Alexandrite ~ the very name of this gemstone brings to mind images of royalty!
One of the most intriguing of gems, it was first discovered along Russia's Ural mountain range where emeralds were being mined in the early 1830's, and named as the imperial gem of Russia in honor of Czar Alexander II. Alexandrite is the highly desirable green to shades of purple color-changing variety of the gemstone known as chrysoberyl. Imagine, if you will, what the Russian miners must have wondered. As the story goes, the miners discovered a vein of what they thought was more emerald, which is what mines in the area had been producing. However, when they observed their find by the light of the campfire in the evening, they were astonished to see that the rough material revealed a reddish hue instead of an emerald green! Alexandrite has since that time, enjoyed a reputation as the world's most coveted colored gemstone, yet it is likely the most misunderstood, considering the amount of confusion resulting from popular misinformation about the stone. This guide contains the basic facts you should know on what to look for when shopping for an alexandrite. It is compiled from our own observations over the years, and written with the intention of educating consumers and those who just want to learn about alexandrite. We are often asked the question, "where can I find out more about alexandrite?" because truly accurate information about alexandrite is not easy to find, whether you search through books or online. Through our years of experience we have found that the majority of retail jewelers, and even some gemologists, know little about distinguishing the color change properties of a quality specimen, and therefore cannot always give a fair assessment of the stone. That is not entirely surprising, when you take into account that most jewelers, gemologists and gem dealers have spent much time observing diamonds and other, more common types of colored gems, but have seldom, if ever, seen a natural alexandrite. They are not commonly found in retail jewelry stores, and it is estimated that less than one person in 100,000 will see one in their lifetime. Fine white diamonds outnumber natural mined alexandrites by the millions, yet diamonds are considered to be rare and valuable. The original Russian alexandrite mines were no longer in service after the fall of the imperial family, thus there were no alexandrites being mined for a great many years, which only added fuel to the legendary mystique of this rare gem. Even today, some jewelers still say the natural material is no longer being mined, and is therefore not available. This is not true, and is simply a sales ploy used to sell synthetic or lab-created stones.
The Importance of Color in an Alexandrite
The primary subject we will be addressing in our guide is color, because there is a lot to be said about an individual alexandrite based on its color; so much that those gemologists experienced with alexandrites know that the color and color change quality, as well as depth of color change, of a natural alexandrite are the main factors that determine its value, more so than does clarity or cut. A gemstone can always be recut, and we are not saying clarity is not important; it is, but do pay particular attention to the color of the specimen. A natural alexandrite should always display a change in color from a shade of green (a slightly bluish, or teal, green is considered by many to be much more valuable and highly prized than the more common peridot-like green) to a shade of purple, bluish-purple or reddish-purple. That's the classic and proper, often mesmerizing, color change of a quality natural mined stone. The above photos, taken with an average digital camera, show the strong and complete shift in color from strict incandescent lighting (left) to full daylight (right), which can be found in the rarest top quality alexandrite. However, most of the stones on the market today can be expected to exhibit a somewhat more subtle shift in color. Some may say that variations from yellowish green to orange or brownish red are acceptable, but we are purists when it comes to assessing the color change, as are the most experienced gemologists. More about that soon, but first let's briefly discuss some of the other stones that many people commonly confuse for alexandrite...
Lab Created or Natural?
A few words about gemstones which are not alexandrites: in no other variety of gemstone does one see so many synthetic or simulated specimens being misrepresented as genuine mined stones, mostly out of ignorance rather than ill intent. Having been asked the question "Could the piece of jewelry I inherited contain a natural alexandrite?" many times, we felt it imperative to let people know that lab-creating gems has indeed been in practice since the 1800's. The many rings with huge, flawless "alexandrite" stones which are sold as "vintage" or "antique" almost always contain lab-created color change corundum. Don't be fooled into believing that just because a piece is old it contains a natural stone! I've seen it time and time again, especially on eBay, people bidding large sums for an "antique" ring holding a single large, alleged "alexandrite" stone. Be especially wary of large, purple or "purple changing to blue" alexandrite stones, because they will never change to green, the sure sign that they are not a natural alexandrite! Natural alexandrites come from neither Alexandria nor Mexico, but from specific locations in Brazil, Sri Lanka, India, Tanzania, and of course, Russia. You should also beware of paying too much for one of the many natural chrysoberyl stones which change color from some shade of green or yellowish green, to a shade of orange or brown, or even to a reddish color, but only under a strong yellow light. These are not true alexandrites, but should be properly labeled "color changing chrysoberyl" instead, and should not command a premium price. Since these stones are chrysoberyl, they apparently can come from any origin that a true alexandrite can, and are being passed off to unsuspecting buyers more and more as "alexandrite", as greater quantities of this less valuable material are being mined. The many inexpensive alexandrite "doublets" for sale almost never contain any natural chrysoberyl, but are usually manufactured from lab-created color changing corundum. The true Russian created alexandrites are grown from chrysoberyl crystals and unlike lab corundum, these Czochralski alexandrites actually closely resemble the natural mined stones in many ways. The subject of these Russian lab-created alexandrites could fill yet another guide, but they generally differ from natural mined alexandrites in that they possess at once both sparkling clarity and the rare, explosive color change from rich green to blazing purple-red. Remember, they are grown in a controlled environment to exhibit perfection. The brilliance and the color changes in the ones I have seen are more perfect and dramatic than that of almost any natural mined alexandrite, in which the color changes are a bit more subtle. The best advice I can give on this is: if it looks too good to be true for the price, it probably is. Also, if you absolutely love the look of a nice lab-grown alexandrite, buy it! There is nothing wrong with that.
Origins of Natural Alexandrite
Back to the subject of natural alexandrite, the debate continues as to which origin produces the finest, most eye-pleasing natural mined stones. Even though buyers are extremely interested in learning of the country of origin of their alexandrite, most gemological labs do not have a test to verify the origin of an alexandrite! Therefore, it may come as a surprise that when asked, those of us with experience must often make an educated guess based on certain characteristics sometimes seen in stones from specific regions. Alexandrites were once mined only in Russia, and while Russia has long been thought of as "the place" for alexandrites, we know from experience that the quality of the individual specimen is what matters, not the origin. Some Russian specimens are highly included or otherwise unattractive, just as are some stones from other origins. For decades the word was that any material that wasn't Russian mined was considered inferior, and even today some people prefer only stones that are of alleged Russian origin. However, in the 1980's a Brazilian find shook the gem world with its high quality and brilliant color change from a striking bluish green to magenta! Indeed, some of the finest and most beautiful alexandrite has come from Brazil. A find of good quality material followed in India years later. The Brazilian and Indian material is generally of better color change quality than the later discovered Tanzanian material, although any location where gems are mined will produce some material of better quality, some of lesser quality. That is why a specific country of origin does not necessarily determine an alexandrite's value. So again, there is more to be said about the colors seen in the individual specimen, rather than the actual origin which determines the quality.
What Should You Expect a Natural Alexandrite to Look Like?
Although the optimal color change in an alexandrite would be from a brilliant emerald-like green to a ruby-like blood red, gemological experts agree that contrary to what many people believe, there are very few alexandrites which change color to a true ruby red under everyday household lighting! There is a wide range of lovely colors to be seen in these amazing stones and the few that do change from deep green to burgundy are often dark in tone, opaque or highly included, so that many consider them unattractive. Very few exhibit a green to burgundy/red change without those drawbacks, so don't automatically assume you are getting a lower quality alexandrite if the color change doesn't go to ruby red. It is important to note that the old saying "emerald by day, ruby by night" was coined in the days when the light from a candle or fire were the only sources of nightime lighting available. By the light of a candle or flame most alexandrites will exhibit considerable reddish tones, but not under today's bright or "soft white" household bulbs! We have all seen those ads where a seller states an alexandrite will dramatically change color just as it is being moved from one room to another, but that is seldom the case. Even fine alexandrites require more than nuances in lighting conditions in order to change color, and will normally show shades of bluish-violet by the light of regular incandescent bulbs or in the shade, while remaining mostly green under mixed incandescent and sunlight, or incandescent and fluorescent lighting. Furthermore, if the light source is too bright, whether incandescent or not, some green will almost always be present. Also, it is scientifically proven that some people's eyes see the color change differently from others. It's true! It has been observed that an alexandrite may not exhibit the same exact colors and color changes in one geographical region that is does in another, perhaps altitude and/or climate change being a factor. Whatever the case, it is only by candlelight or firelight that the most dramatic color change from green to reddish purple will be seen.
What you should look for in a quality natural mined alexandrite is a shade of teal, emerald or forest green under natural daylight or fluorescent lighting, ideally changing to a soft amethyst purple under regular incandescent bulbs, but more often a slightly grayish, bluish violet is seen, again more closely resembling a tanzanite or a purple sapphire than a ruby. The color will usually deepen to plum by very low incandescent light. Dim the lights altogether and pink, red or lovely magenta highlights will be evident by the light of a candle or flashlight, which is the true test of color change and a gemologist grading an alexandrite will not be able to see the full and complete color change unless they take the time to do this. Under brighter incandescent lighting, lovely bluish tones are seen in many specimens, and range from sky to sapphire, depending on the depth of color in the stone. However, blue hues are an intermediate color seen under certain lighting, between the green and purple, and must not take the place of green as the daytime color seen in a natural alexandrite while under sunlight. A color change from blue in daylight, to purple, is almost a sure sign that the stone is made of synthetic corundum, and definitely not chrysoberyl. Of one thing you can be sure ~ every alexandrite is an individual and it is rare to find two that display exactly the same colors under a variety of lighting conditions. This characteristic of individualism is due to a combination of factors, including variances in clarity and color, as well as the shape and cutting of the stone, and makes alexandrite all the more valuable and endearing to collectors. Even though "seeing the purple" seems to be important to buyers, many of us experienced with alexandrites think the striking, gorgeous emerald-like bluish green of a fine alexandrite is the most beautiful shade! Always remember, green must be the dominant daytime color in order for the stone to be a natural alexandrite!
How Important is Clarity in an Alexandrite?
Classified by the Gemological Institute of America as a Type 2 gemstone, even the best alexandrite specimens are expected to contain loupe visible inclusions, and clarity as well as cut should be a secondary consideration when purchasing an alexandrite. One reason for this is, an alexandrite with excellent clarity will often show a less dramatic color change than one which has at least a few inclusions, or what some gemologists call "silk". "Color over clarity" is a good rule of thumb, but be flexible as again, the stones with better clarity will generally show a less dramatic change. If clarity is important to you, you might be one of the many people who are very satisfied with a milder color change in favor of better clarity. Likewise, there are a few people to whom a deep color change is so important that they will pass up a near flawless alexandrite again and again if the dramatic color change isn't present. Like fine art, this is subjective and aside from value, ultimately should come down to what the individual buyer prefers.
Do not expect natural alexandrites to exhibit the same brilliance as diamonds or simulated alexandrites, as they have a different crystal structure and refractive index. Sometimes buyers have an opinion of what their "ideal" alexandrite should look like, often from having seen only lab-created stones, which leads to disappointment when they actually see a natural stone. It should be mentioned that natural alexandrite is by density a rather heavy stone, therefore it will normally appear smaller in size than a diamond, or some other gem varieties, of the same carat weight. A durable stone, measuring 8.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, alexandrite is remarkably resilient for everyday wear and when using ultrasonic and other cleaning methods, making it an excellent choice for a favorite piece of jewelry. Its durability ensures that even moderately included specimens can be safely worn as jewelry with little or no danger of breakage. So above all, wear your natural alexandrite with pride, knowing you can enjoy flaunting a rare gemstone that was once preferred, and possessed, by only a select few!
Thank you for taking time to read this guide, and we hope it helps you to make a more informed buying decision. Again, this is a basic guide and we realize it may not have answered all of your questions. If you would like to ask us a specific question pertaining to alexandrite, we will try our best to be of assistance. Thanks again for reading, and if you find that the guide has been helpful to you, we would be most grateful if you would answer "yes"!
Guide created: 13/10/05 (updated 16/04/14)