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Blue, the color of the Virgin Mary’s robes in many church paintings, was considered a celestial color. Even today, seeing the intense blue of this 22.70 carat Arizona azur-malachite could leave one feeling blessed. In addition, the way the band of malachite splits the azurite in two, might be interpreted as looking into the fields of heaven through the vault of the sky. Strong medicine indeed. Photo Mia Dixon, courtesy Pala International.

Can gemstones heal?

Gemstones that have been known in the world for millennia have collected any number of myths about their mystical and medicinal properties. But could gemstones really heal? Possibly.

Many myths about gemstone medicine developed in the Middle Ages, which, for the bulk of the population meant a world of gray—especially in northern Europe and Great Britain. Gray-brown clothes, rarely washed, edged with mud and dust. Gray-brown houses of mud and straw and mildewed thatch. A gray-brown world of poverty, pain, ignorance, illness and superstition.

Now bring into that world the blazing color of an emerald, ruby, sapphire, opal—stones the color and value of which the people could barely conceive. The stones would not even have had to be of high quality as long as the color was rich. Tell someone that these gems—ground and drunk in wine, held in the mouth, worn around the neck—would heal all manner of disease.

Is there any possibility that your cure might work?

Maybe… Depending…

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Birthstone Friday: Magic, Mystical, Medicinal Rubies

A little wine with your rubies?

In times past, rubies, among other gemstones, were considered medicinal and magical. Hold them under your tongue, wear them, or grind them up and drink them down—probably in wine—and they were alleged to cure a number of ills. (Or maybe it was just the wine.) The catch was that often any red stone was considered a “ruby” and an appropriate amount of cash was charged for the cure. When the potion failed to work, it was easy to blame the failure on an adulterated powder or a stone of impure color. Of course, if the patient did not survive, there would be no one to complain, so…

Rubies have a way of getting under your skin…

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0 In Gems & Jewelry/ Liz Writes

Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbungle

What writer can resist?

I love Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries. I discovered the original short stories and novels in a massive volume on my parents’ bookshelves when I was nine, and I’ve never tired of them, from the original to all the spoofs and the multiple television and movie reincarnations. Who can tire of “Hurry, Watson! The game is afoot!” (Speaking of movie spoofs of the Great Detective, if you love these as much as I do, and you haven’t seen Without A Clue, with Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine, see it. Trust me: You owe it to yourself.)

One of my favorites Holmes stories (next to The Speckled Band and, of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles) is The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, where Holmes tracks down and retrieves a mysterious blue gemstone from the gullet of a goose. It became even more of a favorite after I became a gemologist. Because there is no such thing as a blue carbuncle.

The term “carbuncle” has traditionally been used to represent a cabochon-cut red gem—primarily a garnet, though it could conceivably apply to a ruby or red spinel. And because rubies are simply red versions of sapphires (which are most notably blue), Holmes could have made the case that this famous goose-eaten gemstone was really a blue cabochon-cut sapphire. And, being Holmes, he could have gotten away with it, because if Sherlock says it, it must be true, right?

That’s what he’d like you to believe, anyway. But Sherlock makes a number of gaffes in this story that tickle me to no end. I wish the long-suffering Dr. Watson had written a story detailing how someone at the British Museum had called Holmes out on his errors. But since he didn’t, I had to do it for him.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will lose no sleep over my parody, but I had fun writing it. I hope you have fun reading it, too.

“Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil’s pet baits.”

Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle


Fog swirled outside the windows, while Holmes, curled Turkish fashion on his cushion, smoked his pipe and created a fug of his own in our room. Despite the pall, I was congratulating myself that I did not have to go out into the damp, autumn afternoon when the bell downstairs rang. Moments later, Mrs. Hudson’s steady tread on the stairs heralded her approach.

“Hullo, Watson,” said Holmes, “What’s this? A new puzzle?” He sprang to his feet, almost visibly gathering his deductive powers.

I rose as Mrs. Hudson announced a neatly dressed man in his fifties with salt-and-pepper side whiskers and stern blue eyes behind metal-rimmed spectacles.

“Cyril Hyde-White, Curator of Gems, British Museum,” said our visitor. At the mention of the man’s title, Holmes’ eyes sparkled in anticipation of an engaging problem.

“A pleasure, I’m sure,” said Holmes.

“I wish I could say the same, Mr. Holmes,” said Hyde-White, “but I’m here on a sorry business.” He pulled from his coat a copy of the small volume in which I had recently published several of Holmes’ more remarkable exploits. I was immediately filled with a sense of foreboding.

“Please sit down and tell me what brings you here,” said Holmes. Our guest took the seat I had just vacated and adjusted his spectacles. Holmes took his accustomed place by the fire. I stood near the door in the event I might want to make a hurried escape.

“I am quite used to the fact that the general public views the study of minerals and gems as a frivolous pursuit,” said Hyde-White. “However, one would think that if jewels are the ‘nucleus and focus of crime’ that you here suggest they are,” he gestured toward the book on his knee, “that you, who professes to be an expert on crime, would make it your business to be better informed about them.”

Holmes became quite still, indicating to me, who knew his moods well, the extent of his agitation. “You do not make yourself clear,” he said. “To what do you refer?”

“This, sir, this!” said Hyde-White, brandishing the book. “I refer to this history you have titled ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.’” Holmes nodded. “And I refer, sir, to the numerous of egregious errors of fact contained therein!”

Holmes shot me a look. I racked my brain for appointments I had forgotten, patients I had to see immediately. Nothing came to mind.

“Errors?” said Holmes, turning back to Hyde-White. “Perhaps you would be so good as to give me an example?”

“To start, Mr. Holmes, what kind of stone to you think you retrieved from that much-abused goose’s crop?”

“I should think that would be obvious, even to the most unimaginative of readers,” said Holmes. “It was, as the title indicates, a blue carbuncle.”

“Blue carbuncle, indeed,” snorted Hyde-White. “From what do you deduce that, sir?”

“The Countess of Morcar says it is a blue carbuncle…” began Holmes, but Hyde-White cut him off much to Holmes’ evident annoyance.

“For a man who is said to think little of mental capabilities of the fair sex, you seem oddly eager to accept the judgment of a woman like the Countess who, my dear Holmes, has far more money than good sense.”

I was becoming fascinated by the exchange. I had never, in all our years together, seen Holmes bearded in his own den. Although I knew Holmes would have sharp words for me once we were alone again, I could not tear myself away. I rather began to enjoy myself, I am ashamed to admit.

“Perhaps you would enlighten me?” said Holmes icily.

“Carbuncles, Mr. Holmes, are red stones,” said Hyde-White, “not blue. Red stones cut ‘en cabochon’—flat on the bottom and domed on the top.”

“I know what a cabochon is,” said Holmes.

“Thank heavens you know something about the subject,” said Hyde-White. “However, I beg you to remember that, in this work, you clearly state that the Countess of Morcar’s stone ‘twinkled,’ a statement that implies the stone was faceted.”

“A poetic turn of phrase, my dear sir, a tendency to which my biographer is all too often inclined.” Holmes gave me a cool glance, but I was far too intrigued by the conversation to feel cowed.

“And is the ‘crystallized carbon’ nonsense a ‘poetic turn of phrase’ as well?” asked Hyde-White.

“I beg your pardon?” said Holmes.

“Where is it?” muttered the curator, paging through the volume. “Ah! ‘This stone is not yet 20 years old…In spite of its youth, it already has a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide and several robberies brought about for the sake of this 40 grain weight of crystallized carbon.’

“Sheer nonsense,” said Hyde-White forcefully as Holmes opened his mouth to speak. “The only gemstone that could possibly be described as ‘crystallized carbon’ is a diamond. And, sir, there are damned few of those that are blue. The only one of note is Sir Henry Hope’s magnificent specimen, which blighted minds would call accursed. There are no red diamonds*. Even if there were, no cutter would be mad enough to try to cut them into cabochons. Thus, a diamond, even a blue one, could never be called a carbuncle. Your famous deductive powers should tell you that.”

Once again Holmes attempted to speak but was cut short by the indignant Hyde-White.

“And if, as I doubt, your Countess’ stone was indeed a rare blue piece of ‘crystallized carbon’, she would certainly know she had a blue diamond, and would make sure everyone else knew it as well.

“Finally, Mr. Holmes, the red stones most commonly referred to as carbuncles are garnets, semi-precious* stones worn by every shop girl in London. Not even the most determined criminal would consider them a ‘focus and nucleus of crime’. The Countess would rather die than be seen wearing one. And garnets, sir, are unknown in blue.” Hyde-White sat back in his chair, a man content that his argument could not be undone. 

Holmes, I was surprised to note, did not even try to refute Hyde-White’s arguments.

“Sir,” he said smiling coldly, “You miss the point, which was that I was able to correctly deduce the identity of the stone and its owner making it possible to effect its return. Not only that,” he added, shaking his finger in the air, “I was able to put my hands on the criminal!” Two spots of color appeared on Holmes’ normally pale countenance.

“Yes, you had him,” said Hyde-White, with a slight emphasis on the word “had.” He paused. “And you let him go.”

Holmes’ color heightened at the implied disapproval. He opened his mouth to respond but Hyde-White interrupted him again. As Holmes was a man more used to doing the interrupting than to being interrupted, I could see Hyde-White’s continued presence was doing nothing to improve my friend’s temper.

“But what is done is done,” said our visitor. “What I want to know now, Mr. Holmes,” he said, rising from his chair, “is what you are going to do to correct this misleading and downright false information you have given the public?”

“Do?” asked Holmes quietly. “My dear sir, I’m going to do nothing. The public has forgotten this small matter already in light of my more recent achievements. Why should I do anything?”

There was a deathly silence in the room while the two men faced each other unflinchingly.

“Well,” said Hyde-White at last, putting on his hat, “if you feel no responsibility for your actions there’s not much I can do to change your mind. But hear me on this, Holmes. You run a very grave personal risk here. You evidently wish your name to go down in history as the greatest detective of all time, else you would not allow Dr. Watson here to chronicle your activities.” He waved the book at Holmes. “But if you continue to make such grossly erroneous statements as you make in this history, future readers of your exploits will come to doubt your very existence. ‘Such a great detective,’ they will say, ‘would certainly never make a gaffe like that.’ They will put all of your adventures down as the imaginings of an overworked and poorly informed writer. Sherlock Holmes, the great detective will be scoffed at as a creature of fiction. Mark my words!”

With that, Hyde-White left, slamming the door behind him.

As his footsteps faded down the street Holmes burst into laughter.

“Can you believe the cheek of the man?” he asked. “Sherlock Holmes a fictional character? Details of his work read as a diversion?” He smiled that brief, singular smile of his, then suddenly he turned a humorless gaze on me.  “And as to that, Watson…” he started. But I had anticipated him.

Quickly picking up my hat and coat I reached for the door.

“Sorry, Holmes. I can’t stop now. I’m meeting a friend at my club and I’m late,” I said, as I hurried out. If I was lucky, Lestrade or someone else from the Yard would bring him a problem while I was gone. Perhaps then he would forget the morning’s unpleasant interview for which I knew he was blaming me heartily.

“Well, at least now…” I thought as I walked along Baker Street. Then I stopped stock still. No! We still did not know what the Countess’ stone really was. Hyde-White had never said.

“This won’t do,” I thought. The British Museum was not far from my club. I would just stop by and ask him. Then in future I could chafe Holmes that I knew the true identity of the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle. I quickly hailed a cab and set off for the museum.

* During Holmes’ era there were no known red diamonds. Even today, they are exceptionally rare.

*The term “semi-precious” was used for decades to describe gemstones other than the “big five”: diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and pearls. The term is now discouraged by jewelers and gemologists.

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Garnet: Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Don’t like garnets? You need to know them better.

Like Tia Garner, in Trust Not the Heart, many women complain they don’t like garnets, the birthstone for January. What they usually dislike, however, is the dark, brownish-red garnet so common in jewelry, especially old jewelry.

And that’s understandable, because it wasn’t until the 1970s, really, that other kinds of garnets began making their mark in the jewelry industry, starting with the reddish-purple rhodolite that Cassie Franklin is designing a ring for as Trust Not the Heart opens. (An exception is demantoid garnet which may be found in antique jewelry. Yellow-green demantoids have almost always been small and rare.)

Wear garnets and never be blue.

Garnets belong to a large group of stones that all have the same crystal structure and similar, but different, chemical compositions. There are seven generally recognized species of garnet: almandite, demantoid, grossularite, hessonite, pyrope, rhodolite, spessartite. (There will not be a test.) But as Cassie explains to Tia, what makes garnets special for women born in January is that they come in all the colors of the rainbow except blue. “I like to think it means that you can’t be unhappy if you’re wearing garnets,” Cassie tells her young friend.

There’s the rich green of Cassie’s favorite, tsavorite, named for the Tsavo Valley in Tanzania which is still the only source of the stone. (Full disclosure: It’s my favorite, too.) There are blood-red garnets, pink to purple garnets, yellows and oranges. There are even star garnets and garnets that change color depending on the light they’re in. There is almost no gem family with more variety.

Garnets are tough as nails.

In fact, I can’t think of anything to dislike about garnets. They are hard (resistant to scratching), tough (resistant to breakage). In fact, the particles in old-fashioned “emery boards” used for filing nails, is garnet. But most of all, garnets are beautiful. They take a high polish and come in any kind of cut you can imagine. To my knowledge, garnets are not treated in any way. That can’t be said for most gemstones on the market today.

If that’s not enough, garnets—especially red garnets—have a rich history. They were the most popular gemstone in Hellenistic jewelry, created in the centuries before the birth of Christ. Sympathetic magic connected the red color, of course, to blood and the female cycle and, as a result, to fertility. A good stone to have on your side if you wanted children or a safe delivery.

A diamond prospector’s friend.

One of my favorite stories is about garnets and ants.

Garnets are often found in association with diamonds. In fact, sometimes, tiny garnets are actually trapped inside diamonds. Because the two gemstones are often found together, garnets are considered an “indicator mineral”—one that geologists look for when searching for new diamond-bearing areas.  

Tiny grains of garnets are often brought to the earth’s surface by industrious ants. When geologists find bunches of garnets around ant hills, it’s a small indication that diamonds may not be far away.

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Memory Stones

If you’re like me, you’re genetically pre-disposed to pick up rocks wherever you go.

I tend to come home from a simple trip to the beach with pockets dragging. I’ve picked up stones in Japan, Greece, Turkey, England, Michigan, Brazil, and on the top of Mt. Vesuvius. They fill bowls and line window sills.

However, you may have the desire to make something of your finds: drill them, tumble them, have them cut into a cab or carving, and set them. But how do you know what might make a good jewelry stone?

First, the stone should be hard.

Well, yes, all stones are hard, relatively speaking. But if you want to cut or tumble it, this means your stone should be higher than a 5 on the Mohs Hardness Scale. The Mohs Scale is a comparative scale of mineral hardness with talc, as in talcum powder, being 1 and diamond being 10.

How do you know if a stone is “hard enough”?

If your stone scratches a knife blade (5.5), it is hard enough to cut and take a good polish. Scratch your stone across the blade. Wipe away the powder to be sure you’ve scratched the blade not just powdered the stone. If the stone scratches the blade easily, its hardness is much higher. If it scratches only with effort, it is about the same hardness as the blade.

Turquoise and obsidian (volcanic glass, apache tears) are on the low end at about 5 to 6. Feldspars (sunstone, moonstone) are 6 to 6.5 Quartz (smoky, amethyst, and citrine) is 7. Garnets and tourmalines are 7 to 7.5. Topaz is 8. Corundums (sapphires and rubies) are 9. Only if you’re rockhounding in the Arkansas’ Crater of Diamonds State Park and find a greasy/shiny stone will you have to worry about stones of 10 in hardness.

Second, look for something without fractures, if possible.

Fractured stones will break during tumbling or cutting. Stones with holes or pits in them will capture grits during the tumbling process. The trapped, coarser grits will continue to scratch the stones as you tumble with finer grits. You won’t get a good polish.

If it has too many fractures, but you love it anyway, admire it on the windowsill. I tumbled an agate I found in the Namib Desert, to my regret. It lost all the interesting wind-sanded skin it had.

Third, look for dense, finely grained stones.

These are your best bet for tumbling, cutting or carving. Stones with large grains—many types of granite, for example — may crumble during cutting or tumbling. They may polish unevenly. If you can easily see the grains, the stone might not be a good candidate for cutting. Rub a couple stones together. If they don’t create a pile of debris, you may have a stone dense enough to work with. If the stone is already shiny—especially if it’s been tumbling in a lake, river, or ocean—you’ve got a winner. Sandstone or rocks containing mica will just make dust.

Lastly, consider size.

Depending on whether you tumble it or have your stone cut, you’ll lose between 30 and 50 percent of what you pick up. Believe me, when traveling, rock size is definitely a consideration. 

Here are some winners.

The best stones for tumbling, cutting, or collecting are agates (including thunder eggs), jaspers, petrified wood, quartz of any kind, obsidian, moonstones, sunstones. Garnets and tourmalines are a price, if you can find them. If you get to Arkansas, I wish you good luck.

One last hint.

Carry a permanent marker. Whatever stone you find, write on it where it was found. They’ll all look alike when you get home.

Have fun.

0 In Gems & Jewelry/ Liz Writes

The Enduring Allure of Gemstone Crystals

This 18k yellow and white gold pendant is set with an amethyst of extraordinary color. Design by Deborah Spencer, Trios Studio, Lake Oswego, Oregon.

As I worked on the revision of Dangerous Visions I was tickled to find an article in the March/April 2019 edition of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine entitled “Crystal Hues Persuasion” by Deborah Yonick, who writes a monthly column on jewelry style and trends for LJJA. The piece describes how the “mystic beauty” of crystals has become a trend—or perhaps we should say has returned as a trend—in the making and marketing of jewelry.

Gemstone crystals in jewelry made their debut in the 1970s, as Yonick writes, and remained popular into the early 1990s. Today, of course, they are popularized by their visibility on the Internet and by a number of celebrities. Yonick quotes The Guardian saying that crystals are “one of the breakout stars of the everyday wellness movement.” As crystals come back into the public awareness, many of the myths long associated with gemstones and crystals—that they can ward off negative emotions or energy, or promote harmony—are coming back, too.

Yet while marketers may take advantage of the legends of metaphysical properties associated with gemstone and crystals to improve sales, more often it is the crystal’s beauty and mysterious perfection that makes them irresistible.

Crystal jewelry lets people express their own personality. It lets them be different. It means that jewelry containing a natural crystal (as opposed to a gem material simply cut into a “crystal” shape) is as unique as the person wearing it.

Crystals also allow the wearer to keep in touch with the natural world, to strike a blow against an ever-more-mass-manufactured world.

This burgeoning—or rather resurging—interest in crystals is very lucky for me. In Dangerous Visions, Stacie Cappella, owner of The Bell, Book and Crystal in Eden Beach, California, is very aware of the pull of certain stones. Pure quartz augments her natural gift of Second Sight—a gift she’d rather not have. The irreplaceable amethyst crystal she wears, a centuries-old family heirloom, is said to foretell true love.

Yet Stacie firmly believes that crystals and gemstones cannot heal, as she is at pains to explain to the fraud detectives who respond to a complaint against her.

“[Mir] got it into her head that it was the touchstone I once gave her that healed her acne.”

“Why would she think that?” asked Cruz. Her tone said the idea must have gotten into Mir’s head because Stacie put it there.

“Who knows why anyone believes anything?” said Stacie, an edge to her voice. She was getting a bit angry now that the terror of federal prison had passed. “Someone buys a touchstone because it gives them something to hold onto during chemo treatment. When their cancer goes away, why do they credit the stone and not the treatment?” Stacie had had a customer who believed just that, though she wasn’t going to say that to the detective. “Why do placebos work? Doctors still don’t understand that.”

She glanced at Ben. His face was closed.

She remembered the odd sense of confusion she’d sensed at South Coast Heritage Park.

Not confusion. Imbalance. Uncertainty. As if his tether to the ground had been cut.

As if he were torn between desires. Feeling guilty.

Stacie turned and walked to the case where she kept exquisitely formed quartz crystals—smoky, amethyst, colorless—under glass to protect them from damage as well as from too much handling.

“Personally?” she said, as she unlocked and opened the case and pulled out the drawer holding the crystals. “I think that, for most people, the crystals, the wind chimes, the music—beautiful things, beautiful sounds—just make them feel better, more connected, calmer.” Her hand went unhesitatingly to a smoky quartz the size of her thumb. The specimen was cloudy and dark at the base, but gradually cleared to a lovely gray brown at the finely pointed terminus.

She went back to Ben and held it out to him. Startled, he reached for it, and she laid it in his hand. Stacie saw Colin’s puzzled look as she turned back toward Cruz.

“The tarot, the runes, they simply give people a way to acknowledge what they already know. That it’s time to change jobs. That their boyfriend is no good for them.” From the corner of her eye, she saw Ben watching her, listening to her. She saw his thumb stroking the crystal.

“Just because I sell these things doesn’t mean I’m a healer. Nor does it mean I endorse them as a method of healing. In fact, I always tell people—like your Mrs. Byers—to see a health professional if they have health concerns.”

“But you let your employee continue to tell customers something different,” said Cruz doggedly.

“Yes, well.” Stacie sighed. “I’ve tried to tell her the stones don’t heal, but she’s convinced they’ve helped her.” Stacie spread her hands. “I can’t help what she believes. I have asked her not to say things like that to customers. The shop alone creates enough trouble by itself.”

Stacie does not really believe that the amethyst crystal she wears can identify her heart’s true love, either. But…

Ah. That would be telling.

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Amethysts and Crystal Power

Gorgeous amethyst crystals with small quartz crystals, from the Jackson Crossroads Mine, Wilkes County, Georgia. USA. Easy to see why people believe in crystal magic. Photo Mia Dixon, courtesy Pala International.

Perfect gemstone crystals, such a the breathtaking amethyst crystals here, are the jewels of the mineral world. Many jewelry makers are in thrall to that beauty, so it’s not all that hard to find gemstone crystals set into earrings or pendants. (Some of those may be man-made material cut into the shapes of crystals, which shows you how popular crystal shapes have become.)

In addition, because of their color and perfection, for millennia metaphysical powers have been attributed to gemstone crystals. The mystic properties associated with gemstones have made them desirable for time out of mind. After all, we all want a little boost of power sometimes, and what better way to feel that power than to wear a beautiful stone?  

A lot of crystal myth and legend is just that. But quartz (amethyst is a type of quartz) is an unusual stone with a number of superpowers. One of the most intriguing is that it’s piezoelectric. Applying pressure to the stone generates electricity and vice versa—applying electricity makes the stone vibrate.

The thickness of the stone affects the frequency at which it vibrates. In fact, during WWII, quartz crystals were an integral part of radios. Tons of crystals were cut into slices to enable communication. Quartz is used today in watches and clocks to ensure precision timing. The material used for this is man-made, or synthetic, quartz. It’s no longer natural quartz cut from mined quartz crystals.

When writing Dangerous Visions, I used this quartz super power by giving Stacie a quartz crystal to augment her Second Sight abilities. I took the liberty of including amethyst under the blanket of quartz’s “radio capabilities,” though to my knowledge, the impurities that give amethysts their color would probably make the stones useless for radio communication.

But that’s the fun of writing fiction.

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Birthstone Friday: Lab-Grown Emeralds

14k yellow gold pendant, set with pear-shaped Chatham-created emerald and small diamond. Courtesy

Emeralds are some of the most beloved gemstones in the world—especially by those whose birthdays are in May. However, richly colored, unflawed or lightly flawed emeralds are difficult to find and very expensive when they are found. So it was only natural that someone would try to do better than Mother Nature. In the 1930s, Carroll Chatham succeeded. Other growers soon followed.

As they grow in the earth, emeralds are subject to temperature changes, intense pressures, and impinging hot liquids that can burn, melt, crush, or corrode the stones. Violent mining methods don’t help. As a result, many mined emeralds come from the ground with a number of inclusions and fractures that can not only dull the beauty of the stones, they can weaken the stones as well. In fact, emeralds can be notoriously difficult to cut and set if they are badly included.   Continue Reading →