If you had visited the Rio de Janeiro offices of gem dealer Paul Heubert in mid 1982, chances are you would have seen several pieces of precious topaz taped to the sun-drenched windows. “You didn’t dare buy polished topaz then without subjecting it to fade-testing,” says Heubert, president of Inter-Ocean Trade Co., New York. “That was when the topaz irradiation scare was at its height. And the best way to test for irradiation was to let stones sit for a couple of hours in the very intense Brazilian sun.”
Today Heubert’s office windows are once again bare, large by because the irradiated topaz scare has subsided. But, if nothing else, the precious topaz scare of 1982-83 provides an important cautionary tale about the dangers of indiscriminate, undisclosed gemstone treatment.
During the scare, topaz prices dropped at least 50% below record highs reached in 1981 when topaz, much of it second-rate, briefly became the leading Brazilian investment gem. That year, also, many dealers discovered irradiation as a means to pump up supplies of the gem’s much-prized deep orange and reddish-orange colors.
Unfortunately, the fine colors produced by irradiation (as opposed to heating, a gem enhancement technique used for topaz whose results are permanent) tended to fade, a fact which many Brazilians who sold this treated material failed to disclose. To make things worse, importers here feared these gems might pose a health hazard. Meanwhile, investor demand for topaz petered out.
The three-way collision between investor drop out, importer paranoia and market glut in late 1981 “left Brazilian dealers burnt far worse than their stones,” says Richard Postrel, Gem Source Ltd., Bay Harbor, Fla. “Topaz suddenly became the most stigmatized Brazilian gem. No one trusted the stone or the Brazilians who sold it.”
Today import distrust of topaz is largely a thing of the past. Once-shaky prices have regained upward momentum, especially for pink and pinkish stones which have shared heartily in the current fashion vogue of pink gems.
A Synonym for Yellow
Topaz is perhaps the most misused name in the gem world, often confused with a good many other yellow/golden/brown species from golden sapphire to citrine. The confusion is deepest with citrine, a far more common and less expensive golden quartz whose finest color is a reddish-brown madeira. Very often, too, pale brownish-yellow stones called smoky quartz are sold as “smoky topaz.” Unfortunately, these confusions are perpetuated by many jewelers—sometimes on the advice of suppliers who themselves don’t know any better. A simple lesson in Portuguese, the language of Brazil, should be enough to end the confusion.
In Brazil, dealers use the catch-all term “topazio,” meaning yellow, to describe almost any gem which is basically yellow. In most cases where the term “topazio” is used by itself, it is understood the gem being referred to is citrine or, perhaps, a quartz family relative. Often dealers will specify a mining locality such as Rio Grande to make it clear from which area the citrine comes. To distinguish precious topaz from quartz, dealers use the phrase “topazio imperial.” That’s why precious topaz is so often called “imperial topaz” in this country. It is quite simply a literal translation of the Portuguese phrase used to separate topaz from quartz.
Since the introduction of the phrase “imperial topaz” into this country, however, the term has become more precise, less broad, implying, as the word “imperial” can’t help but do, finer grades and greater cost. But just what are the finer grades of a gem that runs a wide color range from yellow and brown through orange, pink and red—even, occasionaly, lavender and violet—to blue? Some history, courtesy of Postrel, may help to clarify the meaning of the term “imperial,” as opposed to “precious” topaz.
The original derivation of the term “imperial” stems from the discovery of pink topaz in Russia during the 19th century. The gem was instantly so coveted that ownership was restricted to the Czar, his family and those to whom he gave it as a gift. Hence the term “imperial.” For many years after it was coined, the term became generic for all topaz. But gradually dealers confined its meaning to a certain range of rich colors and saturate color intensities.
Today it is conceded that the term “imperial” refers to stones with sherry-red, deep pink and reddish-orange colors and generally excludes less intense but still beautiful peach-orange and medium-golden hues. These latter colors are considered “precious.” As stones become progressively yellower and browner, they become mere topaz.
The Current Market
At present, manufacturers are using smaller well-cut, eye-clean topaz, generally between 3 and 6 carats, costing, for the most part between $75 and $300 per carat. For this, don’t expect true imperial topaz with its fiery, reddish-orange color but do expect golden to peachy colors with pink, secondary. Manufacturer and jeweler demand tapers off sharply over 10 carats, although the action has picked up somewhat. On the whole, the world is over. Prices for better-to-fine grades have rebounded most 40% to 50% since the topaz market touched bottom in 1983.
One contributing factor to the topaz turnaround has been the popularity of pink as a fashion color in the past few years and the insatiable demand for pink gems in jewelry. The rush for pink has sent New York wholesale prices to topaz sizes very fine to top-grade orange-red to sherry-red topaz in for 3 to 6 carats to anywhere from $350 to $600 per carat.
This surge of events could be a big break for topaz. While topaz does not take to irradiation as far as producing permanent pink and orange colors, many orange stones with a strong pink color can be made all-pink using very low levels of heat. Although this color enhancement technique has been used for decades, it has become the focus of heightened interest as dealers experiment with it on inexpensive slightly pinkish-orange to salmon-color stones.
So far, this technique has not proved a miracle worker. Dealers who have tried the method say that the outcome of heating depends on two factors: the overall color intensity of the original stone as much as the amount of pink in it. If not sufficiently saturate in color to begin with, heat will, at best, remove the orange, leaving a light to pleasantly permanent all-pink end color. To make rich-color pink stones, you need rich-color pinkish-orange stones. Alas, the deep-color stones needed to make such pinks are too cost-far for dealers to take their chances with stones that are highly colored and lighter.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 26.53-carat precious topaz shown in the header image is courtesy of Jungle Gems, New York.