Bill Long 11/21/04
A Dazzling and Rare Mineral
Minerals can be fascinating for a number of reasons. They might have an interesting discovery and naming. Alternatively, the characteristics of the mineral might be arresting. Finally, the so-called "spiritual" or "symbolic" qualities, even in our secular and unbelieving age, explain their allure. Alexandrite, discovered in the Ural Mountains in 1830 (or 1831) and named after the furture Czar Alexander II of Russia (1818-1881) is a stone that stimulates on all three levels.
The Official "Stats"
Just to do this in the gemologically-approved manner, alexandrite is a variety of chrysoberyl, which itself is a "chromium-bearing beryllium aluminum oxide" of orthorhombic crystallization. It is found in the oxide class, is transparent and has a vitreous (i.e., glassy to greasy luster). It is found in three kinds: chrysoberyl or cymophane, cat's eye chrysoberyl, and alexandrite. It is extremely hard (8.5 on the Mohs scale), which would make it ideal for a piece of jewelry if it existed in more plentiful quantity. As it is, its rarity makes it one of the most expensive minerals on earth.
Most arresting about the stone is its color change under different kinds of light. This is different from the quality of pleochroism (specifically trichroism) which it possesses, which means that it appears deep red, orangel-yellow or green based on the axes of the mineral down which you look. What I mean by alexandrite's color change is that under natural daylight it appears emerald green but under incandescent light, or candlelight, it assumes a purplish gray or reddish hue. This is because of traces of chromium in the mineral.
Chromium itself has an interesting history, being named only in 1797 by the Frenchman Vauquelin. The word "chromium" is a transliteration of the Greek word "chroma," meaning "color," because of the brilliant colors of its compounds (red, yellow, or green). Since green and red were the colors of Mother Russia under the Czars, alexandrite became the favorite of the Russian aristocracy. George F. Kunz, the famous Tiffany gemologist at the turn of the 20th century, promoted it widely in the United States about 100 years ago. The Ural mines where it was first discovered more than 170 years ago were quickly exhausted, leading to a scarcity of the mineral, until another deposit in the Hematita mine of Brazil was discovered in 1987--though the colors of the Brazilian alexandrite are not as vividly powerful as the Russian alexandrite.
The Story of Alexandrite
The discovery of alexandrite took place in a remote area of Russia on the Asiatic side of the Ural mountains along the Tokovaya or Takowaja (or Transsib) River in the vicinity of Ekaterinburg (renamed Sverdlovsk by the Soviets). A website tells the following story:
"The first discovery of gemstones in the region took place by a peasant charcoal-burner who was on his way to Ekaterinburg. Following along a trail next to the Tokovaya River, he had to pass over a large, recently storm fallen tree. Surprisingly, within its large exposed roots he found sparkling gem crystals. As a loyal citizen, he took the crystals to the gem cutting lapidaries within the city. Of course the businesses were closely controlled by Czar Nicholas, who immediately was immediately notified of the great find."
Since, as the legend goes, the find just happened to fall on the future Czar's birthday, it was named in his honor. Because of its color-changing capabilities it became, like the Beatles, an instant hit.
The "Spiritual Qualities" of Alexandrite
I don't know if minerals possess spiritual qualities, but many people earn lots of money (or try to earn it) promoting the notion that the stones possess ineffable qualities. Some web sites are seemingly more off the wall than others, however. For example, when one tells me that alexandrite "reportedly proceduces excellent results in astral travel" or "can help one return to the origin of time and connect with the beginning of development," I smile and think of all my California friends.
More insightful is the insight from a "down to earth" rock shop on the net. "Alexandrite is said to help balance one's emotional state, to provide confidence, to increase self-esteem and to help bring about change. It is also said to bring happiness and success, and to intensify feelings of love and sensuality." Inasmuch as it is a terribly rare mineral today, the fact of possessing it might be as much a token of success (financial) in life as the success it is supposed to bring to its possessor.
The quality of alexandrite that most remains with me, however, is its color change capability. It is not just fluorescent, taking on a color when light is shined on it. Nor is it phosphorescent, maintaining a glow after a light source is taken away. It actually takes on different colors in different light settings. Its "essence," as it were is not defined apart from its context. A stone that possesses differently-colored "natural states" is the perfect mineral for a post-modern age. We, as the post-modernists might argue, are all alexandrites of sorts.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long