Alexandrite: Russian Beauty
Alexandrite is a rare and expensive gemstone named to honor the Russian Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881). Its most prized feature is that it changes color under natural and artificial light.
Despite recent finds of alexandrite in Brazil, Tanzania and Burma it is still hard to find high quality natural alexandrite.
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What is Alexandrite?
Alexandrite was discovered just before the 16th birthday of the future Tsar Alexander II in the emerald mines of the Urals.
At first it was mistaken for emerald. However, its high hardness and color change quickly made it clear that this was a gemstone never seen before.
The main attraction of alexandrite is its beautiful color change effect, known as the alexandrite effect. By daylight it will be green to green-blue, but under artificial lighting it will change to a red or purple-red.
Alexandrite has a hardness of 8.5 and high durability. This makes it very suitable for jewelry. However, its rarity and cost still make it wise to avoid physical labor while wearing alexandrite jewelry.
The color change effect is caused by trace amounts of chromium. Only under extremely rare circumstances does chromium occur alongside beryllium. Both are needed to form alexandrite.
Even more rare is alexandrite that shows a cat’s eye effect. Adding to its rarity is the fact that it is a pleochroic gemstone. This means that the color changes intensity when viewed from a different angle. That is why raw alexandrite must be cut in a certain way to get the best color. This will force the cutter to choose between color and size.
The result is that high quality alexandrite with a strong color change is extremely rare. Especially for stones over 1 carat. Add a cat’s eye effect to the mix and prices will reach astronomical levels.
Despite claims by some sellers, only chrysoberyl that is greenish (blue green to yellow green) by daylight and reddish (orange red to red purple) by incandescent light can be called alexandrite.
Any other color is simply color change chrysoberyl. These can still be beautiful, but they should be far cheaper.
If you see an “alexandrite” stone that is yellow or has brownish tones, do not think you are getting a bargain. If you get these tested by a reputable lab they will most likely grade it as ‘color change chrysoberyl’. This will dramatically lower the value of your stone.
Russia was the main producer from 1830 to around 1917. In the early 1900s Sri Lanka became the main producer. The quality of these stones was not nearly as high as those from Russia. In the late 1900s several great discoveries were made in Brazil. Some of these stones are arguably the highest quality ever found.
Today only a small amount of alexandrite is being mined in India, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Madagascar and Brazil.
Small finds have also been made in Australia, Zimbabwe, Burma and the United States. However, none of these are currently producing because the mining is not economical or because of political instability.
Alexandrite is the traditional and modern birthstone of June, along with pearl and moonstone.
Alexandrite is mostly used for jewelry. Synthetic alexandrite is also used in alexandrite lasers. These lasers are the most effective lasers for hair removal (source).
Alexandrite Buying Guide
Alexandrite is an expensive gemstone regardless of its quality. This makes it extremely important to educate yourself before purchasing a loose stone for your collection or a piece of alexandrite jewelry.
Alexandrite can be found in almost a dozen localities. However, none of these are producing high quality stones in quantity. In fact, most of these are not producing at all. For example, the famed Russian mines were almost completely mined out 100 years ago. The mines in Brazil that produced some world class stones also seem to have run dry.
With an increasing demand for high quality gemstones it is no surprise that this has led to higher prices. In fact, the prices of alexandrite have increased by roughly 150% over the last 4 years (source: Gemval).
Top quality alexandrite under 0.5 carat can sell for up to $3,000 per cart. While 0.5-1 carat stones can sell for up to $15,000 per carat. Anything over 1 carat is very rare and prices usually start at $15,000 per carat.
Prices are significantly lower for a stone with less intense colors, or a less distinct color change or more inclusions. These can usually be bought for around $1,000 per carat.
Medium quality stones can be had for $200-500 per carat. These stones will be at least slightly included, with faint green/red colors and a less distinct color change. These gemstones can still look beautiful, but you should definitely shop around as there will be a lot of stones in this range that will fail to impress.
The most important factors for the value of alexandrite are its color and color change.
The most valuable gemstones change from emerald green to ruby red. Though these are extremely rare. Most quality stones change from greenish or blueish to red or purple-red.
Most alexandrite will at least have some inclusions. Only top quality gemstones will have a VS or VVS clarity.
Slight inclusions can actually make the color change more distinct. So you could save money by opting for a stone with lower clarity. Just make sure that the inclusions are not clearly visible. An example of visible inclusions can be seen above.
Quality alexandrite with a verified Russian origin will generally sell for a higher price. It is important to know that almost all quality Russian alexandrite is found in museums or private collections. Most of these stones will be sold through auctions. Very few will ever be found on the open market.
Even alexandrite sold in Russia itself rarely has a Russian origin. Please keep this in mind when a seller claims that the stone is from Russia.
Synthetic Alexandrite and Simulants
As with almost every gemstone there are imitations and synthetics on the market. This is certainly true for alexandrite. The first clue that you are dealing with a non-natural alexandrite is its quality and price.
If you see a large alexandrite (anything over 1 carat really) with great clarity and color for anything less than $5,000 you should be wary.
Most synthetic alexandrite is not alexandrite at all. It is synthetic corundum with added vanadium to produce a color change effect. These stones have been sold for almost a hundred years. So age is no guarantee for a natural stone.
It is fairly easy to recognize these stones:
- They are usually quite large (over 1 carat).
- They have very high clarity (at least eye clean, but usually VVS).
- They change color from pale purple to purple, no green is ever visible.
Other simulants include color change sapphire and color change garnet. Color change garnet can look very similar to alexandrite. Both of these gemstones are beautiful in their own right, but do not sell for anywhere near the prices of alexandrite.
There are three different types of synthetic alexandrite: Czochralski alexandrite (also called pulled alexandrite), Inamori alexandrite (sometimes with cat’s eye effect) and flux grown alexandrite.
The last is the most difficult to identify. Mainly because its color and clarity is very similar to that of natural alexandrite. All three of these synthetic variants usually have to be tested in a gemology lab to identify it as synthetic.
Because so many synthetics and simulants exist you should always insist on getting a certificate or report from a reputable lab when buying alexandrite.
Note: There is nothing wrong with buying synthetic or alexandrite imitations. In fact, it is very understandable because alexandrite is a stunning gemstone and natural alexandrite is simply too expensive for most people. That is why many people prefer buying a synthetic stone because they are affordable. They also look great and are available in all sizes and cuts. You just should not be paying a natural price for a synthetic stone.
Regular alexandrite is almost never enhanced. Some low quality alexandrite will be oiled to hide cracks. No heating or irradiation processes are known to exist for regular alexandrite. However, some cat’s eye alexandrite is irradiated to change its color, but this is very uncommon and easy to detect by a gemology lab.
Alexandrite jewelry is very uncommon, especially if you only want natural gemstones. High quality stones are usually purchased by collectors or designers of exclusive collections. So it might take some time to find the perfect piece of jewelry. If you are looking for a synthetic stone you will have far more options.
Alexandrite is very suitable for jewelry with its hardness of 8.5 and its high durability.
Alexandrite Engagement Rings
Gemstone engagement rings have started to become more popular over the last few years. Alexandrite engagement rings are no exception to this. With its beautiful color change and its high durability it is an excellent choice for an engagement ring.
- Stunning color change. Especially if you buy a top quality stone that changes from emerald green to ruby red (or close).
- The vivid colors are a nice change from the ‘normal’ diamond sparkle.
- Very rare. It is very unlikely you will ever meet someone with an alexandrite engagement ring. In fact, many people have never even heard of alexandrite.
- Top quality alexandrite will be just as expensive as a diamond. Sometimes even more expensive.
- Non-traditional. Many people still expect to see a diamond engagement ring. Though it is possible to use diamond side-stones.
- While very durable, alexandrite is not as tough as sapphire, ruby or diamond.
How to Clean and Store Alexandrite
- Cleaning alexandrite is quite simple. All you need is warm water, mild soap and a soft cloth. Let your alexandrite soak for a few minutes in the warm soapy water. Use a soft cloth or soft brush to clean the stone if needed. Afterwards thoroughly dry it with a soft cloth. It is possible to use a jewelry steam cleaner or ultrasonic cleaner. However, because alexandrite is generally very expensive we advise to simply use the old-fashioned method to be sure.
- Storing alexandrite is straightforward. Store it in soft cloth or a pouch and keep it away from other gemstones. Although alexandrite has a high hardness it can still be scratched by rubies, sapphires, moissanite and diamonds. While alexandrite itself can scratch almost all other gemstones. Store your alexandrite jewelry in a cool and dry place to keep your jewelry in the best shape. Natural stones should be kept in a safe when not worn.
- Be very careful with alexandrite. It might be possible to re-polish a scratched stone. However, a chipped stone will almost certainly need to be cut again. This will be costly and you will lose some of the weight of the stone.
The popular claim is that alexandrite was discovered on the 16th birthday of future Tsar Alexander II. In fact it was discovered earlier than that. In 1833 a sample of minerals found in the emerald mines of the Urals was sent to Nils Gustaf Nordenskjold, a Finnish mineralogist.
Confused by the hardness of the supposed emeralds he received he continued to examine the stones. When he examined the stones by candlelight he was surprised to see that they had changed color! After a thorough examination he found that it was a new variety of chrysoberyl and named it “diaphanite”.
Perovskii, the person who sent the mineral sample to Nordenskjold, did not agree with this name. Instead he named it alexandrite and presented it to the imperial family on the 16th birthday of future Tsar Alexander II.
Alexandrite quickly became the symbol of Imperial Russia as green and purple were its main colors. The start of the reign of Alexander II was characterized by large-scale liberal reforms giving the oppressed masses more freedom. The green in alexandrite stood symbol for the hope of Russia. However, the reforms led to problems and many felt they went not nearly far enough.
Alexander II in his later life became more authoritarian and exiled hundreds of thousands of people to Siberia in an effort to suppress the revolutionary movement. In 1881 Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg. The evening of the Russian Empire had come and the red-purple of alexandrite stood symbol for this. In 1918 the last tsar and his family were executed. This marked the end of Imperial Russia and the Romanov family.
By coincidence the amount of alexandrite mined dwindled around that time and little has been found in Russia since. The deeply superstitious Russian society at the time believed that the end of Imperial Russia also marked the end of Russian alexandrite.
Despite being a relatively new gemstone many mystical powers have been attributed to alexandrite. The reason for this is its connection to the Russian tsars and their downfall.
Alexandrite stands for hope and prosperity (green) and energy, power and passion (red). Though the red can also stand for grief and misfortune. As was the case for the imperial family as well as Soviet Russia during and shortly after World War II.
Only two other gemstones are true color changers: color change sapphire and color change garnet. Color change sapphire usually changes from pale purple to purple. Color change garnet can look very similar to alexandrite and is less expensive. Though it is certainly not cheap.