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Iolite gets its name from its sensational color, using the Greek words ios (violet) and lithos (stone). The stone, often referred to as water sapphire, cordierite or dichroite, was used by the Vikings as a navigational tool and came to be knows as “Vikings’ Compass.” When Viking explorers ventured far into the Atlantic Ocean, away from any coastline that could help them determine position, they were able to navigate safely by looking through iolite lenses that allowed them to find the exact position of the sun.
The property that made iolite so valuable to the Vikings was the gem’s pleochroic property, which is the display of different colors when viewed from different directions (like a modern-day polarized filter used in sunglasses). A cube cut from iolite will look violet-blue from one side, clear as water from the other and honey yellow from the top.
Pleochroism may have been helpful in navigation, but it makes a gem cutter’s job quite difficult. If iolite is not cut from exactly the right direction, its color will not show to its best advantage. When cut properly, the stone is usually a violet blue and can be obtained in sizes up to 5.00 carats relatively easily. Iolite ranks a 7.0-7.5 on the Mohs Scale and is readily available and affordable. Today, it is mined in Brazil, India, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. The Vikings probably mined iolite from deposits in Norway and Greenland.
Traditionally given as a 21st anniversary gift, iolite is thought to bring harmony to relationships. It is also said to balance the masculine and feminine aspects of one’s own character, bringing harmony and enabling that person to enjoy each moment. Iolite is believed to heighten psychic abilities by aiding and encouraging people along their spiritual paths. It is said to enhance curiosity and achievement, and aid in money management. Iolite is also believed to possess the power to guide lost sailors to the brilliance of the sun, so that they may find their way home.
Known for its fiery combination of colors, opal is called the “Cupid stone” because it was said to reflect the complexion of the Greek god of love. The ancient Romans believed the gem was the symbol of hope, good luck and purity. Today, it remains a symbol of hope and inspiration. With a name stemming from the Latin word for “precious stone,” opal is considered October’s birthstone and is traditionally given as a 14th anniversary gift.
Opals are luminous and iridescent stones with inclusions of many colors called "fire." It is sometimes called the "queen of gems" because it can flash patterns of color representing every hue of the rainbow. In fact, most stones are usually cut into domed cabochons to enhance the color play. The brilliance and pattern of an opal’s fire determines its value. Opals with strong flashes of red fire are generally the most prized, while stones with blue or green flashes are more common and subsequently less valuable. Stone size also helps determine price, since the gem is very rare in larger sizes.
In order to produce a stone that is less expensive than a solid opal, an opal doublet can be manufactured. It is composed of a thin layer of opal glued on top of another mineral (usually a black onyx or ironstone, which enhances the opal's color). An opal triplet can be made with a thin layer of opal sandwiched between a layer of clear quartz on top and a layer of obsidian or ironstone on the bottom. The clear quartz top layer makes the gem harder and less susceptible to scratches. Since top-quality natural opals are extremely rare and expensive, many are treated with colorless oil, wax or resin to enhance their appearance. Ranking a hardness of 5.5-6.5 on the Mohs Scale, these treatments also fill cracks in the stone to improve durability.
A species of quartz, opal is one of the few gemstones that are sedimentary in origin. Millions of years ago, after ancient seas receded, silica-laden sediment was deposited around shorelines. Erosion made much of this silica into a solution that filled cracks in rocks, clay and fossils. Layers upon layers of silica jell were added to each other over millions of years and became precious opals. The stones still contain 6 to 10 percent water, a remnant of ancient seas. Because they have high water content, opals should be protected from heat and strong light in order to prevent them from drying out and cracking.
Opal is found in a range of hues, including white opal (the most common), black opal (the most valuable), boulder opal (black opal with iron oxide), crystal or water opal (which is transparent), and fire opal (which features a bright solid color). Prices can vary from a few dollars per carat for white opal to more than $1,000 per carat for fine black opal.
White opals tend to have more diffused fire due to their light background color. Rare black opals have a black to dark gray body color that allows for the fire to be the most noticeable, making them the most valuable type of opal. Boulder opals are cut with the natural host rock left on the back. They are found with interesting hills and valleys on the surface and inclusions in the foreground, forming odd shapes that make them a designer’s delight. Crystal opal is transparent with flashes of rainbow colors, while fire opal only occasionally has this play of color.
Fire opal’s backdrop color is the main attraction. It has recently become very popular as jewelry designers are growing to appreciate its bold presence and bright color. With hot yellows, fiery oranges and juicy reds, the fire opal is a bright gemstone that is usually faceted to add sparkle and enhance the fabulous color.
The relatively rare Peruvian blue opal comes from the Andes Mountains in Peru and was cherished by the Incas. It features the translucent turquoise-blue color of tropical oceans and has soft, relaxing energies said to be good for quieting the mind during meditation. It is thought to relieve stress and bring about a tranquil, healing nature. Peruvian blue opal is also believed to increase clear thinking, spark creativity and aid in sleep.
The vast majority of the world's opal supply comes from Australia, first discovered there by gold panners in 1863. In addition to the small quantity of opal produced in Kenya and Canada, white opal is mined in Brazil, black opal is found only at Lightning Ridge in Australia, and crystal and fire opal can be found in the United States and Mexico.
Opals have been treasured for thousands of years throughout the world. A beautiful opal called the “orphanus” was featured in the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor and was said to guard the regal honor. The Aztecs mined opal in South and Central America and Archaeologist Louis Leakey found 6,000-year-old opal artifacts in a cave in Kenya. Napoleon gave Josephine a beautiful opal with brilliant red flashes called “The Burning of Troy,” making her his Helen. To this day, opals are still set in the crown jewels of France.
Shakespeare regarded opal as a symbol of shifting inconstancy, comparing its play of color to play of mind. In “Twelfth Night” he wrote, “Now the melancholy God protect thee, and the tailor make thy garments of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is opal.” In the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott caused a reputation that opals were unlucky. The heroine of his popular novel had her life force caught in the opal she wore in her hair and died when its fire was extinguished.
For thousands of years, opals have been revered for their supposed mystical powers. Romans thought the stone kept the wearer safe from disease and wore it near the heart to ward off evil and protect travelers. Ancient Arabs believed that opals fell from heaven in flashes of lightning, which explained their fiery colors. During the Middle Ages, opal was called “ophthalmios,” meaning “eye stone,” due to a widespread belief that it was beneficial to eyesight. Some thought its effect on sight could render the wearer invisible, and the stone was even recommended for thieves. In medieval Scandinavia, blonde women wore opals in their hair to prevent it from going gray.
Today, opals are still believed to hold magical powers. White opals, when used in rituals on a full moon night, are said to bring the moon goddess’ powers into full effect within the practitioner. A fire opal surrounded with 10 or 12 diamonds and worn on a gold necklace is said to have excellent money-drawing power.
Opals have been said to bring good luck, grant vigor and ideally protect travelers. The stones have long been believed to develop and increase mental capacities and open the unused powers of the mind. The colorful fire in opals is said to develop a more creative imagination and help recall past lives. It is believed that the most magically powerful opals come from Lightning Ridge in Australia and that the gem loses its power once its owner dies.
Zircon often suffers for its name’s similarity to “cubic zirconia,” the simulated diamond. The stone zircon, however, is actually a beautiful natural gemstone. It is named from the Persian word “zargun,” meaning “gold-colored.” This is despite the fact that it comes in a wide range of rainbow colors. The majority of zircons are brown or yellow-brown, while pure red and green are the most valuable colors. The yellow-red to reddish-brown variety is called “hyacinth.”
For many years, the most popular type of zircon was the colorless variety. More than any other natural stone, colorless zircons produce a brilliant sparkle similar to diamonds. The most popular color today tends to be the bright pastel blue variety. Sometimes called “starlite,” blue zircon has recently become considered an alternative birthstone for December.
Zircon is one of the heaviest gemstones, meaning that it will look smaller than other varieties of the same weight. It ranks a hardness between 6.5-7.5 on the Mohs Scale and is mined in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Australia.
Travelers during the 11th century wore zircon amulets for protection and to encourage welcome greetings on their journeys. In the Middle Ages, the stone was said to bring wisdom and prosperity to its owner. Hindu mythology even mentions the gem when referencing the Kalpa Tree, which was a glowing tree covered with gemstone fruit and leaves of zircon.