Gemstones and Birthstones: Sensational Topaz — Just the Facts

Topaz is the lovely birthstone for those born in November, and it is the state gemstone of Texas. It is hard, brilliant, and an enduring gemstone.

While you may be most familiar with blue topaz — which seems to be everywhere in the jewelry market — until recently, topaz was known for its yellow, golden, orange, or brown hues. In fact, Pliny (writing in the first century AD) called the stone “chrysolite,” a combination of Greek words meaning “golden” and “stone.” And for many years — centuries even — any yellow stone, from yellow sapphire to citrine, was called “topaz.”

ABOVE: For anyone who thinks “blue” first, when thinking of topaz, this 8.30ct. Brazilian topaz should change your mind. Photo Mia Dixon, courtesy Pala International.

The finest orangish-brown shades of topaz have been described as “sherry.” (Sherry, as any cozy mystery fan knows, is the drink allowed to maidenly aunts and men of the cloth.) “Imperial topaz” is a much-misused trade term that, by rights, should only be applied to topazes of a fine, medium reddish orange. But it has become used to describe genuine topaz as opposed to citrine and yellow CZs. And sometimes it’s not even used correctly then. (For all colored gemstones, it is far better to use color descriptions rather than trade names.)

But blue, yellow, orange, brown and gold are not the only colors of topaz. I have to steal an Oscar Wilde line quoted in GIA’s Colored Stone course simply because it is so beautiful: “I have topazes as yellow as the eyes of tigers, topazes as pink as the eyes of wood pigeons, and green topazes that are the eyes of cats.” While the green may be an exaggeration, the pinks are not. Some pink topazes are extraordinary. (Witness Mia Dixon’s equally extraordinary image here.)

Pink topaz - November birtstone and amazingly beautiful gemstone

This 40.15ct. pink topaz, set in a ring and accented with diamonds, is probably as good as it gets. Photo Mia Dixon, courtesy The Collector Fine Jewelry.

Topaz is hard — 8 on the Mohs hardness scale. In fact, it is the indicator mineral for that hardness. However, like any superhero/ine, topaz has a hidden flaw. It has one direction of cleavage that can make the stone brittle. If you wear topaz in a ring, and you intend to wear it every day, be sure it is well protected. If you are a jewelry maker, you do not want to put a topaz into an ultrasonic or use the steamer to clean it.

It is not unusual for topaz to be heat treated to improve its color. Virtually all blue topaz is colorless topaz that has been heated after irradiation. Pinks (the rarest of the rare) can be created by heating brown “sherry” colored topaz. The color is considered stable under normal conditions of wear, however, treated topazes may fade in the face of heat. So jewelry makers should keep them far away from torches.

While topaz is a beautiful yellow to orange to brown stone, it can be expensive. So for a very long time, citrines have been used as a stand in for topaz—and often not correctly identified. Bowing to this reality, in 1938, the American Gem Society adopted a resolution that allowed members to sell citrine as an alternate to topaz as the November birthstone.

If your birthstone is topaz, and you do not like yellow stones (incomprehensible if your favorite color is yellow), you have a plethora of blue topazes to choose from. If you do like yellow, but your purse is thin, citrines are a lovely alternative. But if you like the brilliance of yellow to golden topaz, or you are in a position to indulge in an Imperial or pink topaz, you will never be disappointed.

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing on gemstone and jewelry topics for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of Birthstone Romances under the name Liz Hartley.


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