Kim Kardashian’s $2 million, emerald-cut engagement ring wasn’t one.
Richard Burton gave Liz Taylor a 69-carat pear-shaped diamond, but its rarity wasn’t even close to this stone.
Angelina Jolie’s fabulous jewelry collection includes a diamond choker, green beryl tablet earrings, a 27-carat Colombian emerald and her favorite piece, a glittering emerald necklace. This gem, however, apparently finds no place among her treasures.
In fact, chances are none of these celebrities ever caught even a glimpse of this stone, the incredibly precious, color-changing alexandrite. In my own case, only through researching and writing my novel, The Romanov Stone, which is based on a young woman’s search for the gem, did I learn of its existence. And the more I probed, the more fascinated I became.
Literally millions of times rarer than diamond, alexandrite possesses the dazzling ability to change color, classically from red under illumination to green in repose. Discovered in 1830’s Russia during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, alexandrite was originally thought to be an emerald. When cut and illuminated by royal lapidaries, however, the stone flared into the crimson hues of a ruby. Realizing they’d found an entirely new gemstone, the workers named it after Alexander II, the tsar’s son and heir.
Minute, highly reflective chromium particles account for alexandrite’s spectacularly split personality. Alexandrite is also unique because of its lack of silica, the earth crust’s second most common element. This absence prevents the stone’s geological growth into an emerald.
Alexandrite’s red and green tones mirrored the principal colors of Imperial Russia, giving it a special standing in a country torn by violence and superstition. Some believed the stone could help keep body and mind in balance and, worn over the heart, bring luck in love. Others were convinced its metaphysical properties could soothe inflammation, combat blood disorders and even promote healthy testicles.
Initially found only in Russia, subsequent discoveries of alexandrite have occurred in Brazil, Africa, India, and Sri Lanka. Even so, the stone remains remarkably rare.
“Most people don’t know it exists,” says Evan Caplan, a Los Angeles-based gem dealer and alexandrite specialist. Prices nonetheless have climbed sharply for significant pieces that occasionally reach market. In 2007, a Cushion-cut Brazilian alexandrite ring brought $50,000 per carat at Christie’s auction house in New York. Alexandrite ranks just below ultra-rare stones such as cashmere sapphires and Burma rubies in value, says Caplan. Privately sold, he concurs, an exceptional Russian piece with Tsarist provenance could surpass them.
In the 19th century, Tiffany & Co. gemologist George Kunz traveled often to the Urals, buying up as much Russian alexandrite as he could find. Eventually his firm had such large reserves of the stone that it effectively cornered the market. By the early 1900s, however, the Russian mines were exhausted, a factor now depressing supplies from Brazil.
To the cognoscente, alexandrite will always hold a special cache. In The Romanov Stone, excitement then concern overtake Gemologist Simon Blake as he concludes hours of testing of the stone heroine Kate Gavrill believes was given to her great grandmother by her lover, Tsar Nicholas II.
He walked to a small, stainless steel basin and splashed his face with cold water. Despite his weariness after hours of work, an almost giddy elation swept Blake from his toes to his scalp. He felt like Gallileo discovering the moon. In the world of gems, Simon Blake had just confirmed a specimen of towering significance. Suddenly, however, Blake felt a bolt of fear. His warnings to Kate echoed in his head: ‘Do you realize the danger to someone who possessed such a stone?’ he’d asked. Then, the question was rhetorical. Now, it was real and imminent. He rose, strode quickly to the office condo’s front door, and re-latched its three deadbolt locks.
Returning to the table, Blake scrawled his conclusion across the bottom of a notepad, musing at his earlier skepticism. He was sure of it now: the jewel described in the documents and the specimen on his desk were one and the same. Kate’s gem was the Romanov Stone — the largest and most exquisite natural alexandrite he or anyone else had ever seen.
Should Angelina Jolie start putting her pennies in a jar? “It would be to her benefit,” replies Robert Weldon, an executive at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, CA. “What alexandrite does with light makes it truly exciting. Worn by a beautiful woman who steps, say, from subdued incandescence into full daylight, the stone can create a remarkably different, quite wonderful, look.”
Hungry for only my third glimpse of the jewel I’d spent so much effort reading and writing about, a few weeks ago I visited Tiffany’s large store in downtown San Francisco. Despite once controlling the world’s supply, on this winter afternoon the famous gem emporium had not a single specimen to offer. “I could have one sent and you could see it in a few days,” a clerk ventured hopefully. Like many coveted objects, the always mysterious, incredibly precious alexandrite remained elusive.
Robert C. Yeager has written for “The New York Times,” “Reader’s Digest,” “Family Circle,” “Ladies’ Home Journal” and many other publications. His novel, “The Romanov Stone, is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other leading online retailers.