Romancing the Stone: Birthstones & Gem Lure

January: Garnet

jan_garnet_01As a January birthstone, Aquarius Zodiac stone, and the second wedding anniversary gem, garnet provides a versatile family of affordable gems that can be enjoyed year-round. Garnet is actually the group name for a family of gemstones that come in every color except blue. They’re beautiful, durable, and most garnets are very affordable.

The name “garnet” comes from the Roman word granatus meaning “seed,” as the gems were thought to resemble pomegranate seeds. The most common garnets are the red to red-brown varieties that people know best. Red garnets can show almost as much fire as rubies.

Until the 18th century, garnets were often worn by soldiers to heal wounds and stop blood flow, as red stones were thought to influence the blood. They were also said to promote true love, warn of danger by changing color, and protect the wearer’s home from fire and lightning. Garnets in yellow, brown and orange, were believed to stimulate energy, increase sexual vitality, and promote compatibility in lovers.

If you prefer spring or summer greens, tsavorite garnet from Africa comes in clear light greens to rich dark greens and is more affordable than fine emeralds. Yellow-green to mid-green demantoid garnet is mostly found in antique jewelry.

A translucent green garnet, misnamed “Transvaal Jade,” looks like light to medium milky green jade with tiny black spots. Called hydrogrossular garnet, it has often been used as an affordable jade substitute. Mothers in medieval Europe used to hang this garnet above their baby’s cradle for good health and sweet dreams. Green gemstones were also said to bring prosperity, calm the nerves, and protect wearers from emotional stress.

The pink to reddish purple colors are in rhodolite garnet, the largest transparent species. The lighter, sparkling bright pinks can resemble pink sapphires. They were believed to attract romance and cure broken hearts.

Though garnets are tough, like all gemstones, special care must be taken, as some varieties can chip. For jewels worn often, like rings, look for settings that protect the gem with metal. Also avoid steaming, abrupt temperature changes, and acids, because they might damage gems. Ultrasound or warm water with mild detergent are recommended for cleaning.


February: Amethyst

feb_amethyst_01The royal purple amethyst has one of the most interesting histories of any gemstone. Ever since mankind first discovered amethyst around 3000 B.C., this accessible gemstone has been believed to possess a wide variety of amuletic qualities and properties. The ancient Egyptians believed amethyst could keep a person from being poisoned. In medieval times, amethyst was often put under one’s pillow to cure insomnia and bring pleasant dreams. Medieval churchmen used amethyst rings and jewels to promote divine revelations and wisdom, since amethyst was considered a symbol of Christian love and sacrifice. Amethyst also was said to enhance courage and creativity, to promote intuition, psychic development and even self-esteem, to deflect anger, and protect the wearer against evil.

Through the ages this lovely purple member of the quartz family has been used for everything from love charms to symbols of royalty. Yet, for all its noble traditions, amethyst is a surprisingly affordable gem.

Amethysts that are heat treated retain their color remarkably well, but it’s still wise to keep any amethysts away from strong heat and steam cleaning. Heat treating is a stable and accepted process, which has been used by the jewelry industry for thousands of years. However, when buying any colored gemstone, ask if the stone is of natural origin or if it has been treated in any way to enhance its beauty.

Traditionally associated with royalty and luxury, the amethyst has become the February birthstone in this century. Amethyst is tough and durable, wears well, and gives modern men and women the look of royalty at very affordable prices.


March: Aquamarine

mar_aqua_01Aquamarine, the lovely blue-green member of the beryl family, has been used in jewelry since the third century B.C. and is one of the most fashionable gemstones today. For hundreds of years it was called “The Sailor’s Stone,” due to its sea-like colors, ranging from a pale sky blue to a deep blue-green, and was thought to protect sailors and people traveling over water.

The earliest aquamarine probably came from India, where it was highly regarded by Hindu mystics as an aid to promoting mental clarity and to improving one’s public speaking.

Medieval alchemists believed aquamarine would prevent excess water retention in the body and enhance the digestive and eliminative functions. In the medieval alchemical charts of gem properties, aquamarine is shown as ruling the kidneys, bladder and urethra. 19th Century Chinese carvers produced snuff bottles and delicate figurines out of larger pieces of aquamarine, because it is easy to carve and polishes beautifully.

Even today, many people who believe in the spiritual properties of gemstones wear aquamarine to give them religious and mental inspiration, provide inner calm and enhance both verbal and written communication. Aquamarine’s popularity helped make it a March birthstone earlier this century.

Queen Elizabeth II owns a matched set of aquamarine necklace, bracelet and earrings given to her by the Brazilian people shortly after her coronation in 1953. The Queen has added a matching tiara and sometimes wears the entire aquamarine ensemble for state occasions or diplomatic receptions.

Aquamarine has always been available in small sizes from one-half carat up to 10-carat stones. However, finds in Brazil and Africa have made aquamarine of much larger sizes more accessible for use in jewelry.

Aquamarine is tough, durable and takes an excellent polish. Aquas can be worn in rings and bracelets with minimal risk if the settings are designed to protect the gems. Avoid steam cleaning or excess heat. Clear stones, called eye-clean, are free of inclusions to the naked eye and can be worn under most conditions.

Recently designers have begun combining aquamarines with golden citrines, emeralds or tsavorite garnets, sapphires and pink tourmalines to provide fresh fashion color palettes.

You don’t have to be a sailor or a March-born baby to enjoy the beauty and sparkle of aquamarine. It’s a year-round treasure of a gem.


April: Diamond

apr_diamond_01April is the luckiest month of all, since diamonds are its birthstone. More and more women are dressing in these brilliant, dazzling gemstones as effortlessly as they throw on their favorite sweater. Actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry and super models Cindy Crawford and Stella Tennant, among others, are seen everywhere wearing their diamond solitaire necklaces.

Most diamonds are more than 100 million years old, and many are over three billion years old, making diamonds the oldest of all gemstones. They are also the hardest substance known to man, made of carbon that is crystallized deep within the earth.

First discovered over 3,000 years ago in India, diamonds are found today in remote parts of the world, such as Australia, Russia, Botswana, and South Africa. Their unique hardness and high refractive index have inspired legends. To the Greeks, they were teardrops from the gods. To the Romans, they came from the falling stars that tipped the arrow of Eros, the god of love. For Hindus, diamonds were the lightning that armed the hand of the god Indra.

Women are now buying diamonds for themselves. What’s new is that customers are more educated, and as more and more women gain professional ranks, they want quality stones.

When it comes to wearing diamonds, there’s no wrong way. Diamond brooches adorn business suits. Diamond studs are worn to the gym. This ground swell of wearing diamonds every day started a few years back when designers like John Galliano and Donna Karan popularized them on their runways. Most recently, Galliano and other major European designers showed elaborate Belle Époque settings, and Oscar de la Renta showed diamonds exclusively in his collections. A lot of upwardly mobile professional women took note. They are today’s diamond customers who want diamonds, can afford them, and don’t have to wait for an engagement or 25th wedding anniversary to own them.

Nor is there one style or trend that customers want. Never before have so many American designers marketed diamond jewelry under their own names. Noteworthy are Henry Dunay, Whitney Boin, Jose Hess and Michael Bondanza. And at Tiffany’s, their classic six-prong setting is always popular, but the store’s Diamonds By the Yard necklaces of round diamonds set in platinum or 18 karat gold typify the diamonds-for-day trend.

When purchasing diamonds, customers are adhering to the 4 C’s — cut, color, clarity, and carat weight — but increasingly, they seek finer cut stones. Customers should understand that it is the cutting that releases the true brilliance of a stone.

With something so precious, remember to rely on a well-established jeweler, with a wide selection of merchandise, who is qualified to determine a diamond’s value and quality. Little wonder the Greeks named diamonds “adamas.” It means unconquerable.


May: Emerald

may_emerald_01How would you like to wear a gemstone that could protect you from illness and let you see into the future? According to ancient belief, an emerald could do just that. Regardless of these legendary attributes, however, few would deny the pleasure and delight of owning May’s mesmerizing green birthstone.

Since approximately 2000 B.C., emeralds have been prized by connoisseurs and sought after by the rich and powerful. They were mined near the Red Sea during the time of Cleopatra, who wore her emeralds lavishly. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers in South America were amazed to find magnificent emeralds in the possession of the Aztecs and Incas.

The source for many of these stones was Colombia, whose emeralds were regarded by experts as the ultimate in quality and color. In fact, the world’s largest emerald crystal, at 7,052 carats, was discovered in 1969 in the Cruces Mines in Gachala, Colombia. Although this country remains the world’s largest supplier of the fascinating green gem, many exceptional emeralds on the market today come from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Brazil.

When buying an emerald, the most important factor is color; the more vivid the green, the more valuable the stone. Don’t be put off by a few fissures, or inclusions, in your stone, experts advise. It is rare to find an emerald without these natural birthmarks, and they do not detract from the stone’s beauty or value as they might with another type of stone. However, these fissures do affect an emerald’s care.

For thousands of years, gem dealers have sought to purify the color of their inclusions by immersing them in clear oils or paraffin. In addition to these ancient methods, clear resins are often used today to enhance the clarity of emeralds. Using hot water, steam, chemicals, ammonia or an ultrasonic cleaner could remove oils or resins and damage the stone.

Emeralds will remain beautiful and durable for years if taken care of properly. Do what the experts advise: Avoid abrupt temperature changes and contact with rough or sharp surfaces, including those of other gemstones. Store your emeralds in a fabric-lined jewelry box or wrap them in a soft cloth or tissue. To ensure a long and safe life, have your jeweler check the setting at least once a year and clean the stone at that time.

Designers of emerald jewelry use a wide variety of different cuts. For example, you can choose from the traditional rectangular step-cut, known as the “emerald cut,” as well as a variety of rounds, ovals, squares, marquises or round-top cabochons. The choice of cut is a personal one and does not affect the stone’s value.

While there is no official alternate choice for May’s birthstone, those seeking a different stone could choose one with an equally vivid shade of green. These include tsavorite garnet, green tourmaline or the less-known, but equally beautiful chrome diopside.

Whether the emerald actually has the power to heal maladies or improve vision as some ancient peoples believed, few can resist its universal beauty. Regarded as one of the rarest and most precious gemstones in the world, a verdant green emerald set into a ring or pendant can bring years of pleasure to the lucky owner.


June: Pearl

jun_pearl_01For many, June reminds us of the first days of summer and carefree weekends spent at favorite vacation spots. But one of the things least associated with June is the pearl, and for centuries, the pearl has been this month’s official birthstone.

In ancient mythology the pearl has been connected to the moon mainly because of its soft glowing appearance and the belief that pearls were formed from the teardrops of the moon that fell into the sea. The pearl, throughout history, has also come to symbolize various traits thought to reflect those individuals born in the month of June. Such virtues include purity, wisdom, charity and loyalty.

In ancient Greece, it was believed that pearls had the power to prevent newly wed brides from crying and to promote happiness among all those who wore them. More than 2,000 years ago, ancient Chinese believed pearls had the power to perpetuate eternal youth. Even to this day, pearls are often ground up and used in Chinese cosmetics and serums to promote youthful looking skin.

The qualities that make the pearl special also make it a perfect gift for the woman born in June. The gift of cultured pearls not only celebrates a woman’s birthday, but gives a woman a lifetime treasure, steeped in historical lore and tradition.

Distinguishing fine quality cultured pearls need not be a mystery for consumers. The Jewelry Information Center advises consumers to consider several factors that will help them buy the best quality cultured pearls they can afford.

Luster
The first thing to look for is luster. Luster is the brilliant sheen and deep inner glow that gives a pearl its appeal and, most importantly, its value. Pearls that look too dull or chalky are a sure sign of poor quality.

Clean Surface
The second criteria is a clean surface. Since cultured pearls are grown by live oysters, it’s rare to find a pearl whose surface is completely free of any type of blemish. Blemishes often appear on the surface of a pearl as bumps, cracks and indentations. The less blemishes on the face of a pearl, the prettier and more valuable it will be.

Shape
The shape of a pearl is equally important. It’s difficult for an oyster to produce a perfectly round pearl, so naturally those pearls are rare and quite valuable. However, slightly off-round pearls can appear to be round from a distance of two feet or more and are a perfectly acceptable substitute. Baroque cultured pearls, or irregularly shaped pearls, have a uniquely interesting look in their own right, and can cost a fraction of what one would pay for a perfectly round pearl.

Knowing the criteria that determines cultured pearl quality will help shoppers feel confident selecting pearls that will give them the most beauty and best value for their budget and personal styles.

The above information was supplied courtesy of the Jewelry Information Center:  www.jic.org.


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