Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.
Blue topaz is the most affordable gemstone, giving consumers the look of aquamarine for less.
But it doesn’t start out its life that beautiful blue. When it comes out of the ground, it is colorless. The color of blue topaz is an achievement of the gem treater’s art. In the 1970s, dealers discovered that they could treat white topaz by exposing it to radiation, and then heat. What was originally a colorless gem then turned the blue of aquamarine.
When blue topaz first appeared on the market, it was a pricey novelty. But as more dealers figured out how to produce the color, production exploded and prices dropped to their affordable levels today.
The blue color is permanent, making this gem ideal for affordable gemstone jewelry.
Quickly after the new color treatment was developed, blue topaz became a very popular gem with consumers.
But despite the success of blue topaz, many jewelers who sell it do so with ambivalence.
Granted, they admit, the stone has unrivalled beauty for the money. But the fact that the color is created by man makes blue topaz feel less natural than other gems. Gems like sapphire may also have their color improved by heat. But the enhancement of sapphire doesn’t always work, and it is a difficult and expensive process. In contrast, blue topaz is easily and affordably mass produced.
Trade ambivalence about topaz is evident in the marketing and merchandising of the gem. Few retailers even bother to tell consumers that blue topaz owes its color to either a nuclear reactor or a linear accelerator.
Some see such non-disclosure as a reaction to fears about irradiation. But now that many products, including food, are commercially irradiated, that is becoming less of a taboo. Interviews with treaters, dealers and government officials lead us to conclude that blue topaz poses no danger. First of all, stones treated in ways that leave residual radiation are quarantined (usually anywhere from three months to one year) until levels read ultra-conservatively low. By the time these stones get to jewelry stores, radioactivity is unmeasurable with conventional Geiger counters. What’s more, even when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which licenses reactors in the United States where most topaz is treated, ran radioactivity tests of irradiated blue topaz using ultra-expensive and sensitive measuring devices, it found no cause for concern.
So why neglect to tell the public about irradiation? The answer, we think, lies in the fact that blue topaz is a high-tech hybrid that transcends all conventional classifications. On one hand, the stone is natural, starting life as super-abundant colorless or ever-so-slightly tinted topaz from places like Brazil and Sri Lanka. On the other hand, its color is entirely manmade.
The names for topaz colors are actually dealer shorthand for the different processes used to produce them. The final resulting color depends on the process and the trace elements present in the original material. Dealers match the origin of the original material with process to achieve the desired results. The most popular process is Sky blue topaz, which is irradiated in a linear accelerator, usually a commercial irradiation facility in California. Topaz irradiated with electrons is generally light blue in color, similar to aquamarine. London blue topaz, in contrast, is produced by neutron irradiation in a nuclear reactor. This topaz may be much darker in color, more like a tourmaline blue.
If the neutron irradiation technique is used, stones fall under NRC jurisdiction. Current NRC rules require that neutron bombardment done in the United States, regardless of gem species, be performed only by NRC- licensed reactors, which must subject the stones to a battery of tests before releasing them. If stones are reactor-treated in other countries, their U.S. importers must be licensed by the NRC to import them. In Europe, release standards not quite as strict and testing is handled by individual reators before release.
However, blue topaz irradiated in a linear accelerator is not subject to regulation either in the U.S. or Europe because it doesn’t have noticeable residual radiation.
Perhaps blue topaz will someday be celebrated as union of nature and science rather than being devalued for that fact. This gem is a product of a venerable tradition of improving on nature that began long ago with the alchemists.