Through much of history, all yellow gemstones were considered topaz and all topaz was thought to be yellow. Topaz is available in many colors, and it’s likely not even related to the stones that first donned its name.
The name topaz derives from Topazios, the ancient Greek name for St. John’s Island in the Red Sea. Although the yellow stones famously mined there probably weren’t topaz, it soon became the name for most yellowish stones.
Pure topaz is colorless, but it can become tinted by impurities to take on any color of the rainbow. Precious topaz ranges in color from brownish orange to yellow and is often mistaken for “smoky quartz” or “citrine quartz,” respectively—although quartz and topaz are unrelated minerals.
The most prized color is Imperial topaz, which features a vibrant orange hue with pink undertones. Blue topaz, although increasingly abundant in the market, very rarely occurs naturally and is often caused by irradiation treatment.
The largest producer of quality topaz gemstones is Brazil. Other sources include Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Russia, Australia, Nigeria, Germany, Mexico and the U.S., mainly California, Utah and New Hampshire.
Measuring 8 on the Mohs scale, topaz is a very hard and durable gemstone. Its perfect cleavage can make it prone to chipping or cracking, but when cut correctly, topaz makes very wearable jewelry.
Yellow gems have been called variations of the name topaz for thousands of years – long before mineralogists determined that topaz occurs in a range of colors, and that many yellowish gemstones actually belong to other mineral species.
Ancient texts from the Greek scholar Pliny to the King James Bible referenced topaz, but because of this longstanding confusion, they likely referred to other yellow gemstones instead.
During the Renaissance in Europe, people believed that topaz could break spells and quell anger. Hindus deemed topaz sacred, believing that a pendant could bring wisdom and longevity to one’s life. African shamans also treated the stone as sacred, using it in their healing rituals.
Russia’s Ural Mountains became a leading source of topaz in the 19th century. The prized pinkish orange gemstone mined there was named Imperial topaz to honor the Russian czar, and only royals could own it.
Since the discovery of large topaz deposits in Brazil in the mid-19th century, topaz has become much more affordable and widely available.
Processes were developed in the 1960's to turn common colorless topaz blue with irradiation treatment. This variety has since flooded the market, making it one of the least expensive gemstones available.
Light blue varieties of topaz can be found in Texas, though not commercially mined there. Blue topaz became an official gemstone of Texas in 1969—the same year Utah adopted topaz as its state gemstone.
Topaz is a traditional gift for those with November birthdays. It’s also given to celebrate 19th wedding anniversaries, and certain types (blue and Imperial, respectively) acknowledge 4th and 23rd wedding anniversaries, as well.
Since topaz was recognized as more than just a yellow gemstone, it has become fairly common and therefore rather inexpensive. It can be judged along the same parameters as diamonds. In fact, colorless topaz is increasingly popular as an inexpensive diamond alternative.
When buying topaz, realize that this gemstone is most often treated with irradiation to produce desirable colors—particularly blue. Because these processes so closely resemble how topaz forms in nature, there is practically no way to determine whether a gemstone has been treated. Visit an American Gem Society jeweler who can help you select a quality gemstone.
Imperial topaz is the most highly prized for its intense reddish orange color. Yellow, orange and brown gemstones are more common and less expensive—although these can be treated with heat to enhance the pink and red hues.
Topaz crystals have yielded some of the largest gemstones ever cut. Mines in Brazil produced both the world’s largest cut blue topaz (the “Brazilian Princess,” weighing 21,327 carats) and the largest cut yellow topaz (the “American Golden Topaz,” weighing 22,892.5 carats).
In smaller sizes, this gemstone is fairly inexpensive. Not only is it affordable, but also and available in such a wide range of colors, that so it’s easy for everyone to find topaz that fits their tastes – whether or not they get to claim it as their birthstone.