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All About Alexandrite

20 August 2021 4 min read

Alexandrite is the chameleon of gemstones. 

Rare and mysterious. Shifting from vivid green to intense red and back again with the changing light.

It sounds like something straight out of a dragon’s lair. 

It’s the stone’s unique ability to change colour in different light that draws so many to the beauty of this incredible mineral.

Here at illi, we’re big fans of gorgeous alexandrite, featuring it in some of our finest pieces. Keep reading to learn more about this fascinating gem. 

Or visit our online shop to view our stunning range of lab-grown alexandrite jewellery.

Alexandrite necklace and earrings

Our Aruba Studs and Aruba Necklace

What is Alexandrite?

Alexandrite comes from the chrysoberyl family of stones. Beryllium (one of earth’s rarest minerals) combined with aluminium, iron, titanium and chromium forms the natural wonder we know and love. It’s the chromium that causes the radical colour change. 

In natural (or fluorescent) light, the stone appears a stunning green blue. But when viewed in incandescent light, instead you’ll see a vibrant reddish purple. 

Pretty magical, no?

The stone transmits green and red light in equal measure. The human eye will pick up the different shades depending on the light source, due to their differing wavelengths. In natural light, colours are more evenly balanced, and our eyes are more sensitive to green light, hence why the green colours in the stone are more prominent in daylight. While incandescent light is more red, so the stone appears red in lowlight. That’s why many dub alexandrite ‘emerald by day, ruby by night’.

While diamonds are graded for their clarity, cut, colour and carat, alexandrite stones are also graded for their colour change. The stronger the colour change, the more valuable the stone. Each stone is given a colour change percentage. So, a stone with a 100 percent transformation from green to red is the most valuable. 

The colour saturation varies depending on where it came from. For example, alexandrite mined from South America has a superior saturation to Russian gems. 

Some gems showcase a cat's eye effect (known as chatoyancy), with a white line displayed across the centre, thanks to thin, needle-like inclusions. 

Alexandrite is extremely durable. With a hardness of 8.5 on the Mohs scale, it’s tougher than the emeralds it’s often mistaken for.

The History of Alexandrite

Alexandrite was first discovered in 1834 by Finnish mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld, deep in the heart of Russia’s Ural Mountains.

Initially mistaken for a run of the mill emerald, the stone surprised miners at sundown when it transformed from vibrant green to deep red. 

Nordenskiöld originally named the gem diaphanite, due to its light affected colour changing properties. It was later dubbed alexandrite in a bid to impress the Russian royal family, named after Tsar Alexander II (legend has it the stone was discovered on his sixteenth birthday). The colours also happened to match those of the Russian military, and it was later declared the official stone of Russia. 

The gemstone quickly proved a hit in Russian high society. It was even used in Victorian jewellery, eventually catching the eye of Tiffany’s master gemologist, George Frederick Kunz. The famous jewellery maker created a range of alexandrite rings, sold from the late 1800s into the early twentieth century. 

According to Russian legend, bearers of the stone receive luck, fortune and love. It also brings concentration, discipline and self-control, helping the wearer strive towards excellence. Others say it inspires creativity and imagination. Alexandrite is the alternative birthstone for June. 

Ural Mountains

Ural Mountains, Russia

More Precious Than Diamonds?

Alexandrite is one of the world’s rarest gems. Far rarer than diamonds. 

To put it in perspective, in the Russian mines where it was originally discovered, just one crystal of alexandrite was found for every hundred or more emeralds. In fact, the stone is so incredibly rare, no mining operations can be dedicated to sourcing it. Instead, alexandrite is found more as a ‘by-product’ of mining other gems and minerals, such as emerald. 

It’s unlikely to ever be found in large quantities. By the late 1890s, the Russian mines were dry. In fact, no new sources of the gem were discovered until 1987 in South America. 

The largest faceted alexandrite (a whopping 65.7 carats) was found in Sri Lanka, and is currently on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. You can also spot some of the bigger stones in the British Natural History Museum, amongst the mineralogy collections.

Other sources of the gem have been mined from Brazil, Myanmar, India, Tanzania and Madagascar. Each region produces a different variation in colour. 

Its scarcity means production is severely limited. 

A mined alexandrite stone costs up to $15,000 per carat (in sizes up to one carat). Stones above one carat will set buyers back between $50,000 and $70,000 per carat. However, most alexandrites found are under one carat.  

Thankfully, due to the introduction of lab-created alexandrite, these days getting your hands on one of these gorgeous gemstones is much simpler and cost effective. With the added bonus of responsible sourcing that doesn’t harm the planet, unlike traditional mining.

Ethically-Sourced Lab-Grown Alexandrite

Alexandrite has been successfully created in labs since the sixties. Like lab-grown diamonds, lab-grown alexandrite is 100 percent real alexandrite, with the same physical, chemical and optical properties as mined gemstones. 

It can be grown through melt, hydrothermal or flux methods.

Like lab-grown diamonds, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between a mined and lab-grown stone. Only expert gemologists with specialist equipment can tell. 

While mined stones vary in colour depending on the region they were mined from, differing in strength, lab-grown alexandrite typically has a strong colour change. 

The popularity of alexandrite means there is also a significant market for lookalike stones. Synthetic corundum is one such stone, or other members of the chrysoberyl family with similar colour changing properties. Even some sapphires, known as alexandrine, can look similar to alexandrite. 

Exquisite Lab-Grown Alexandrite Jewellery

We adore our range of alexandrite jewellery. From our rhodium-plated sterling silver Annapurna necklace with an open backed bezel to truly showcase the stone’s chameleon effect, to our Aruba necklace and studs, made with solid 14k recycled gold. Elegant and simply stunning. Perfect for day to night wear. 

Why not take a look at our collection? Shop for lab-grown alexandrite jewellery.