Sterling silver, also called fine silver, is a beautifully lustrous cool-toned precious metal favored in fine jewelry among other products. The most reflective of all metals (excluding mercury), sterling silver looks stunning by itself and brings out the best hues in an array of colorful gemstones.
Sterling silver can be polished to a higher sheen than platinum. In fact, Ag, the chemical symbol for silver, comes from a word that means “white and shining.” The surface of silver can boast that shiny, polished appearance, or can be brushed, satin, matte, sandblasted, antiqued or oxidized (chemically blackened).
In order to be called sterling silver, a metal must be made up of a minimum of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% alloy (meaning other metals), including but not limited to copper and nickel. The alloy is added to pure silver to make the metal more durable, tougher and harder. Sterling silver is designated a fineness of “925.” Pieces with sterling silver may be marked “sterling.”
Minimize scratches on sterling silver by storing it in its own compartment in your jewelry box or in a cloth pouch. Sterling silver may also be stored in sealed polyethylene bags.
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.
Tourmaline occurs in virtually every color of the spectrum, with an unlimited range of solid and mixed colors in all imaginable shades. According to an ancient Egyptian legend, this is the result of the gemstone traveling along a rainbow from the Earth’s heart, up to the sun. On its journey, the legend says that tourmaline collected all the colors of the rainbow, which is why nowadays it is called the “Rainbow Gemstone.”
Tourmalines displaying just one color are quite rare since one crystal usually shows two or more shades or colors. In fact, the name “tourmaline” has been derived from the Singhalese expression “tura mali,” which translates to “stone of mixed colors.” Even two stones cut from the same rough mother crystal will often show different colors, a characteristic that makes tourmalines so attractive and sought-after.
Tourmaline crystals come from a mineral group that usually forms in various combinations of elements. The slightest changes in composition will result in completely different colors. Thus, it is possible that in one naturally grown crystal, there will appear completely different colors. Some will show only slightly shaded color fields, while others will display contrasting colors and defined color zoning. Tourmalines rank a hardness of 7.0-7.5 on the Mohs Scale and may be as small as a knitting needle or as thick as a thigh. They are easily available in sizes of up to 5.00ct.
Different shades of colored tourmalines have been assigned specific names. Bi-colored and multi-colored tourmalines have several names for the common combinations of colors. Crystals with red or pink cores and green borders are called watermelon-tourmalines. Stones with colorless crystals and black tips are called Maur’s Head or Moor’s Head, while colorless crystals with red tips are called Turk’s Head. If the color zones are arranged one on top of the other, the stone is considered a rainbow tourmaline.
The red variety of tourmaline changes its name based on the coloring in different types of lighting. Deep red tourmaline named rubellite shows the same fine ruby-red shade in daylight and in artificial light. Should the color change when the source of light changes, the stone is simply called a pink tourmaline. With its exquisitely intense coloring, rubellite was once the victim of misidentification for rubies in the Russian crown jewels.
A recognizable variety of the gem is simply called, green tourmaline. It comes in a variety of green shades, including leek-green, intense yellow-green, olive-green and brownish-green. Chromium-tourmaline is the trade name for the emerald-green variety. The most rare and highly coveted green hues are the blue-green stones often called African tourmalines and the bottle-green gems referred to as Brazilian tourmalines.
Perhaps the most beautiful variety is the Paraiba tourmaline. It ranges in color from electric blue to neon blue-green to sizzling turquoise. Discovered in the Brazilian state of Paraiba, its spectacular color is due to the presence of a small amount of copper. A study by the German Foundation for Gemstone Research recently also discovered a surprisingly high content of gold in the stones. While the average gold content of the Earth’s crust is 0.007 parts per million, Paraiba tourmalines contain a remarkable 8.6 parts per million. So if they were not so breathtaking, the gems might be in danger of being crushed to acquire their gold.
Paraiba tourmalines are mined near a village called Sao Jose de Batalha. In 1989, the miners discovered a new vein of gem-quality stones with extraordinarily bright shades of blue and green. Hand-excavated shafts and tunnels are up to 60 meters deep and the tourmaline is found only in pencil-thin veins. Because of the difficulty in mining, supply will always be limited and Pariaba tourmalines will always be rare and expensive. Dealers all over the world are competing for the Paraiba tourmaline, which means that it can command retail prices more than $20,000 per carat.
In the year 2000, electric yellow tourmalines were found in Malawi in East Africa. With a clear and pure color, they were deemed “canary tourmalines”. Only 10 percent of all the mined yellow stones are gem-quality and when cut, more than 95 percent of the harvest will weigh less than 1.00ct. Yellow tourmalines are considered to be the only gemstones that have a fine scent. This is because their crystals are often embedded into black material that must be removed before the stones are cut. An owner of a Malawi gemstone mine discovered the black matter was easily removed when the rough crystals were boiled in water and lemon juice. Ever since then, yellow tourmalines from Malawi not only resemble fresh lemons in color, but also in their scent before they are cut.
Other tourmalines are called “indigolith” if they are blue and “dravite” if they are golden to dark brown. Black tourmalines are known as “schorls” and are mainly used for engraving. Although they were used as mourning jewelry, ancients believed black tourmalines to be stones that protected against negativity and strengthened the heart.
Tourmalines are piezoelectric, meaning they can generate electrical charges when heated, compressed or vibrated. They then become polarized crystalline magnets and can attract light objects. The Dutch, who originally brought the stone to Europe, knew about this effect and used heated tourmalines to extract ashes from their pipes. The stones were even favorite toys of Dutch children before their gem quality was established. Because the gem’s electrical charges attract dust and small materials, some believe that wearing pink tourmalines will attract love and green ones will attract success.
Tourmaline has often been called the “muses’ stone” because it is believed that its imaginative colors contain inspirational powers that grant enlightenment, enable creativity and express an artist’s mood. Due to the stones’ energetic conductivity and vast array of elements, they are thought to have powerful healing abilities and protect against many dangers. Tourmaline is supposed to be an especially powerful influence on love and friendship, fostering compassion and cool headedness. It is considered the traditional gift to give couples celebrating their 8th wedding anniversary.
Ever since the ancient days, the gem has been attributed with magical powers. Today, specific colors of tourmaline are thought to hold individualized powers. Black is believed to strengthen the immune system and bring luck and happiness when rubbed. Green tourmaline is said to encourage communication and bring success, while blue is a balancer that stimulates other tourmalines’ effectiveness. Watermelon tourmaline is believed to increase perception and creativity, while balancing passivity and aggressiveness. Pink is thought to promote peace, increase spiritual understanding and bring forth love and friendship.
No other gemstone discovery has made a bigger impact on the jewelry market than the recent newcomer, tanzanite. In 1998 and 1999, it was proclaimed the number one colored stone sold worldwide. Its luscious color, and the fact that the stone is found in only one location throughout the world, makes tanzanite an exceptionally rare, valuable and highly sought-after gem.
Tanzanite’s mesmerizing saturation of color is what has made the stone so popular. It is the blue variety of the mineral zoisite and occurs in a beautiful range of colors. Rarely pure blue, the gem almost always displays signature overtones of purple. In smaller sizes, it tends toward light tones such as lavender, while in larger sizes, the gem typically displays deeper, richer blues and purples. The finest quality tanzanite is usually deep blue or violet, which is extremely spectacular in sizes above ten carats.
Tanzanite is pleochroic, meaning it shows the appearance of several colors in the same stone, depending on perspective. From different angles, the gem can appear blue, purple, yellow, grey or brown. Most rough crystals show a large proportion of brown shades, since tanzanite in its natural form is typically brown with red, orange, yellow or bronze hues.
Gem cutters may change this coloring by heating the stone to 500°C. This heat treatment releases the intense violet-blue colors for which the stone is famous. According to legend, the effect of heat on tanzanite was first discovered when brown zoisite crystals were caught on fire by a lightning strike. Local cattle herders noticed the beautiful blue crystals sparkling in the sun and picked them up, becoming the first tanzanite collectors.
The gem was first discovered near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in the Merelani Hills of east-African Tanzania in 1967. This breathtaking location is the only known mining site on Earth for tanzanite. Right after its discovery, New York jeweler Louis Comfort Tiffany was presented with the first stones. Knowing it was going to be a sensation, he recommended finding a new name for the gem, since the gemological denomination “blue zoisite” reminded him of the word “suicide.” Tiffany suggested the name tanzanite, derived from its place of occurrence, and the new name quickly became established on the market. Tiffany & Co introduced the stone to the public in a spectacular promotional campaign two years after it had been discovered. It was enthusiastically celebrated as the “Gemstone of the 20th Century.”
A noted 122.70ct faceted tanzanite dubbed the “Midnight Blue” is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 1996, a 255.00ct tanzanite crystal was discovered near Arusha, but because of its many inclusions, it proved to be of little market value. Tanzanite ranks a hardness of 6.5-7.0 on the Mohs Scale and has become the traditional gift for couples celebrating their 24th anniversaries.
High-quality and larger-size tanzanites can be sold at extremely premium prices. Although demand for this beautiful gem continues to grow, supply shortages in recent years have hampered production and caused price fluctuations. In 1998, the weather phenomenon known as “El Nino” soaked Tanzania with heavy rains during what should have been the drought period. When the monsoons hit, the groundwater swells were high and caused devastating floods. Mines caved in and all hopes of finding additional tanzanite rough were swept away. As a result, shortages have created price hikes at retail throughout the world.
Because it is such a new gemstone, there is little folklore, superstitions or healing properties surrounding tanzanite. Some believe the stone helps people to be more practical, realistic and honest. It is thought to uplift and open the heart while helping one cope with change.