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November Birthstone – Topaz

Myth and lore

The origin of the name topaz is believed to come from the Sanskrit word tapas, which means ‘fire’. Others trace it back to the Greek topazos, the ancient name of St John’s Island in the Red Sea; although this is uncertain, undoubtably the ancient Greeks believed that topaz gave them strength. In ancient Rome it was believed to provide protection when travelling.

An English superstition suggested topaz cured lunacy and during the Middle Ages, Europeans thought it could thwart magic spells and dispel anger. For centuries, many people in India believed that topaz worn above the heart assures long life, beauty, and intelligence.

Blue topaz is the gem of the fourth wedding anniversary Imperial topaz is the gem of the 23rd wedding anniversary.

Topaz varieties

Topaz has an exceptionally wide colour range that, besides brown, includes various tones and saturations of blue, green, yellow, orange, red, pink, and purple. The colour varieties are often identified simply by hue name but with some notable exceptions:

  • Sherry topaz is a deep golden yellow or yellowish brown to orange and is named after sherry wine.
  • Imperial topaz is a medium reddish orange to orange-red. Its aristocratic name has two possible associations: the Russian royal family demanded the finest coloured gemstone, which was mined in Russia’s Ural Mountains, exclusively for their use. Alternatively – more popular in Brazil – a reddish topaz was presented to Brazilian Emperor Pedro II in 1881 from one of Brazil’s most productive mines near Ouro Preto… and that lead to the name.

Natural pink stones are rare and therefore the most valuable. Most topaz is heat treated yellow. Colourless topaz is plentiful and is often treated to give it a blue colour. In fact a blue colour is hardly ever natural – it’s almost always caused by treatment.

Trio of treated blues

  • Sky blue
  • Swiss blue
  • London blue

The causes of colour vary. In nature the element chromium causes natural pink, red, and violet-to-purple colours in topaz. Imperfections at the atomic level in topaz’s crystal structure can cause yellow, brown and blue colours. Topaz is also pleochroic, meaning that the gem can show different colours in different crystal directions.

Topaz Cross Pendant
A Georgian Sherry Coloured Topaz Cross Pendant

Image Credit: Bentley & Skinner

Sources

The most important source of high-quality topaz has always been Minas Gerais in Brazil; it has been mined there for more than 200 hundred years and the nearby town of Ouro Preto is a UNESCO world heritage site. North-western Pakistan is known for producing pink topaz. Today, other major sources of this November birthstone include Namibia, Nigeria, Madagascar, Mexico, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the United States, as well as the historic Russian localities.

Deposits are dwindling so the best stones tend to be found in antique jewellery; the colour is better, they are untreated and larger in size.

Treatment and care

Most of the blue topaz seen today is the permanent result of treating colourless topaz with irradiation and heating. The rainbow effect seen in ‘mystic topaz’ is created by coating colourless topaz with a thin artificial film. As this is a surface effect, it can be scratched off along the facet edges, so although it can withstand normal wear, as with all topaz gemstones, only a mild soap solution should be used to clean this stone.

Topaz is durable gemstone at 8 on the Mohs scale of hardness, but it has poor toughness, so care is required to avoid chipping or cracking. Do not use steam cleaning or ultrasonic cleaners. Also avoid high heat or sudden temperature changes which can cause internal breaks in topaz.

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