Pink champagne. Summer apricots. Salmon orange. Baby blue. Purely colorless. And all of them internally flawless. Topaz is one of a very few gemstones that grow to extravagant sizes without sacrificing internal clarity. Most are at least loupe-clean. And there are topaz crystals that have been cut down to faceted gems of better than 20,000 carats. Not impressed? Try this: that’s nine pounds. Many newborn children don’t weigh that much.
Now, setting a 20,000-carat topaz in jewelry is pointless (it’d be pretty much impossible to wear), but it’s not uncommon to find double-digit carat sizes in most jewelry stores carrying a reasonable selection of colored gemstones. If bigger is better, topaz is probably the way to go, and topaz is still sensibly priced compared to many other gems. Topaz is the traditional birthstone for November, so don’t let that go unnoticed if you or someone you know was born in that month.
One thing you might encounter while shopping for topaz is “Imperial Topaz.” The broad trade name “Imperial Topaz” refers to colors from pastel pink to apricot syrup and is the cream of the crop when natural, so it commands a premium. But compared to the finest rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, even Imperial Topaz is affordable. Some of the richest rusty orange-yellows glow like a summer sunset.
Topaz really is an exquisite gemstone. Not all topaz is loupe-clean, either, and there’s character to be had from inclusions, so I keep a small selection of golden topaz that isn’t exactly eye-clean. It’s big and veiny and Bohemian-chic, and it looks phenomenal in both yellow gold and platinum. You might find it listed under the trade name “strawberry topaz.”
Topaz has a unique, albeit confusing history. Its strong association with tin mining implies that Middle Eastern cultures in the Bronze Age were probably familiar with the stone, and its ready cleavage would have made it usable before gem faceting techniques evolved.
The etymology behind the name “topaz” is a matter of speculation. It has roots in both Sanskrit and Greek: the Sanskrit “tapas” means “heat or fire;” the Greek “topazein” means “to divine; to seek.” St. John’s Island, or the Island of Zabargad, was often obscured by fog and difficult to locate, and led to the Greeks naming it “Topazios.” The gemstones mined on the island were then referred to as “topaz” by the Greeks. Ironically, Zabargad was the ancient source for peridot, which was confused with topaz for hundreds and hundreds of years. To modern knowledge, what we now identify as topaz was never found on Zabargad.
Be aware of treated material in your shopping excursions. It is easy to spot because of its overly appealing price. While many colors of topaz are natural, most strong colors are fairly rare, especially red, deep pink, golden orange, and medium blue. Blue topaz, almost more than any other color, has flooded the market, and a vast majority of it is heated and irradiated to achieve its color. This treatment can fade when exposed to direct, intense light for extended periods of time, eventually reverting back to the colorless topaz from which it was created. Natural blue topaz is quite rare and doesn’t usually achieve quite as deep coloration as irradiated blue topaz.
While topaz is a reasonably hard gemstone, it has a major drawback: perfect cleavage in one direction. Like diamonds, topaz will split cleanly along a crystallographic plane if struck just so. Ultrasonic and steam cleaning are not recommended because of this. That may impose certain limitations on its usage. It makes bracelets and big, open rings risky if worn roughly, but – as with all fine jewelry – given proper care and attention, you don’t have to worry too much about it.