With a princely pedigree and a hefty price tag driven by its beauty and scarcity, alexandrite has certainly earned a spot among the storied gems selected to be birthstones. From the day it was discovered, alexandrite has been linked with the aristocracy - beginning with its name. Alexandrite was first unearthed in western Russia's Ural Mountains, and legend pinpoints its discovery date as April 29, 1834, the 16th birthday of the country's future tsar, Alexander II. What better way to honor the significant discovery, not to mention the young tsarevich, than with the name "alexandrite"? The strict accuracy of this amazing coincidence is debatable, but alexandrite is certainly a more poetic, if not a more precise, name for this exceptional gemstone than the rumored original suggestion: diaphanite, which translates to "two" and "appear".
The characteristic that makes alexandrite so unique - a remarkable ability to give off both red and green hues - made its discovery in Russia especially poignant, as those were the colors of Tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly, alexandrite soon became the country's official gem. It was popular with Russian jewelers in the mid-1800s, and this now-antique jewelry is highly sought after today as a source of top-quality alexandrite. Few jewelers outside of Russia worked with alexandrite until modern times because it simply hadn't been discovered anywhere else.
Watching the color-change effect of an alexandrite is nothing less than breathtaking. The fanciful assertion that it's an emerald by day and a ruby by night is actually not far from the truth. In daylight, a good-quality alexandrite is a green-blue color, while incandescent light turns it a purplish- to pinkish-red. It's one of nature's most impressive magic tricks.
This unusual feature is the result of the stone's chemical makeup. Alexandrite is a type of chrysoberyl mineral that forms only when a series of elements - including all-important chromium - combine with aluminum and beryllium. The specific combination required to produce alexandrite almost never occurs in nature, which is why the stone is unearthed in such small quantities.
Alexandrite's near-magical properties are undoubtedly why it has developed a mystical reputation. Owning one is good luck, though that attribute could have originated from the fact that if you could afford one, you likely were fortunate indeed. More significantly, it's linked to intuition. Wearing one is said to harness and strengthen one's innate intuition, providing supernatural guidance when making decisions or sorting out a problem. Alexandrite is also fabled to inspire ingenuity, which makes it an ideal jewelry choice for people who rely on creativity in their work life.
Alexandrite is inexorably linked to Russia, both as a "birthplace" and because experts agree the best alexandrites come from Russia. In fact, a good-quality stone of uncontested Russian provenance is among the most expensive gems in the world. Unfortunately, the supply of Russian alexandrite has dried up. A source was discovered in Sri Lanka during the last century, though that find actually decreased interest in alexandrite because the quality was considerably lower. Sri Lankan alexandrites typically have a yellowish, rather than green-blue, appearance in natural light and rusty brown, rather than red, appearance in artificial light. But if size is more important than color, you can purchase larger Sri Lankan alexandrites for much less than similarly sized samples of high-quality stones.
In the past 30 years, alexandrite has been discovered in Tanzania, Burma, India, and Madagascar, but the most exciting discovery has proven to be Brazil. The intensity of the Brazilian colors nearly equal Russian alexandrite, but production here, too, is low. With newly mined fine alexandrite so scarce, today's aficionados often seek out 19th century and early 20th century period jewelry, a particularly valuable cache of superb alexandrite.
When jewelers manage to get their hands on an elusive alexandrite, it's no wonder that they want to maximize its appearance. To do so, the gem is usually given a mixed cut wherein the upper part of the stone (crown) is given a brilliant cut and the lower (pavilion) is given a step cut. As its name implies, the brilliant cut brings out the alexandrite's sparkle, while the step cut showcases its color to best advantage. Alexandrite's unique color-changing property makes it a particularly tricky gem to cut well. You know your alexandrite has been in good hands when it displays that amazing green-to-red transformation through the top of the stone.
The fact that alexandrite is such a rare stone plays a huge factor in its cost. While small cuts are typically affordable, a larger, good quality alexandrite simply costs more than many other gems mined in greater quantities. And if alexandrite itself is rare, its availability in sizes greater than one or two carats is rarer still. A good quality, well-cut alexandrite of more than one carat is pricier than similar quality sapphires and emeralds - perhaps second only to diamonds. The combination of exorbitant cost and scarcity is the reason alexandrites are generally sold in sizes of one carat or less.
The other factor in an alexandrite's price is the strength of its color change. That characteristic is, of course, what makes the stone so extraordinary, so it's no surprise that this quality drives the price. Like most gemstones, the most desirable color for alexandrite can be found in the middle ground between too much and too little color saturation. A fine alexandrite should display rich shades of the signature green-blue and red. Brown, gray, and yellow are associated with lower quality stones. The most coveted - and expensive - alexandrites are the ones with the greatest distinction in color change.
And while noticeable inclusions generally decrease the value of gemstones, the opposite is true with alexandrite, at least when it comes to one specific inclusion. A long, thin inclusion called chatoyancy (most familiar as the "cat's eye" effect seen in tiger's eye quartz) is exceedingly rare in alexandrite and boosts its value even higher.
Alexandrite measures 8.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, making it one of the most durable gems. It also is free from cleavage, which means it won't break when hit or dropped. Because of its durability, you can wear alexandrite for everyday activities without much worry about chipping or breaking. Its value, however, may compel you to be a little selective about how and when you wear it.
Alexandrite isn't normally sensitive to heat, light, or chemicals, which means you don't need to take precautions in storing the stone. But due to its hardness, alexandrite should be separated from softer stones to protect them.
The old standby of warm, soapy water is a perfectly sufficient cleaner for alexandrite. Ultrasonic and steam cleaners are typically fine, but it you have any question about whether your stone has been treated (a rare occurrence for alexandrite), stick with soap and water.