What makes something elite? Specifically, what makes a gem elite? Maybe it's the way that it glistens on your hand. Perhaps it is the tone of its colors or the breadth of its variety. It might have something to do with how durable the stone is and whether or not it can be molded into versatile designs.
If you guessed any of these factors, you were right. For fine gems, there can be a plethora of properties that set their value and quality. When it comes to alexandrite, one of the most prized and elusive gems on the market, the stakes get raised even higher.
Alexandrite is known for its color-changing phenomena, allowing it to transition from a gorgeous emerald-like green in the day to a ruby-like red under incandescent light. This property is of the utmost importance in determining the gem’s value, with clarity, hardness, cut, and all other attributes falling to the wayside. Geography is the biggest part of this puzzle, with the two most precious forms of alexandrite hailing from Russia and Brazil. So, which is better?
At Mark Henry Jewelry, we specialize in the mining, production, sale, and education of alexandrite to varying levels of the jewelry consumer communities. Before you jump to purchase a gem from either location, here are a few things you should know about their supplies.
Where Did It Originate?
Alexandrite’s origins lie in Russia, which may immediately make you imagine that it is of the finest quality. As a rule of thumb, yes, it is. But Brazilian alexandrite is a fair rival. The story of this gem’s discovery does unlock a few clues as to why it is so valued in its homeland.
In Tokovaya, Russia, there is a small group of mines beside the Tokovaya River. This river reaches into the Ural Mountains, which are famed for being the spot where alexandrite was found. The spot is close to the town of Ekaterinburg, where the land was known for producing amethyst, aquamarine, blue topaz, emerald, and chrysoberyl, among many other fine gems due to its pegmatites and metamorphic areas. A mica-schist deposit was established into a mine in 1831 when emeralds were first struck in the Tokovaya region.
Russian emeralds, specifically found in the Ural Mountains, are of amazing quality and the deepest, richest green hues. They can come in large sizes, up to 40 by 25 centimeters, but many are not able to be harvested due to mica inclusions.
At the time of alexandrite’s discovery, the early 1830s, the country was known as Imperial Russia. Mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld was leading an expedition in the Ural Mountains when he came across what appeared to be another emerald.
Yet, when the sun set and night fell, incandescent lighting revealed a fiery red gem. He was bewildered and shared his treasure with the elite. In 1834, alexandrite was named for future leader Czar Alexander II and became a sort of national symbol for Russia—its colors were the same as the Imperial flag.
The Ural Mountains were a rough terrain for mining, and this proved to be a roadblock in local alexandrite production over the years. While miners still set out in the spring, summer, and fall, the winter brought snowdrifts and blistering cold temperatures in the high terrains, forcing a standstill.
By the beginning of the 1900s, the majority of the Russian alexandrite had already been mined. This was due to many factors, mainly that the popularity of the gem had extended from the influence of the Russian ruling family, and demand simply could not meet supply.
Thankfully in 1987, an astonishing alexandrite deposit was discovered in Lavra de Hematita, Brazil. The area between the Americana and Santana Valleys had produced 95% of the Minas Gerais chrysoberyl, especially with the classic cat-eye phenomena. This was because of pegmatite-rich land.
However, the Malacacheta region of Minas Gerais produced alexandrite from 1975 to 1988, up until the Lavra de Hematita supply was uncovered. It changed the game for Brazilian alexandrite mining, producing tens of kilos of the gems since.
Lavra de Hematita alexandrite is clearer and in larger carat sizes than Malcacheta alexandrite. Gems up to 30ct with incredible color change percentages and color saturation have been noted in the area. Today, the majority of the world’s alexandrite supply hails from Brazil.
At Mark Henry, we source our one-of-a-kind alexandrite from a family-owned, ethical mine in Brazil that is responsible for the most beautiful gems in the world.
Alexandrite is an exceptional gem for many reasons, and while the metrics for value typically focus on how crisp and full a color change is, there are many other properties worth noting that are universal.
For example, alexandrite ranks as an 8.5 on the Mohs scale, a pretty impressive hardness. Dust lands at a 7, so it is important for any gems used in jewelry to be higher in an effort to prevent scratching and breakage from actions as simple as housework. Alexandrite is very durable and versatile in use, one of the few gemstones that are safe to wear in rings.
Also, alexandrites are derived from the mineral family of chrysoberyl, which is popular for its cat-eye phenomena. It is rare for alexandrite to present this amazing effect, but not impossible. Depending on what the buyer desires, sometimes this inclusion can even raise the price of the piece.
Alexandrite is typically shaped with mixed cuts for jewelry placement and rarely larger than one carat in traditional size. This is also what makes Brazilian and Russian alexandrite stand out, as they are not as small as other offerings.
Government prospecting in Russia was what led to the emerald strike of 1831, which also occurred in the Malysheva deposit bordering Yekaterinburg. The Malysheva mine is still in use today, mining for both emerald and alexandrite throughout the periods of Tsars, the Soviets, and in rulers today. The beryllium-rich land accounts for the production of these gems.
It has not always been so simple to keep alexandrite production afloat in this region. Since beryllium was used by the USSR for nuclear defense mechanisms, mining of the area for beryl occurred extensively from 1956 to 1971 in Soviet Russia.
Malysheva was still producing some alexandrite throughout the beginning of the 1990s, although emerald was the primary supply left. Once the Soviet system in Russia fell, the future of Russian alexandrite was knocked down hard and has struggled to get up since.
There are a few key differences between Russian and Brazilian alexandrite pieces, one of them being what elements they are composed of. According to laboratory studies, Magnesium (Mg), Iron (Fe), Germanium (Ge), Gallium (Ga), and Tin (Sn) are the best elements to look for when trying to geographically locate an alexandrite gem.
Brazilian alexandrite has low amounts of Magnesium, while Russian alexandrite has a varying range of the element. Brazilian alexandrite has a medium amount of Iron, while Russian alexandrite has the lowest Iron of any in the world. Brazilian alexandrite has the lowest Gallium content, while Russian alexandrite has medium Gallium. Brazil has the lowest amounts of Germanium, while Russia has the highest. Alexandrite from both countries has the highest levels of Tin internationally.
Inclusions can also be good indicators of where an alexandrite piece originates. While most alexandrite from Brazil and Russia is high quality, that does not absolve the supply from having some deficits. Most of these are hard to see and must be observed under magnification.
Brazilian alexandrite sometimes has metal sulfide inclusions. Cloud-like fragments that may mimic that of fingerprints are formed inside of the gem as well. Fluorite and mica crystals may also be accounted for inside, along with small flakes. Fluorite, biotite, calcite, apatite, albite, and phlogopite have all been accounted for as inclusions as well as two-phase and multiphase fluids.
In Russian alexandrite, phlogopite mica inclusions can occur. Flat and haphazard crystals can provide a bit of texture inside of these gems. Rarely, weathered fluorite crystals are added to the mix. Tourmaline crystals with prism-like features can be noted along with some graphite film. Fluid inclusions can be found, similarly to Brazilian alexandrite. Mica and amphibole inclusions are actually quite common inside of Russian alexandrite.
A Beauty Known Round the World
While we tend to shy away from bias here at Mark Henry Jewelry, we would be remiss not to advocate for some Brazilian gems. Our entire alexandrite collection, presenting the finest and highest quality pieces on the market and are mined from a family-run mine in Brazil.
We have been working with the mine since 2004, a relationship spanning three decades, and have had a hand in the entire process for just as long. From the Earth to your wardrobe, our Brazilian alexandrite is known to turn heads while maintaining a fully ethical and lovingly dedicated production.
There is no right or wrong gem to buy when deciding between Brazilian alexandrite and Russian alexandrite. This gem, so vibrant in color and so deeply entrenched in royalty and historical affairs, is a win. Our best advice is to do extensive research with the seller before purchasing. Ask for proof of where the gem was mined, and don’t hesitate to reach out to Gubelin, GIA and AGL gem labs for certification.
When you are investing in something so timeless, it is worth the effort!