With the winter season comes ice and snow. The beautiful golds and muted browns of fall are gone now, and in their place, the blue of the sky is reflected on frozen ponds. This icy color is reminiscent of this month’s birthstone, the blue topaz.
The name ‘Topaz’ comes from Topazios, which is the name given by the ancient Greeks to St. John’s Island in the Red Sea. Yellow gems were mined on this island but in all likelihood, they were not topaz. However, the name soon became applied to all yellow gems. Topaz is mentioned in the King James Bible as well as in ancient Greek texts, but it’s not at all certain that these texts actually referred to true topaz or to other yellow gems.
Topaz, in its pure state, is actually colorless. Like so many other birthstones, it’s the presence of impurities in the stone that give it color and life. Topaz ranges from a brownish orange to a yellowish color, with the most sought-after color being imperial topaz, which is a vibrant orange with undertones of pink.
Although blue topaz has become increasingly available, it’s rarely found in nature and is usually produced by radiation treatment of common colorless topaz. A light blue variety of topaz is found in Texas, and although it is not commercially mined, the blue topaz became an official gemstone of Texas in 1969. Utah has also honored blue topaz as its state gemstone.
Most topaz comes from South America, with Brazil the largest producer. The stone is also mined in Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Australia, Germany, and Mexico. Topaz is also found in the United States, mostly in New Hampshire, Utah, and California.
Russia was a leading producer in the 19th century and a pinkish orange topaz was mined in the country’s Ural Mountains. This topaz was given the name ‘Imperial topaz’ in honor of the Russian czar and not surprisingly, only members of the royal household were allowed to possess it. In 1740 what was originally thought to be the largest diamond ever found, at 1,640 carats, was found in Brazil and eventually set in the Portuguese crown. The stone is now believed to be, not a diamond, but a colorless topaz.
Topaz is relatively hard compared to other gemstones, with only diamonds, corundum, and chrysoberyl being harder. Although it’s a hard stone, there is a peculiarity in its cleavage that makes it subject to chipping or cracking if it is not cut correctly.
Topaz has a long association with healing powers. African shamans employed it in their rituals, using it for healing. The Hindus believed topaz to be sacred and thought wearing a topaz pendant would bring both longevity as well as wisdom to the wearer. In the European Renaissance, many people thought topaz could calm anger and break spells, cure madness and dispel nightmares. Another popular association, most likely because of the stone’s golden color, was to wealth, with many people believing it had the mystical power to attract gold. Blue topaz is a stone that evokes peacefulness as it soothes, aligns and heals.