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Learning Library

Zircon Gemstone

Zircon occurs in a wide spectrum of colours including yellow-golden, red, brown, blue and  green.  For  many  years,  the  most  popular  was the colourless variety which looks more like a Diamond than any other natural stone due to its  luminosity and dispersion. Some gem collectors believe that Zircon is the most brilliant natural gem that exists and it has been set into jewellery  since antiquity. Historically the gem was known as Hyacinth, after Pliny the Elder described the gem’s  colour  as  similar  to  that  of  the  flower. Its  modern  name  Zircon  is  said  to  have  been derived  from  either  the  Persian  language, simply meaning “golden coloured” or from the Arabic word for red, “zarkun”.  As one of the  oldest gems to be set into jewellery, it may not be surprising that it has been known by many different names in the past. With its Diamond- like appearance, for a period it was known by  many in the trade as the Matara Diamond. This  name was soon abandoned, however, as it was  often fraudulently sold as a real Diamond. Blue Zircons  have  previously  been  referred  to  as  Starlight and many on the market achieve their  colour through heat treatment. Yellow Zircon,  straw-like  in  colour,  was  known  as  Jargon,  and Red Zircon was known as Jacinth (this is  how it is recorded in the Bible). Today, life is a  little simpler and we tend to describe different  coloured Zircons by simply prefixing them with  their hue (e.g. Blue Zircon, Yellow Zircon etc).

One of the reasons the gem has such amazing  brilliance  is  that  it  is  doubly  refractive  (also  known  as  birefringence).  As  light  enters  the  gem, it splits in two and effectively the facets on  the pavilion act like a wall of mirrors, sending  its  double  rays  in  different  directions.  When  you combine this with the fact that it has an  adamantine lustre, you begin to realise why it is often confused with Diamonds.

Zircon is said to be the oldest gem on earth and  is far older than even the most ancient Diamond!  In  1984,  Dr  Simon  Wilde  (a  university  professor) discovered a sparkling Zircon while  searching for gold in the Jack Hills of Western  Australia. Four years later Wilde met up with  another  professor,  John  Valley,  and  together  they performed a series of scientific tests on  the Zircon and were able to ascertain that it was  an incredible 4.27 billion years old! Later they  tested  other  Zircons  from  Wilde’s  collection;  using  a  £1.5  million  spectrometer,  they  were  amazed to find one specimen that was formed  4.4 billion years ago. This result contradicted other scientists’ research, who previously did  not  believe  that  Earth  was  first  formed  from  a dense body of gas and dust 4.4 billion years  ago.  Thus,  after  Valley  and  Wilde’s  Zircon  discovery, scientists now believe the earth was  formed around 4.5 billion years ago, making  Zircon the oldest gemstone on the planet. 

By  studying  the  construction  of  the  gem,  scientists have been able to gain a far better  understanding of how the Earth was actually  created. It indicates that in its early stages, Earth  was far cooler than it was initially believed to  be, lacking the meteorite onslaught geologists  had previously imagined (how clever to be able to tell all that from a gemstone).

In  the  Middle  Ages,  Zircon  was  believed  to  induce sleep, and encourage honour and wisdom.  It was said to bring prosperity to its owner and  thought to drive away plagues and evil spirits.  It was also believed to increase ingenuity, glory  and wealth and would prevent travel-sickness.  During the Black Death it was also worn as a  protective talisman.

Purely  because  of  its  similarity  in  name  to  Cubic  Zirconia,  today  this  most  glorious  and  ancient,  genuine  gemstone  often  wrongly  gets  confused with the man-made Diamond look-a- like. With a hardness of 7.5 on the Mohs Scale,  Zircon  perfectly  fits  the  description  of  a  top  quality gem: it is rare, extremely beautiful and  very durable. The gem is often rich in the metal “zirconium”, which is a metal now famous for its use in nuclear reactors and its name suggests it is  derived from the gemstone. Zircon is currently mined in such countries as Cambodia, Australia,  India and Brazil.

One last thought on Zircon; next time you are wearing a piece of Zircon and its stunning sparkle or dispersion catches someone’s eye, be sure to  pass on the news that you are in possession of a piece of history. Right there on your finger is  a crystal that possibly started its journey at the same time as Earth first started to spin.

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A Blue Zircon bracelet from the Tookalon collection