Alexandrite is among the rarest of gemstones found in the earth. Its hardness, beauty, and rarity make it a particularly becoming choice for engagement rings. Its history is short, but gloriously rich. There are only a few known sources for gem-quality specimens, which makes its presence in contemporary jewelry fairly uncommon.
Alexandrite was initially discovered in the 1830s, in the emerald mines of the Ural Mountains of Russia. The bright green stone was at first mistaken for emerald, until the sun went down. In the light of candles, its greenish hue vanished and a bright purplish-red took its place.
This was no emerald. Not only did it exhibit this extraordinary dichroism, but this new stone also proved to be far harder than emerald, registering an 8.5 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness.
A Brand New Gemstone
Its discovery is most commonly attributed to the Finnish mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskjold (1792-1866). Others attribute its discovery to the man who ended up naming the stone, Count Lev Alekseevich Perovskii (1792-1856). Count Perovskii was an important nobleman and politician in Russia. He was also an avid mineralogist.
In truth, it is unlikely that either of these men drew the first sample out of the ground. However, they were among the first to put it under the microscope and are therefore credited with its ‘discovery’ as a brand new gemstone.
In one version of events, the Count, perhaps perplexed by some of its non-emerald characteristics, is said to have sent a sample to Herra Nordenskjold for further study. The Finnish mineralogist at first mistook it for emerald, but its hardness caused him to investigate further. Looking long into the evening, the stone’s surprising change from green to red confirmed his suspicions: He was holding an exciting new gemstone in the chrysoberyl family. Having experienced this exciting revelation, he decided to give it a name.
Herra Nordenskjold went with diaphanite, based on its color-changing characteristic. This scientific name may have accompanied some documentation of the stone, but in the end it wouldn’t stick. In a move motivated by politics, the Count stepped in and made a grand gesture. On April 17, 1834, he declared publicly that the new stone would be named after Russia’s future Tsar, Alexander Nikolaevich, who on that very day entered his majority (16th birthday).
The name stuck, and to this day alexandrites are linked inextricably with Tsarist Russia’s infamous history.
For the next 150 years, Russia enjoyed exclusive access to this new gemstone. Its rarity prevented it from saturating the market. However, those in noble and royal positions in Europe and America were privileged to purchase alexandrite jewels made by some of the world’s most prestigious jewelers, most prominently Russia’s court jeweler Carl Faberge and Tiffany & Co., whose access came through famed gem expert George Frederick Kunz.
Russia’s alexandrite remains the most desirable on the market, though most of it is housed in museums or prestigious collections. These Russian stones are characterized by strong saturation in shades of green to bluish-green in daylight and red to purplish-red in artificial or candle light. The color change in these stones is dramatic, and stones of this origin are valued around $100,000 per carat, more if the piece has historical value.
Although the Russian mines were depleted by the late 1890s, no new sources of alexandrite were discovered until 1987. Though this new Brazilian discovery could not compete with the history of Tsarist Russia, the grade of stones coming out of South America’s mines were in fact superior in color saturation. In a side by side comparison, historicity not withstanding, the value of Brazilian alexandrite would exceed that of Russian samples.
These beautiful Brazilian stones were characterized by a deep red purple in artificial light and rich verdant greens by day. Production from the Brazilian mines was high in the 1980s, but stores have dwindled significantly. More recent deposits are now sourced in Africa, the United States, Burma, and Sri Lanka.
However, for gem-quality specimens, it is to Sri Lanka that dealers primarily turn. Sri Lankan specimens run a bit larger than those found in Russia and Brazil, whose stones rarely exceed one carat. Sri Lankan color saturation is different, as well, with the greens tending toward the yellow end of the spectrum and the reds appearing brownish. While they can’t be compared to those originating in Russia or Brazil, these richly colored alexandrites from Sri Lanka make absolutely gorgeous jewels.
It cannot be overemphasized that faceted alexandrites of greater than two carats are extremely rare. The Russian and Brazilian mines have been depleted, and gemstone-quality alexandrites of a decent size are hard to find even in the Sri Lankan mines.
If you’re looking for a way to express your love in a unique way, we invite you to experience the wonder of the rare and beautiful alexandrite. Make an appointment today to see this beautiful ring for yourself.