Sometimes, the story behind a gemstone is rather straightforward and less than interesting. "So and so found this new thing and sent it to GIA or Gübelin or whoever to be tested, and they determined it was a new species or a new variety of an old species. It went on to be set in jewelry occasionally."
This is not one of those stories. This story is an old-fashioned Rise and Fall Of with a little Up from the Ashes thrown in. This gemstone had a rise to prominence to which most never come close. It involves some pretty major players, too, both in the world’s eye and in that of the jewelry industry, the statures of which rarely come together in these kinds of things.
The 19th Century was a banner time period for gem discovery and production in Russia. The Ural Mountains churned out quality gems time after time. Emeralds were discovered in 1831 and quickly became a worldwide commercial source for the next hundred years. Alexandrite was identified for the first time in 1842 and became the epitome of what it meant to be a color-change gem.
Anyone who has ever been to St. Petersburg, Russia, and seen the Winter Palace knows that green was a very important color to the Romanov family. It’s no wonder then, when the Ural Mountains produced gems like emerald and alexandrite, they were snatched up into fame across Imperial Russia.
Sometime in the first half of the 1800s, Russian miners discovered green pebbles in alluvial deposits around Ekaterinburg. No one paid them much attention because many had brownish or yellowish tinges to them. Some were fine green, but they were few and far between and probably fell through the cracks of the system. These stones were taken and faceted on occasion and dubbed “Uralian chrysolite:” a historically generic name of local designation for any gemstone of yellowish-green or greenish-yellow.
“Chrysolite” had been applied to peridot, topaz, yellow sapphire, chrysoberyl, and countless others before gaining their respective renown. It was a way to name ambiguous gemstones of little perceived importance. With emerald- and alexandrite-fever still sweeping Imperial Russia, it was like saying to those newly unearthed gems, “I’m not quite sure what to do with you because I like emerald and alexandrite more, but you’re pretty, and I like you, so I don’t want to just toss you aside. Yet.”
And so these sparkly bits languished in anonymity and underappreciation for years, finding their way into pieces of jewelry or onto a collector’s shelf every now and then.
Recognition at Last
Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld
Then one day in 1849, a man was sifting through a little pile of Uralian chrysolite on his desk in Helsingfors (modern day Helsinki). Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld, of fame for first identifying alexandrite as a new mineral, was likely the most competent and respected mineralogist of his time. He sat, pondering the extraordinary dispersion and diamond-like luster of the faceted gems before him. As he conducted the tests necessary to make a positive identification, he came to the conclusion that these gems were members of a previously unidentified and singularly beautiful species of garnet.
It would be twenty years before the name “andradite” was bestowed upon the species as a whole by an American, but in 1854, Nordenskiöld opted to dub this particular variety demantoid: taken from the Dutch/German word for “diamond” in reference to this garnet’s dazzling optical properties.
The Big Break
Peter Carl Fabergé
As more and more fine green demantoids were recovered, the higher-ups in Russia began to take notice. Finally, towards the end of the 1800s, Peter Carl Fabergé, court jeweler to the Czars and one of the greatest goldsmiths and jewelry designers in history, became enthralled by the fiery green stones coming from Ekaterinburg. When demantoids started appearing on the famed Fabergé Eggs Czar Nicholas II gifted every year to his mother and wife, appreciation for demantoid quickly spread worldwide. Check out the 1913 Winter Egg.
The strength of color and extraordinary displays of fire and luster captured the hearts of the most famous jewelers of the world. Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels made frequent use of demantoid for its striking green and sparkle, even in small sizes. Tiffany & Co. was the most prolific, however, as their buyer, one George Frederick Kunz, adored demantoid like few others.
And it is there the story takes a turn.
A Brush with Obscurity
The turn of the 20th Century saw the output of the Russian demantoid mines begin to dwindle until barely any new production came to light. There were still considerable stores of rough, but those behind the scenes knew it was only a matter of time before even that was exhausted.
When World War I broke out in 1914, luxury items fell by the wayside across Europe. Then the Russian Revolution put a complete and utter halt to confirmed production of Russian demantoid. Although rumors of clandestine mining circulated throughout the 20th Century, Russian demantoid ultimately became so scarce and unattainable that it was, for all intents and purposes, relegated to private collections and museum displays.
Re-enter Dr. Kunz.
Dr. George Kunz
Shortly before 1900, Dr. Kunz, a leading pioneer of modern gemology, was on a mission in the Urals. Few people know that J.P. Morgan, one of the most powerful financiers at the turn of the 20th Century, was an avid gem collector and enthusiast. As the story goes, Morgan and his mustache funded Kunz’s trip to buy up all of the Russian demantoid rough he could get his pointy-bearded hands on and bring it back to the United States.
And so, while the rest of the world slowly forgot about demantoid, Tiffany & Co. maintained a consistent output of jewelry featuring the vibrant green garnet with the material purchased by Kunz and Morgan, thus preventing demantoid from becoming a relic of the past.
Almost a century later, new deposits of demantoid near to the original Ekaterinburg deposits were confirmed as being worked. The production is limited due to the type of mining. The original deposits were alluvial, and one could simply scoop them off the bottom of a stream in the early days. At these most recent mines, Korkordino in the 1990s and Klodovka after 2000, the rough gems must be dug out of hard rock using hand tools.
The trade-off, though, is that these new finds are producing stones of unprecedented size, while maintaining the world-renowned color for which Russian demantoid is known. Fine demantoids as finished gems over one carat were historically rare, and the line for stones that went into museums was about five carats. But the new production, slow as it may be, is presenting rough that will readily cut to finished gems north of two and even three carats.