News & Press: Jewelry and Industry

Fascinating Phenomena in Gemstones

Tuesday, November 19, 2019  
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There are several varieties of gemstones that display optical phenomena, which describes the many ways light interacts with the structural features or inclusions (internal characteristics) in the gemstone. Often these gemstones will be fashioned in a particular way that best displays these effects.

The science of optical phenomena can be fascinating, although the mystery and allure of these effects are what initially attract us! Below are six of the most familiar (and magical) displays of optical phenomena in gemstones.

 

Play-of-Color

Play-of-color is created by a combination of diffraction and interference, and is the result of the microstructure of opal: the chameleon of a thousand colors and October’s birthstone!

Opals are made up of many layers of small, stacked spheres of silica. These spheres diffract light, splitting it into a spectrum of colors. The layers of these spheres create interference allowing certain colors to dominate, depending on the angle the opal is viewed.

ASBA USA, Inc.
Opal and tsavorite ring, by ASBA USA, Inc.
Parle
Australian opal and diamond pendant, by Parlé Gems.

 

Asterism

Asterism, or stars, relates to the four- or six-rayed star pattern of light produced by the fibrous inclusions, elongated needles, or growth tubes in a gemstone. This singular, celestial-like phenomenon is best seen in a gemstone cut en cabochon.

Fine Jewels of NYC
Ruby and star sapphire halo ring, by Fine Jewels of NYC.
Omi Prive
Purple star sapphire, pin sapphire, and diamond ring,
by Omi Privé.

 

Chatoyancy

Chatoyancy [sha-TOY-an-cee] is also known as “cat’s eye.” Fine needle-like or fibrous inclusions within the gemstone are what causes this effect. Again, stones fashioned as cabochons display this effect the best.

AG Gems
Cat’s Eye indicolite tourmaline and rubellite ring by AG Gems.
NEI Group
Tiger Eye and diamond ring by NEI Group.

 

Color Change

A small number of gemstones display the color change optical phenomena. Depending on the lighting environment, the color change appearance can vary due to the shifting wavelengths. The technical term for this is photochromism or photochroism; “color-change” is a lot easier to say!

The best-known color changing gemstone is alexandrite. When viewed in sunlight, it appears greenish. When placed under incandescent light, it appears reddish. Other varieties of color-changing gemstones include sapphire, garnet, spinel, diaspore, and tourmaline.

Takat
Alexandrite and diamond ring, by TAKAT.
Jupiter Gem
Alexandrite and diamond ring, by JupiterGem.

 

Adularescence

Adularescence is the phenomenon typically seen in moonstone, which is a member of the feldspar family. It produces a billowy soft blue to milky white light that appears to move across the gemstone. This occurs when light hits the alternating layers of albite and orthoclase, which are two differing forms of feldspar within the gem.

The layers of feldspar interfere with the light rays causing them to scatter and the eye to observe adularescence. The effect is best seen when the gemstone is cut en cabochon [en CAB-ah-shawn]—that is, with a polished, domed top and a flat or slightly rounded base.

Yael Designs
Blue zircon and moonstone drops earrings, by Yael Designs.
Lika Behar Collection
Moonstone and diamond baguette ring, by
Lika Behar Collection.

 

Labradorescence

Labradorscence [lab-ra-dor-es-cence] is an optical characteristic often seen in labradorite. The effect is a spectacular play-of-color that is metallic or iridescent, displaying blue, green, red, orange, and yellow. This is an interference effect within the gemstone caused by internal structures that selectively reflect only certain colors.

NEI Group
Labradorite and diamond pendant necklace, by NEI Group.
Tacori
Oval shaped labradorite ring with diamond accents, by Tacori.

 

Are you ready to see some of these displays in person? Visit an American Gem Society (AGS) jeweler near you and ask to see some gemstones that exhibit optical phenomena!


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The American Gem Society (AGS) is a nonprofit trade association of fine jewelry professionals dedicated to setting, maintaining and promoting the highest standards of ethical conduct and professional behavior through education, accreditation, recertification of its membership, gemological standards, and gemological research.

The Society is committed to providing educational products to inform and protect the consumer and to contributing to the betterment of the trade by creating industry standards to protect the jewelry-buying public and the fine jewelry industry as a whole.

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