Written by Modern Jeweler On May 2, 2013.
Some gems seen to be victims of that oft-repeated childhood proverb: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Andalusite, found principally in Brazil but named after Andalusia in Spain, its earliest source, is one of them.
For sure, this gem has its devotees. But most of them keep their devotion low-key and Platonic. With friends like that, it is hardly surprising that andalusite stays a victim of the silent treatment. Even those landmark studies of gemology, Max Bauer’s “Precious Stones” and Robert Webster’s “Gems,” pay scant attention to this member of the silicate family.
Certainly, one can easily make a case against andalusite. For starters, stones are often afflicted by annoying amounts of gray and brown. Next, fine qualities are hard to find in sizes over 5 carats. No matter what the size, rutile needles are often visibly present, detracting further from this stone. Last, distinct cleavage (susceptibility to breaking along certain crystal planes) can pose a problem when setting this gem in jewelry.
Yet one can just as easily make a case for andalusite. At its best, it offers unique, lovely color for very little money. “You don’t look to andalusite to find perfection in any one color,” says a Virginia collector and gem specialist. “You look to it to find vivid color contrast.”
That’s because andalusite is a pleochroic stone, meaning it gives off different colors when viewed in different directions. With most pleochroic stones, cutters try to minimize this effect, concentrating on obtaining one predominant color. For example, when cutting tanzanite, they will shoot for an optimal Kashmir blue, extinguishing as much as possible the stone’s strong violet component.
Cutters change the rules when it comes to andalusite. Here they shoot to maximize pleochroism. The stone’s two basic hues, yellowish green and orangy brown, aren’t very often pleasing enough in themselves to emphasize one over the other. But when cut to be played off against each other, stones take on new life through sharp color contrast. The intensity of this contrast is what beauty in andalusite is all about. Yet this unique aesthetic makes andalusite an acquired taste.
The “Phenomenon” Fallacy
Education is the key to connoisseurship of andalusite. But it is hard to educate consumers about andalusite since its best colors are difficult to describe. Try to imagine, if you will, a cushion or emerald-cut stone with a pronounced middle area of a light, sometimes steely, yellow green that gives way abruptly on each side to sharply contrasting end areas of bronze or purplish orange-brown. This is how the dramatic color-play in this gem appeared in the finest specimens we were able to see.
While some dealers told us to look for pink in the brown, we observed it only in all-brown round stones and never in fancy shapes (where strong pleochroic effects are best emphasized)- at least not the ones shown to us. Occasionally, all-pink or all-green stones are cut, but the few we saw were rounds with very hazy, cloudy colors, of interest only to collectors.
However, we mention these pinkish-brown and grayish-green stones because it is their colors that most reminded us of those found in alexandrite, a color-change gem to which andalusite is so often compared that it is called “the poor man’s alexandrite.” If meant as a compliment, it is a backhanded one that virtually dooms andalusite’s appeal, although it is clear that the gem may once have been sold as the far more costly chrysoberyl. Bauer hints as much in the 1909 edition of this book, “Precious stones.” Why the confusion?
Alexandrite is a chrysoberyl that changes color like a stoplight when viewed in different lighting conditions. In daylight, stones exhibit strong greens variously modified by yellow, brown and gray. At its best, this green can resemble that of a bluish -green tourmaline; at its worst, a light olive brown-green. Under artificial light, alexandrites display red, often modified by purple and brown. At its best, this red is raspberry-like; at its worst, a muddy purplish-brown. Because it changes body color in different lighting environments, alexandrite is classified as a “phenomenon” stone.
Andalusite, on the other hand, is not a “phenomenon” stone. It does not change color the way alexandrite does. It simply displays different colors at the same time, thanks, as we said, to its strong pleochroism and, of course, proper cutting. What’s more, these colors bear some resemblance (but not a strong one) to those of alexandrite. For instance, the purplish orangy-brown of fine andalusite is a far cry from the raspberry red of fine alexandrite.
A Narrow Niche
As of now, andalusite jewelry is a rarity. The few jewelers who know about it tend to be colored stone specialists with training in gemology who stock it more out of curiosity than enthusiasm. As a result, consumers are far more likely to see it loose than mounted and in a very small selection, possibly just one stone. That’s hardly enough to inspire interest in the gem.
Yet, as our photograph of andalusite shows, the gem has a striking beauty that lends itself to jewelry usage. With a hardness of 7-7 1/2 on the Mohs scale, andalusite also boasts durability. Because andalusite is so seldom featured in jewelry, its cost will be quite reasonable, at least in sizes under 5 carats. And below 3 carats, where fine andalusite is the most abundant, it’s downright inexpensive.
Therefore, low price, coupled with distinctive beauty, makes andalusite a perfect candidate for standout jewelry pieces. As one jewelry designer familiar with the gem put it: “The high color contrast makes it sure to get noticed. And isn’t attracting attention what wearing jewelry is all about?”