By Ashley Bailey
, Monday, August 07, 2006 12:00 AM
Cleopatra is as famous for her love of emeralds as was Princess Di for her love of sapphires.
There’s just one little catch. Scholars now think a good many of the Egyptian queen’s emeralds might have been peridot.
Peridot, a soda-bottle-green olivine, was mined for millennia on the island of Zabargad, 35 miles off Egypt’s coast in the Red Sea. Supposedly, it was more beautiful than the emerald which Egypt also produced—so beautiful, in fact, it is widely believed to have been used as the second stone in the high priest’s breastplate for the second Temple of Jerusalem built in 515 BC
The Greeks and later the Romans continued to carry the torch for peridot. The Romans praised it as “evening emerald” because its green did not darken at night but remained bright under all lighting conditions.
Curiously for a gem with as long a history as peridot, its name is recent. For centuries, this gem was known as chrysolite from the Greek word for yellow stone. To avoid constant confusion with yellow topaz, the British adopted the name peridot in the 18th century.
Although Zabargad produced peridot well into the 20th century, Burma supplanted it as the main source until 1962, when a military junta closed off the country to the outside world. Between then and the late 1990s, the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona was practically the sole supplier. Most recently, China and Pakistan have been contributing to the supply. Nevertheless, Arizona still remains the chief provider of this gem.
Peridot is the August birthstone and has a hardness of 6.5 on the Mohs scale. That should be a warning about everyday use, especially in rings, but it isn't—maybe because Arizona peridot is one of the most affordable of all traditional gems.
Arizona peridot tends to occur in smaller sizes, which makes it ideal for use in bracelets and necklaces—often with other gems to achieve a “rainbow” effect. In addition, peridot complements stones like aquamarine and amethyst when used in striking two-tone pastel combinations.
Peridot is one of the few gems that is not color-enhanced and for which there is no known synthetic version.
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