Aquamarine - the gem of the sea
The name aquamarine literally means seawater, and it is for this that the stone has become known as the protective talisman of sailors.
George Frederick Kunz notes that “all who went down to the sea in ships were greatly in need of protection from the fury of the elements when they embarked in their small sailing-vessels” (1). As the colour of the aquamarine is that of a calm and limpid sea reasonably close to land, it is understandable that one might hold this stone close in times of turbulent water, hoping that the seas might change to reflect the colour of the stone.
In Ancient Greece, aquamarine was dedicated to the god of the ocean – Poseidon. It is also associated with the planet Neptune, named for the Roman god of the seas. In rough waters, sailors would throw aquamarines overboard to appease the gods. Possibly as a result of this, there is some tenuous connection with mermaids – either as the tears of these fascinating creatures, as their preferred gem, or as a protection for sailors against their alluring qualities.
A birthstone violation...
In the ancient lists of birthstones, aquamarine (the blue member of the beryl family of gems) was originally associated with the month of October. Between the 15th and 20th centuries, March was represented by the lesser-known jasper and bloodstone. In 1912, the National Association of Jewelers met in Kansas to discuss the birthstones and to modify the list. They decided to move the aquamarine to March from October.
Kunz objected to this alteration, writing that: “for October neither the tourmaline nor the opal is as appropriate as the beryl… This suggested radical change or violation cannot be permitted. The time-honoured ordering is familiar now to all who are interested in the matter, and any change, even if one apparently for the better, is liable to disturb the popular confidence in those who are supposed to be familiar with the subject.”(2)
Kunz continued to express his outrage with the alteration by saying: “there is absolutely no excuse for playing fast and loose with an ancient, popular and quasi-religious belief in the special virtue of one particular stone for each month, and that one the gem long prescribed by usage.” (3)
Kunz’s concern was based in the move away from the religious connections of the stones to the breastplate of Aaron to a more “commercial point of view” (4). Despite wide ranging debate as to what these stones originally were (there being issues with translations from different texts, along with the changes within the languages themselves – saphiros now being widely acknowledged to have meant lapis-lazuli for example), Kunz believed that there was still merit in “the idea that birthstones possess a certain indefinable, but none the less real significance.” (4)
Fast-forward 100 or so years, and we find that people have imbued their own significance on the changed order. Today, if you ask anyone born in March about their birthstone, they will happily give aquamarine as an answer with little to no hesitation.
Intensely blue Aquamarines - treated or not?
Aquamarine is one of the two sides of green beryl, the other side being the lovely yellow Heliodor. Green beryl is not the same as emerald, being coloured by iron as opposed to the chromium or vanadium colouration of true emerald. It does not reach the intense green hues of the true emerald, having a weaker saturation of green. This green beryl may be heated to 450*C to heighten the blue tones of aquamarine or may be irradiated to heighten the yellow of heliodor.
Aquamarines are routinely heat-treated to bring out the best tone of blue in the material. There are no identifying characteristics in the material as a result of this treatment, so CIBJO (the World Jewellery Confederation) does not require there to be a specific declaration of it (5). The treatment is stable and will not alter with the passage of time. One may assume that this treatment has been done if there is a rich sky-blue tone to the material.
This does not mean, however, that intensely blue aquamarines are not found in nature. Aquamarines may be found worldwide, but the very best locality is Brazil, where there are a number of important mines. Santa Maria de Itabira was discovered in the 1950s and surrendered a quantity of intensely deep blue material to the market before being virtually depleted in recent years. The name ‘Santa Maria’ is still used to describe this intense sky blue colour.
In January 1955, a 35kg rock of aquamarine was discovered in the state of Minas Gerais. No one knows how it came to rest there, as the material was not part of a local mine. The colour was considered so intense and beautiful that it was named after Martha Rocha, the Brazilian beauty queen of 1954. The Brazilian Government gave a set of aquamarines from this wonderful stone to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England who had them mounted by Mappin and Webb into a ring, necklace and bracelet. Today, the gems from the Martha Rocha aquamarine are in private hands and very rarely come to the market.
Aquamarines (unlike their emerald sisters, which nearly always contain some inclusions) may come in large sizes with great clarity. If there are inclusions at all, they tend restrict themselves to just three types – a 2-phase inclusion of fluid and gas, platy flakes of mica, and ‘rain’ – a term given to hollow growth tubes running in one direction through the material in the direction of crystal growth.
'Rain' in an aquamarine. Photo courtesy of P. Daly and Gem-A.
There are some synthetic aquamarines in the world, however this material is not widely seen due to the high cost of producing it in comparison to the relative abundance of the natural stone. Synthetic aquamarine is produced by the hydrothermal process (a method involving the use of super-heated water), which leaves a characteristic wave-like growth zoning. As the technology for the production of synthetic aquamarine was not available prior to 1960 – when hydrothermal synthetic emerald entered the market – if you are buying vintage or estate jewellery made prior to this date you can be assured that your aquamarine is natural.
Hazy wave-like zoning in a synthetic hydrothermal aquamarine. Photo courtesy of P. Daly and Gem-A.
Caring for your Aquamarine
When it comes to taking care of your aquamarine, we would recommend that you don’t leave it in a sunny spot between wearing. While the treatment of aquamarine is considered stable (meaning that it will not change under normal circumstances), some stones may lose their colour as a result of being left in sunshine. Otherwise, care is as normal for crystalline materials – avoid rough handling and protect them from knocks or scratches by keeping the stones separate in a jewellery box. To clean them use warm soapy water and a soft toothbrush before drying with a lint-free cloth. Ultrasonic cleaners should be used with caution as they may cause the stone to fracture.
1 – Kunz – The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pg 38/9
2 – Kunz – The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pg 320
3 – Kunz – The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pg 323
4 – Kunz – The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pg 318
5 - Care and disclosure advice taken from CIBJO’s The Gemstone Book 2012-1