A collecting guide to semi-precious gems

A collecting guide to semi-precious gems

Do you know your chrysoberyls from your alexandrites, why opals appear rainbow-hued and peridot is known as the ‘evening emerald’? Illustrated with gems offered at Christie’s

Alexandrite

Alexandrite was discovered in 1830 in the Ural mountains of Russia, and named after the tsarevich, the future Alexander II. It is a variety of chrysoberyl, but while the chrysoberyl is yellowish-green in colour, the alexandrite changes with the light — appearing greenish during the day and reddish in incandescent light.

Alexandrite and diamond brooch. SizeDimensions 4.6 cm. Sold for HK$40,000 in Jewels Online, 24 September to 5 October 2020, Online
Alexandrite and diamond brooch. Size/Dimensions: 4.6 cm. Sold for HK$40,000 in Jewels Online, 24 September to 5 October 2020, Online

Today, it is also found in Africa, Sri Lanka and Brazil, but the most sought-after alexandrites remain those from Russia.

Amethyst

The amethyst is the purple variety of quartz and was once considered a ‘cardinal gem’ — the category of rare and precious gems, traditionally worn by royalty and the clergy, that comprises rubies, sapphires, diamonds and emeralds.

Cartier amethyst, turquoise and diamond bracelet, earring and ring set, circa 1960. Estimate CHF 30,000-50,000. Offered in 
Geneva Magnificent Jewels Online, 27 October to 11 November 2020, Online

Cartier amethyst, turquoise and diamond bracelet, earring and ring set, circa 1960. Estimate: CHF 30,000-50,000. Offered in Geneva Magnificent Jewels Online, 27 October to 11 November 2020, Online

After large deposits were discovered in South America in the 19th century, however, the amethyst was demoted to the semi-precious category. Its name comes from the Greek words for ‘not’ and ‘intoxicate’: it was believed to protect its wearer from drunkenness.

Aquamarine

The aquamarine is the light-blue variety of beryl. It is named after the Latin for ‘seawater’ and was believed to protect its wearer at sea. Pure beryl is colourless — when eyeglasses were first created in the 13th century, small plates of beryl were often used because manufactured glass was not clear enough.

Aquamarine and diamond ring. SizeDimensions of stone 16.50 x 11.65 x 9.25 mm. Sold for HK$62,500 in Jewels Online, 24 September to 5 October 2020, Online
Aquamarine and diamond ring. Size/Dimensions of stone: 16.50 x 11.65 x 9.25 mm. Sold for HK$62,500 in Jewels Online, 24 September to 5 October 2020, Online

It is mined in Pakistan, more than 4,500 meters above sea level in the Trans-Himalayan mountains, and typically yields large crystals, free of inclusions.

Garnet

The garnet is a group of common gemstones that includes the almandine, pyrope, demantoid, tsavorite and spessartine. It is mined all over the world — from Australia to the United States of America, and from China to India. Colours range from red to blue, yellow to green, but the most popular are orangey-red and green.

Garnet and diamond earrings. SizeDimensions 7.0 x 1.5 cm at widest points. Sold for HK$93,750 in 
Jewels Online, 28 April to 8 May 2020, Online

Garnet and diamond earrings. Size/Dimensions: 7.0 x 1.5 cm at widest points. Sold for HK$93,750 in Jewels Online, 28 April to 8 May 2020, Online

Red garnets — also known as carbuncles — were written about by Pliny and worn in the Middle Ages; they have also been found on ancient mummies.

Moonstone

The moonstone is a member of the feldspar family and was once believed to be made of frozen moonlight. It is notable for its whitish-blue sheen, known as adularescence after the Adula mountains in Switzerland, where moonstones of great quality were originally mined.

Antique black starr & frost moonstone and diamond brooch. SizeDimensions 2.7 cm diameter of moon, 1.5 cm width of star, 10.5 cm outstretched length. Sold for $7,500 in Jewels Online, 13-24 April 2020, Online

Antique black starr & frost moonstone and diamond brooch. Size/Dimensions: 2.7 cm diameter of moon, 1.5 cm width of star, 10.5 cm outstretched length. Sold for $7,500 in Jewels Online, 13-24 April 2020, Online

Today the stones — which are also known as adularia — tend to be mined in Sri Lanka and India, and cut as cabochons to display their colour to best effect.

Opal

The opal is one of the oldest gemstones on record. The precious variety is known for its remarkable ‘play-of-colour’, the optical phenomenon that occurs when light enters the stone, is diffracted by its internal structure, and leaves in a flash of  spectral colours.

Tiffany & Co. opal and gold earrings. SizeDimensions 2.5 x 2.3 cm. Sold for $6,000 in Jewels Online, 13-24 April 2020, Online

Tiffany & Co. opal and gold earrings. Size/Dimensions: 2.5 x 2.3 cm. Sold for $6,000 in Jewels Online, 13-24 April 2020, Online

Because of this quality, which allows the beholder to see the colours of all the precious gems at once, precious opals were long associated with good fortune and supernatural powers. Until the mid-20th century, they were mostly mined in Slovakia. Now Australia is the primary source.

Peridot

Peridot is the gem form of a mineral called olivine, which hints at its vibrant green colour. In Ancient Egypt, it was allegedly mined at night because it was impossible to see during the day. In Ancient Rome it was called the ‘evening emerald’, because its colours did not darken at night.

Amethyst and peridot necklace. SizeDimensions 37.8 cm length, 4.8 cm drop. Sold for HK$100,000 in 
Jewels Online, 28 April to 8 May 2020, Online

Amethyst and peridot necklace. Size/Dimensions: 37.8 cm length, 4.8 cm drop. Sold for HK$100,000 in Jewels Online, 28 April to 8 May 2020, Online

Peridots and emeralds have often been confused, famously in Cologne cathedral, where the large green peridots adorning the Shrine of the Three Kings were long thought to be emeralds. Today, peridots are mined in Burma, Arizona and China.

Spinel

The spinel is one of the most ancient known gemstones and comes in a variety of colours, from yellow to green, blue, red, pink and transparent. The most valuable colour is red, and in ancient times, red spinels were often confused with rubies.

Spinel and diamond brooch. SizeDimensions 9.5 cm. Estimate CHF 22,000-28,000. Offered in Magnificent Jewels on 10 November 2020 at Christie’s in Geneva

Spinel and diamond brooch. Size/Dimensions: 9.5 cm. Estimate: CHF 22,000-28,000. Offered in Magnificent Jewels on 10 November 2020 at Christie’s in Geneva

The confusion came from a misunderstanding between the Western world, which considered the most valuable red gemstone to be the ruby, and the Eastern world, for which it was the red spinel. Which explains why the Black Prince’s Ruby set in the Imperial State Crown of England is actually a 170-carat red spinel.

Tanzanite

As the name indicates, tanzanite comes from Tanzania in Africa, where it was first discovered in the late 1960s. It is actually a blue variety of zoisite, but was renamed shortly after its discovery by Tiffany & Co, which went on to launch a major marketing campaign, claiming it could only be found in two places: in Tanzania and at Tiffany’s.

Tanzanite and diamond earrings. SizeDimensions 2.7 x 1.2 cm. Sold for HK$75,000 in Jewels Online, 24 September to 5 October 2020, Online
Tanzanite and diamond earrings. Size/Dimensions: 2.7 x 1.2 cm. Sold for HK$75,000 in Jewels Online, 24 September to 5 October 2020, Online

Tanzanite is one of the most recent gemstones to have known such commercial success: it has a vivid bluish-purple colour, is often free of inclusions, and it yields large cut stones.

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Tourmaline

Tourmaline can be found in a range of colours and even — as in the case of the watermelon tourmaline, which is green, red and sometimes yellow — bear several colours at once. It is a relatively young gemstone in the respect that it was only recognised as a mineral in its own right in the 1800s.

Diamond, spinel and green tourmaline Carnation brooches, Michele Della Valle. SizeDimensions 12.0 and 12.5 cm. Estimate CHF 50,000-70,000. Offered in Magnificent Jewels on 10 November 2020 at Christie’s in Geneva

Diamond, spinel and green tourmaline 'Carnation' brooches, Michele Della Valle. Size/Dimensions: 12.0 and 12.5 cm. Estimate: CHF 50,000-70,000. Offered in Magnificent Jewels on 10 November 2020 at Christie’s in Geneva

Before that, green tourmalines were thought to be emeralds, red tourmalines rubies, and so on. In the late-1980s, a new variety of electric-blue tourmaline was discovered in Brazil. Named the Paraiba tourmaline, it is mined in relatively small crystals, quite rare and, as such, more valuable than other varieties.