provide further insights into its geological origins. These may include other beryllium minerals like beryl (emerald, aquamarine), phenakite and bertrandite, as well as mica, quartz, feldspar, garnet, spinel, and corundum (sapphire, ruby).

Geographical Distribution

Alexandrite deposits are found in a handful of locations worldwide, most notably Brazil, Sri Lanka, East Africa (Tanzania, Zimbabwe), India, and Russia. The original Russian deposits in the Urals have been largely depleted, with the finest material found in the 19th century. Each deposit tends to produce alexandrite with distinctive color change and inclusions.

The History and Lore of Alexandrite

Discovery in the Urals

Alexandrite's story begins in 1830 in Russia's Ural Mountains. Miners were working the emerald deposits near Tokovaya when they encountered an unusual green stone. Initially thought to be emerald, it was later identified as a variety of chrysoberyl that displayed a remarkable color change.

Czar Alexander II

News of the discovery reached Count Lev Alekseevich Perovskii, an avid gem collector and the imperial court's Minister of Appanages. He presented specimens of the new gem to the future Czar Alexander II, who was then coming of age. The gem was named alexandrite in honor of the young czar.

Imperial Colors

Alexandrite's green and red colors perfectly matched the colors of the imperial Russian military. This felicitous correspondence further endeared the gem to the royal family and the Russian nobility. Alexandrite became a symbol of Russian pride and prestige.

Regal Gem

Alexandrite quickly became a favorite of the Romanov dynasty. It was set into jewelry worn by the imperial family and given as gifts to visiting dignitaries. Alexandrite's rarity and association with the Romanovs made it one of the most coveted gems of the era.

Bolshevik Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an end to the Romanov dynasty and alexandrite's royal patronage. In the upheaval that followed, many Romanov jewels were lost or sold off by the Bolshevik government. Alexandrite production from the Ural deposits also dwindled.

New Deposits

In the 20th century, new alexandrite deposits were discovered in Brazil, East Africa, and Asia, revitalizing the alexandrite market. However, the color change and clarity of the Russian material remained the quality benchmark against which all other alexandrites were judged.

Birthstone Status

In 1952, alexandrite was officially designated as a modern birthstone for June by the American National Association of Jewelers. This recognition introduced alexandrite to a wider audience and established its place in the modern gem and jewelry market.

Collecting and Connoisseurship

Alexandrite's rarity, beauty, and historical significance make it a favorite among gem collectors. Fine antique Russian alexandrites are especially prized and command premium prices. The challenges of judging alexandrite's color change and clarity also appeal to the skills of gem connoisseurs.

Mining and Sourcing Alexandrite

Russian Deposits

Russia's Ural Mountains were the world's primary source of alexandrite for over a century. The original deposits were alluvial placers near the Tokovaya River, where chrysoberyl had weathered out of mica schists. Hard rock mining of the mica schists themselves yielded additional production. However, by the early 20th century, the Russian deposits were largely exhausted.

Brazilian Finds

In the 1970s, significant alexandrite deposits were discovered in Brazil's Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Espirito Santo states. Alexandrite from the Hematita mine in Minas Gerais shows a distinct purple-to-green color change. The Lavra de Hematita mine produces an emerald green to raspberry red change. Brazil remains the world's leading source of alexandrite today.

Sri Lankan Gems

Sri Lanka's gem gravels have long been a source of alexandrite. The deposits are alluvial placers, where the gems have weathered out of their original host rocks. Sri Lankan alexandrite tends to have a lower color saturation than Russian or Brazilian material but can show good color change and high clarity.

East African Treasures

Tanzania's Tunduru district has produced alexandrite since the 1990s. The gems are found in alluvial gravels weathered from metamorphic rocks in the Mozambique Orogenic Belt. Tunduru alexandrite often shows a color change from brownish green to orangey red. Alexandrite has also been found in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Madagascar.

Indian Occurrences

India has several alexandrite deposits, notably in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. The Vishakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh produces alexandrite from pegmatites that have intruded into chromium-rich ultramafic rocks. Indian alexandrite tends to be strongly pleochroic, showing distinct color zones of green and orange-red in the same crystal.

Mining Methods

Alexandrite is mined from both alluvial deposits and hard rock sources. Alluvial mining involves sifting through river gravels and sands to extract the gems. Hard rock mining requires tunneling underground to extract alexandrite from its host rock, often mica schists or pegmatites. The rarity of alexandrite makes large-scale commercial mining uncommon.

Environmental Impact

As with all gemstone mining, alexandrite extraction can have environmental consequences. Alluvial mining can disturb riverbeds and cause siltation downstream. Hard rock mining produces waste rock that must be properly managed. Responsible mining practices aim to minimize these impacts and restore mined areas after extraction is complete.

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