Russian Alexandrite

Ever since stones from a splendid new Brazilian find started making their way to market in early 1987, much conventional wisdom about alexandrite has had to be chucked.

Take, for instance, the common trade assumption that South America is good for nothing but the most inferior variety of this color-change chrysoberyl. Rather than turning green in sunlight and red in incandescent light as model alexandrite is supposed to do, Brazil’s stones are accused of almost always stopping far short of green at olive and far short of red at brown.

The color change of the new Brazilian find at Hematita – rich blue green to strong purple red – is exemplary not only because its beautiful. It is also valued because it mimics the color change of what has, since its discovery, been considered the best of breed: Russian alexandrite from Siberia and the Ural Mountains mined almost exclusively in the 19th century. Why are Russian stones so admired?

The Tiffany Connection

To those familiar with Russian stones besides alexandrite, Russia is synonymous with the ultimate in species excellence. It is common in the trade to hear amethyst described as possessing Siberian color. And dealers familiar with both the demantoid and tsavorite varieties of green garnet will tell you Russia’s Ural Mountain demantoids are far superior to East Africa’s tsavorites. So powerful is the mystique of Russian gems that one antiquities expert who used to work for a famous Boston-based estate goods house swears the finest emeralds he has ever seen came from Russia: this from a man who is intimately versed in emerald from every origin known.

But of all Russian gems, it is alexandrite that is the most coveted. The trouble is that mining of this gem in Russia lasted less than 100 years and probably peaked late in the 19th century. From the very beginning, Russian alexandrite led a charmed life. Discovered in 1830 on Czar Alexander II’s birthday, the stone was named after him because its green and red colors were those of the motherland.

Although the gem quickly found favor in the jewelry salons of St. Petersburg and Paris, it was Tiffany that seems to have done the most to popularize it in the world at large (as it also did for Russian demantoid). Gemologist George Kunz, the firm’s audacious gem buyer, fell so in love with alexandrite that he traveled to Russia in search of it.

No one knows just how much of this then-rare gem Kunz bought in Russia, but it seems likely that as a result of his efforts Tiffany had reserves so considerable that it may have cornered the market for decades. Russian gems and jewelry expert Peter Schaffer of world-famous A La Vieille Russie, New York, says that more than 50 percent of the Russian alexandrite pieces that his firm has sold were made by Tiffany, nearly all of them center-stone rings, most dating from the 19th century, but some long after, one even as late as the 1950s. Interestingly, many of the other pieces with Russian alexandrite that Schaffer has sold were made in England during the Victorian era and feature groupings of small stones. “Tiffany preferred larger sizes,” he says.

Big isn’t beautiful

What Schaffer means by “larger” is not exactly what the word means when applied to, say, sapphire or amethyst. Although he has seen Russian alexandrites of 30 and 40 carats, Schaffer says they almost never impressed him. “In top alexandrite, the stone turns from deep green to deep red as if you were watching a traffic light change colors,” he says. “Past around 8 carats, you rarely see Siberian stones that have the right colors or change them completely enough.”

Those who desired alexandrite in truly large sizes with good color change have long relied on Sri Lanka. For some dealers, these stones are actually superior to the Russian variety. A New York lapidary says he prefers Sri Lankan to Russian alexandrite because its green veers toward yellow rather than blue and its red is more bronze than purple.

This cutter belongs to a decided minority, especially since Brazilian stones highly evocative of the Russian type have come into the marketplace. Indeed, the similarity between South American and Russian alexandrite is now so great some dealers fear attempts to pass off Brazil’s best as bona fide Siberian.

While acknowledging the strong color resemblances between Brazilian and Russian alexandrites, specialists in late 19th century antique jewelry where Siberian stones are most often found nowadays say Russian stones have slightly deeper tones and more saturate colors. One Tiffany jewelry expert who has seen scores of Siberian alexandrites and is fond of the new Brazilian stones describes the latter as “more watery” in appearance. By this somewhat subtle distinction, he means they seem clearer, more transparent but with a corresponding lack of saturation. But the point is this: No matter how refined the differences between Brazilian and Russian stones are, they can be told apart.

With their greens and reds so reminiscent of Russian stones, it is hardly surprising to find prices for2- to 3-carat Brazilian stones surpassing far larger and rarer stones from Sri Lanka. Will Brazilian alexandrites eventually reside on the same high plateau as Siberian pieces?

Since alexandrite is a rare collector’s gem, it seems unlikely that its price will be based solely on quality, not provenance. So the romance of Russia will no doubt keep Russian alexandrite at the top of every collector’s list: and keep it commanding a premium price.

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