Testing Unknown Gems

How to determine the species of an unknown precious stone or gem by considering the color, imperfections, the file test, refraction, hardness, and specific gravity

Having now considered separately the principal physical properties by means of which one can identify a precious stone, let us attempt to give as good an idea as the printed page can convey of how one should go about determining to what species a gem belongs.

Signs of Wear in an Emerald. To make the matter more concrete, and therefore more interesting, let us consider a real case, the most recent problem, in fact, that the author has had to solve. A lady of some wealth had purchased, for a large sum, a green stone which purported to be an emerald. After a few years of wear as a ring stone she noticed one day that the stone had dulled around the edges of its table, and thinking that that ought not to be the case with a real emerald, she appealed to a dealer in diamonds to know if her stone was a real emerald. The diamond merchant told her frankly that, while he was competent in all matters pertaining to diamonds, he could not be sure of himself regarding colored stones, and advised the lady to see the author.

The matter being thus introduced, the lady was at once informed that even a real emerald might show signs of wear after a few years of the hard use that comes to a ring stone.

While emerald has, as we saw in the lesson on hardness, a degree of hardness rated as nearly 8 (7 1/2 in the table), it is nevertheless a rather brittle material and the long series of tiny blows that a ring stone is bound to meet with will cause minute yielding along the exposed edges and corners of the top facets. This being announced, the first step in the examination of the stone was to clean it and to give it a careful examination with a ten-power lens. (An aplanatic triplet will be found best for this purpose.)

Color. The color was, of course, the most obvious property, but, as has already been said, color is not to be relied upon in all cases. In this case the color was a good emerald green but a bit bluer than the finest grass green. A very fine Maine tourmaline might approach this stone in color, so it became necessary to consider this possibility. A glass imitation, too, might have a color equal or superior to this.

Imperfections. While noting the color, the imperfections of the stone claimed attention. They consisted mainly of minute jagged cracks of the character peculiar to brittle materials such as both emerald and tourmaline. So far it will be noted either of the above minerals might have furnished the lady's gem. As glass can be artificially crackled to produce similar flaws the stone might have been only an imitation as far as anything yet learned about it goes.

File Test. The next step was to test its hardness by gently applying a very fine file to an exposed point at one corner of the girdle. The file slipped on the material as a skate slips on ice. Evidently we did not have to do with a glass imitation.

Refraction. Knowing now that we had a true hard mineral, it remained to be determined what mineral it was. On holding the stone in direct sunlight and reflecting the light onto a white card it was seen at once that the material was doubly refracting, for a series of double images of the back facets appeared. These double images might have been produced by tourmaline as well as by emerald. (Not however by glass which is singly refracting.) If a direct reading refractometer had been available the matter could have been settled at once by reading the refractive indices of the material, for tourmaline and emerald have not only different refractive indices but have double refraction to different degrees. Such an instrument was not available at the time and will hardly be available to most of those who are studying this lesson, so we can go on with our account of the further testing of the green stone.

Hardness. A test upon the surface of a quartz crystal showed that the stone was harder than quartz (but so is tourmaline). A true topaz crystal was too hard for the ring stone, whose edge slipped over the smooth topaz surface. The green stone was therefore not a green corundum (Oriental emerald) as the latter has hardness 9 and scratches topaz.

With hardness evidently between 7 and 8 and with double refraction and with the kind of flaws peculiar to rather brittle minerals we had in all probability either a tourmaline or an emerald.

Dichroism. The dichroscope (which might have been used much earlier in the test but was not at hand at the time) was next tried and the stone was seen to have marked dichroism--a bluish green and a yellowish green appearing in the two squares of the instrument when the stone was held in front of the opening and viewed against a strong light.

As either tourmaline or emerald might thus exhibit dichroism (the tourmaline more strongly, however, than the emerald) one more test was tried to finally decide the matter.

Specific Gravity. The stone was removed from its setting and two specific gravity determinations made by means of a specific gravity bottle and a fine chemical balance. The two results, which came closely alike, averaged 2.70 which agrees very nearly with emerald (2.74) and which is far removed from the specific gravity of tourmaline (3.10). The stone was now definitely known to be an emerald, as each of several tests agreed with the properties of emerald, namely:

Color--nearly grass green.

Imperfections--like those of emerald.

Hardness--7 1/2.

Refraction--double.

Dichroism--easily noted.

Specific gravity--2.70

While one who was accustomed to deal in fine emeralds might not need to make as detailed an examination of the stone as has just been indicated above, yet for most of us who do not have many opportunities of studying valuable emeralds it is safer to make sure by complete tests.

One other concrete example of how to go about testing unknown stones must suffice to conclude this lesson, after which the student, who has mastered the separate lessons preceding this, should proceed to test as many "unknowns" as his time and industry permit in order to really make his own the matter of these lessons. It may be added here that the task of testing a stone is much more rapid than this laborious effort to teach others how to do it might indicate. To one skilled in these matters only a few seconds are required for the inspection of a stone with the lens, the dichroscope, or the refractometer, and hardness tests are swiftly made. A specific gravity test requires more time and should be resorted to only when there remains a reasonable doubt after other tests have been applied.

Now for our final example. A red stone, cut in the form of a pear shaped brilliant, was submitted to the writer for determination. It had been acquired by an American gentleman in Japan from an East Indian who was in financial straits. Along with it, as security for a loan, the American obtained a number of smaller red stones, a bluish stone, and a larger red stone. The red stones were all supposed to be rubies. On examination of the larger red stone with a lens it was at once noted that the internal structure was that of scientific ruby.

Testing Other Stones. Somewhat dashed by the announcement of this discovery the owner began to fear that all his gems were false. Examination of the small red stones showed abundance of "silk," a peculiar fibrous appearance within the stone caused by its internal structure. The fibers were straight and parallel, not curved and parallel as in synthetic ruby. Tiny bubbles of angular shape also indicated that the small stones were natural rubies. They exhibited dichroism and scratched topaz and it was therefore decided that they at least were genuine.

The pear shaped brilliant which was first mentioned was of a peculiar, slightly yellowish, red color. It was very pellucid and free from any striae either of the straight or curved types. It had in fact no flaws except a rather large nick on one of the back surfaces near the girdle. This was not in evidence from the front of the stone and had evidently been left by the Oriental gem cutter to avoid loss in weight while cutting the stone.

The peculiar yellowish character of the red color led us to suspect ruby spinel. The stone was therefore inspected with the dichroscope and found to possess no dichroism. The sunlight-card test, too, showed that the stone was singly refracting.

A test of the hardness showed that the material barely scratched topaz, but was attacked by sapphire. It was therefore judged to be a red spinel.

The large bluish stone which the gentleman acquired with the red stones proved to be iolite, sometimes called cordierite or water-sapphire (Saphire d'eau), a stone seldom seen in this country. It had marked dichroism--showing a smoky blue color in one direction and a yellowish white in another. The difference was so marked as to be easily seen without the dichroscope.


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