Purple Passion: Gem Carving in Pantone's Colour of the Year

Taken from the Spring 2018 issue of Gems&Jewellery magazine, gem sculptor, jeweller and gemmologist, Helen Serras-Herman FGA, gets into the spirit of this year’s Pantone Colour of the Year with a look back at some of her most vibrant, violet-hued carvings.

Violet gemstones have recently found themselves in the fashion spotlight thanks to the famous Pantone Colour Institute naming ‘Ultra Violet’ as its ‘Colour of the Year 2018’. Yet while there are endless gemstone varieties that fall into the green and blue shades of the spectrum, there are only a handful of gemstones that fall in the violet segment of the rainbow.

Among them, the most classic representation since ancient times is amethyst, but charoite, sugilite, purple sapphire, lavender jade, tanzanite, iolite, kunzite, fluorite, lavender chalcedony, black opal with purple flash, and tiffany stone fill the top spots for purple gems.

Pisces-watermelon sapphire. The carving takes advantage of the colour zoning of the gemstone.
Photo by M.J. Colella.

The violet spectrum of gemstones

Over the years, I have used a number of the aforementioned violet palette gemstones for my carvings and jewellery art. I have enjoyed carving the rather rare watermelon sapphire from Pakistan. It all started many years ago, when Gary Bowersox, the famous gemstone hunter, dealer and expert of gemstones from Afghanistan, asked me to carve a hippopotamus as an intaglio on a watermelon sapphire.

Later I carved ‘Pisces’ and ‘Apollo’s Rays’ on other crystals from the same material, each time taking advantage of the colour zoning of the gemstone. This watermelon sapphire, although somewhat similar in look to the bright red ruby in green zoisite material from Tanzania, or the ruby in green fuchsite (chromium muscovite) mica from India, has a deep violet-purple-pink sapphire center surrounded by green muscovite mica ‘skin’.

This material is mined near West Village, Timargara, Dir District, Malakand Agency, Northwest Frontier Province, in Pakistan. It was identified as purple-pink sapphire and muscovite mica, with RI: 1.76 for the center, 1.70 for the perimeter, after examination and analysis performed by the GIA West Coast Gem Trade Laboratory (Gems & Gemology, Summer 1991, p.120), which showed the center with an absorption pattern typical of ruby and purple sapphire, numerous twining planes and some whitish veining in the rim, with the final X-ray diffraction analysis matching the standard pattern for muscovite mica.

Apollo's Rays, carved in watermelon sapphire from Pakistan, set with violet faceted sapphire from Montana
on a detachable strand of deep purple star sapphire beads. Photo by M.J. Colella. 

Another purple gem that I have enjoyed carving is the lavender jadeite from Guatemala, mined in the Montagua River Valley. Although it may be my personal favorite among the Guatemalan jades, the ancient Maya carvers and culture revered the green varieties.

We don’t know if they did not find the lavender boulders back then, or they simply did not appreciate the colour. The lavender jadeite has a granular physical appearance with a greasy luster, but it takes an easy and good polish (Maya Jade, Helen Serras-Herman, Gems&Jewellery, August 2015).

With both gem materials - the watermelon sapphire and the lavender jade - I have found that deep purple star sapphire beads make a great match to those violet-purple tones. Over the years, I have also carved amethyst for gem sculptures, but have not used a lot of amethyst, or charoite, in my jewellery until recently. It all happened by accident, trying to pair some of my pendants with new, detachable necklaces.

Lavender Guatemala Jade. Photo by M.J. Colella. 

Exploring Charoite

It all started with a unique charoite pendant that featured a natural, almost geometric pattern dividing the stone into purple charoite on the left and golden tinaksite on the right -one of the associate minerals that charoite occurs with. I wanted to create a detachable necklace with peach natural-color cultured pearls, and trying to tap into the purple tones for in-between stones, I found the perfect match in some lilac amethyst beads, known as ‘Rose de France’.

Charoite is a rare silicate mineral [K(Ca, Na)2Si4O10(OH,F)] with a deep lilac-violet or lavender to purple color. It occurs only in massive form, not as crystals. It is named after the place of its discovery, at the Murunskii Massif, at the confluence of the Chara River and the Tokko River in the Sakha Republic, Yakutia, of Eastern Siberia, in Russia, and it is the only known charoite deposit in the world.

Charoite occurs along with other minerals in altered limestone deposits creating a rock more accurately called charoitite. Associate minerals are canasite and carbonates, quartz, microcline, aegirine (dark green, often star-shaped inclusions), tinaksite (golden chatoyant blades), sphene and fedorite (raspberry red).

The purple color is attributed to the coexistence of Mn3+ and Fe3+ (similar to sugilite). When charoite is iron rich and manganese poor, it is brown. It is often irregular in composition resulting to a wide range of color hues and patterns. 

Sugar Plum Necklace: lavender jadite from Guatamala, with deep-violet star sapphire beads.
Photo by M.J. Colella.  

Charoite at its best is highly translucent, with beautiful swirling patterns. White fibrous asbestos-charoite displays a silky chatoyancy - a cat’s eye effect - and a pearly luster. Its distinctive interlocking, fibrous texture and conchoidal fracture are at times problematic for the lapidary, and correct orientation is often paramount to avoid splintering.

Ironically, the much-sought after charoite of today, when it was first discovered in the 1940’s while constructing a rail tunnel, it was considered dark and unattractive, and was mis-identified as lilac cummingtonite. Soon after 1962, it was called Sirenyevyi Kamen (Lilac stone), but it was not known to the outside world until its description in 1978 (Charoite, a new mineral and a new jewelry stone, Rogova, V.P., Y.G. Rogov, V.A. Drits, and N.N. Kutnetsova, 1978).

Insights into Botryoidal Chalcedony

While in my ‘purple zone’, I pulled out of my drawer a strand of beautiful bright charoite beads, 9 mm round, which I purchased over a decade ago. They found their perfect match in a pendant with purple botryoidal chalcedony from the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott, in northern Arizona. Botryoidal is a globular external mineral habit or grape-like structure of chalcedony.

Botryoidal chalcedony, also known as grape agate, has been recently found at Manakarra Beach, Mamuju Area, in West Sulawesi in Indonesia, and has been a big hit on the market among lapidaries, designers and collectors. The Arizona material is more compact and pastel in color compared to the new Indonesian material. I chose to wire wrap the pendant with rose gold wire, as the warm rose gold tone is another big trend now.

Purple Passion. A strand of beautiful bright charoite beads, with purple botryoidal chalcedony from Bradshaw mountains, Arizona, USA. 
Image Credit: Helen Serras-Herman. 

I hope that I have inspired you to utilise some violet or purple gems in your lapidary and jewellery creations. But, should violet and purple gemstones not be in your personal favourite palette, don’t despair. Pantone’s seasonal colour picks always offer a wide array of complimentary colour shades to the ‘hero’ color, ranging from neutral to bright, pastel to deep, and metallic.

This article originally appeared in Gems&Jewellery Spring 2018/ Volume 27/ No.1 

Discover more about Helen Serras-Herman and Gem Art Center, here

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Cover Image: Purple Rivers. This pendant features a natural, almost geometric pattern diving the stone into purple charoite on the left and golden tinaksite on the right, 87.9 carats. the detachable 4-strand necklace comprises peach natural-colour cultured pearls and 'rose de France' amethyst beads. Image credit: Helen Serras-Herman.

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