I don’t know many people who can resist the alluring flash of a beautiful gemstone. I certainly can’t! My fascination with gemstones has seen me qualify as a gemologist with the Gemological Institute of America and travel the world researching my Gemstone Detective series of tourist guides to buying gemstones on holiday, yet I’m still hungry to learn more. Here are seven of my favourite gemstone facts.
Our love of bling goes back further than you’d think:
Who do you think were the first to carve minerals into jewellery? The Babylonians? The Egyptians? Wrong. A skilfully carved bracelet of green-hued chlorite unearthed in Siberia is estimated to be 70,000 years old and may even have been made by an early extinct human species called the Denisovans.
Our ancestors held some colourful beliefs about gemstones:
Take amber, for example. Vikings believed that the tears of goddess Freya became amber when they fell to the ground, whereas the ancient Greeks thought that amber was solidified sunlight. In ancient China, amber was believed to be the earthly form of a tiger’s soul.
Some gemstones really were once alive:
Opal forms in nooks and crannies from the deposits left behind by silica rich water. Sometimes this process happens within decomposing material like wood and bones. In 1987, the opalized skeleton of a pliosaur was excavated in South Australia. ‘Eric’ is now on display in the Australia Museum, along with the opalized fishbone found in his stomach!
Some have special properties:
Gemstones that display beautiful and unusual optical effects are called phenomenal gemstones. One of my favourites, the colour change stone Alexandrite, appears red under incandescent light and green in daylight. In gems displaying asterism, a star seems to float across the surface, and in those with chatoyancy, the ‘floating’ image looks like a cat’s eye.
And some are very, very hard to find:
Of the 4,000 or so minerals identified, only a small percentage are classed as gemstones. Rarest of all is painite, a deep brownish red gemstone found only in Myanmar (Burma) and named after Arthur Pain, the gemmologist who first discovered it. Most of the painite found to date is unsuitable for cutting, so only a handful of facted painite gemstones exist worldwide. Painite can fetch up to 60,000 dollars per carat.
Diamond still comes out on top:
Painite might be rare, but the most expensive gemstone ever sold is the Pink Star Diamond, which achieved $71.2 at auction in April 2017. The internally flawless pink diamond weighs 59.60 carats and was mined by De Beers in South Africa.
But the sky’s the limit:
BPM 37093—a rather boring name for what is actually a 10 billion trillion carat diamond. The star, nicknamed ‘Lucy’ after the Beatles song, is a crystallised white dwarf composed of carbon. According to astronomer Travis Metcalfe, “You’d need a jeweller’s loupe the size of the sun to grade this diamond.” One day, even our own sun will become a giant diamond!