November birthstone: Topaz

Ellen Barkin wearing JAR-designed earrings of Imperial topaz, rubies and diamonds (Christie's Images)

If you think of gemstones as a brand, the topaz image has been seriously tarnished over the years. It’s hard to remember sometimes that topaz is, among other things, a precious gem with a rich history.

One recent reminder were those now famous JAR-designed Imperial topaz earrings that Ellen Barkin sold at Christie’s in 2006. They resurfaced there in October, selling, once again, for nearly $700,000.

Most of us grew up seeing cheap citrine or glass labeled “topaz” as the November birthstone. Citrine is similar in color to the golden version of topaz but softer, less brilliant, and quite a bit cheaper. Citrine retails for about $20-70/carat, while golden topaz sells for about $190-700/carat.

Then there’s the ubiquitous and ever popular blue topaz. Somehow, finding out that its blue color was caused by radiation took some of the thrill out of it. Until recently, virtually all blue topaz sold in jewelry stores was irradiated, and some deeper blues were actually found to be radioactive by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Sterling silver ring with 15-carat blue topaz with blue and white diamonds designed by Judith Ripka (courtesy QVC)

In the U.S., it’s now required that all blue topaz be tested for radiation levels. Some topaz is also made blue by diffusion – that is, treated with chemicals, then slowly heated. (For more on gem treatments, read the 2010 edition of Antoinette Matlin’s buying guide for colored stones.)

Natural blue topaz does, in fact, exist and can be quite lovely. But treated blue topaz can also be pretty and is far more affordable than other blue gems, at $5-20/carat. If you like it, buy it. Heating, and even mild forms of diffusion, are common treatments with colored stones and accepted in the jewelry trade. But if you’re paying a premium for a natural stone, you might want to get that in writing.

Platinum earrings with pink topaz, morganites and diamonds (AGTA Spectrum Awards)

Judith Ripka’s blue topaz ring (above) is part of the collection QVC introduced in September, inspired by the gem collection at the Smithsonian Institution – in Ripka’s case, the museum’s Blue Heart Diamond.

Less familiar is the beautiful pink version of topaz, which can retail for more than $2,000/carat – pricier even than fine Imperial topaz. A stunning example: these Deco-style danglers (right), by Los Angeles designer Erica Courtney, which won first place in the bridal category at the 2010 AGTA Spectrum Awards.

White topaz is also making a splash lately, as an affordable substitute for diamonds. It shows up in QVC’s Smithsonian-inspired collection as well as Scott Mikolay’s Crown Collection, worn below by actress Brittany Snow.

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