Tuesday, April 25, 2006

In Depth Look at the Discovery and Naming of Alexandrite Gemstone


The story of the discovery and naming of Alexandrite has been shrouded in mystery. Contradictory accounts abound – it was discovered in 1830, 1831, 1834, or some other unnamed year and according to a widely popular but controversial story, the color changing variety of chrysoberyl known as Alexandrite today, was discovered by the Finnish mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskjold, (1792 -1866) on Alexander's sixteenth birthday on April 17, 1834 and named Alexandrite in honor of the future Tsar of the Russian Empire.

Why would Nordenskjold name a newly discovered mineral in honour of a sixteen year old tsarevitch, who hadn’t earned the "Tsar Liberator" title and had not done anything worth mentioning yet? At the time, Nicholas I, saw his role simply as a paternal autocrat, ruling his people by whatever means were necessary to reign over Imperial Russia. The secret police, a so-called Third Department, ran a huge network of spies and informers. The government exercised censorship and other controls over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life. Non-Russian nationalities and religions in particular were suppressed. And of course, naming the mineral after the Tsarevitch was a political act, which could not have possibly been the mineralogist’s initiative.

There was somebody else. Someone close to the Imperial Family, who could gain from flattering them and at the same time was passionate about minerals. The only person who met that criteria was Count Lev Alekseevich Perovskii (1792-1856). He was close to Nicholas I and was Vice-President of the Appanage Department between 1852 and 1856. Perovskii contributed much to the development of the lapidary and mining industries in Russia and many new deposits were mined because of Perovskii's initiatives. But above all, Perovskii was an ardent collector and one of his passions was minerals and gemstones.

Although it was Nordenskjold who discovered alexandrite, he could not possibly have discovered and named it on Alexander’s birthday. Nordensljold’s initial discovery occurred as a result the examination of a newly found mineral sample he had received from Perovskii which he identified as emerald at first. Confused with the high hardness, he decided to continue his examinations. Later that evening, while looking at the specimen under candlelight, he was surprised to see that the color of the stone had changed to raspberry-red instead of green. Later, he confirmed the discovery of a new variety of chrysoberyl, and suggested the name “diaphanite” (from the Greek "di" two and "aphanes", unseen or "phan", to appear, or show).

Perovskii however had his own plans and used the rare specimen to ingratiate himself with the Imperial family by presenting it to the future Tzar and naming it Alexandrite in his honor on April 17, 1834

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