Is Red Beryl Really Red Emerald?

A rare gemstone needs a special name.

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The chatoyant inclusions of the 5.76-carat Starfire emerald are oriented as a demantoid horsetail. (David Rozendaal photo)

Story by Bob Jones

Birthstones have been a part of our social fabric for decades. The list of gems assigned to each month that was put together by the American Gem Society (www.americangemsociety.org) designates emerald, a variety of beryl, as the birthstone for May, so it seems appropriate that our May issue have an article on emerald. But the stone in question is not green, it’s red, and the issue under debate is whether red beryl can really be called “red emerald”?

Tradition has long referred to the green variety of beryl as emerald. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) called it by the Ancient Greek word smaragdos, which is translated as “green gem”. The Egyptians treasured it, and were mining it as early as 1500 BCE in the littoral zone between the Nile River and the Red Sea.

In 1893, Presbyterian researcher George Easton published his Illustrated Biblical Dictionary, in which he claims the actual meaning of smaragdos is “live coal”. Think about that. A live coal is certainly not green—it is red! So, what makes a green beryl an emerald?

This amazing specimen of red beryl holds more than 50 of the very rare red crystals mined by Marlow Cropper at the Ruby Violet Claims in Utah. (Bob Jones photo)

First of all, each color variety of gem beryl is given a special name. All the gem beryls owe their color to impurities that act as chromophores, replacing the element aluminum in beryl’s chemical formula, Be3Al2(SiO3)6. The designations 2+ and 3+ refer to the degree of oxidation, or loss of oxygen atoms, in a chemical compound.

Light-blue aquamarine gets its color from the electrons of the Fe2+ form of the transition metal element iron. The red wavelengths of light entering the crystal excite the iron electrons, causing them to shift. This makes the complementary blue wavelengths more dominant, and we see the fine blue color. The darker shade of blue in maxixe is caused by the chromophore Fe3+.

Greenish-yellow heliodor and golden-yellow golden beryl get their lovely color when oxygen and iron (Fe2+ or Fe3+ respectively) are present in trace amounts. These trace elements use light energy to shift or transfer back and forth, and in so doing, cause the yellow to orange wavelengths of light to become visibly dominant.

Pink morganite was named in honor of J.P. Morgan, a wealthy banker who was an avid collector of fine gems. The lovely pink shade is due to a trace of the transition metal element manganese, in the form Mn2+. The octahedral arrangement of the manganese determines the amount of energy these electrons need to shift. As light enters a pink beryl crystal, enough of the blue wavelengths are absorbed for the manganese electrons to shift, allowing some red wavelengths energies to reflect.

Even colorless goshenite, named after its type locality, Goshen, Massachusetts, contains trace impurities that inhibit color.

This brings us to the green variety of beryl we call emerald, a rare and valuable gem. Tradition insists that green beryl is an emerald only when the color of the crystal is caused by a trace amount of the transition metal element chromium (Cr3+) acting as a chromophore in the atomic structure. In rare cases, emerald’s chromophore impurity is a trace of vanadium.

This leaves us with red beryl to explain. This variety gets its fine red color from the manganese form Mn3+. This difference in the oxidation state is the reason for the difference in color between red beryl and pink morganite. Therefore, referring to these two varieties by the same name, morganite, is not appropriate.

While blue, green, yellow and varicolor beryl is found all over the world, gem-quality red beryl occurs only in the Ruby Violet Claims in the Wah Wah Mountains of Utah. These crystals are extremely limited in size, and rarely can be cut into stones over 5 carats. Other colored gem beryl crystals have been found in enormous crystal sizes, weighing hundreds of carats, and in a great number of locations. When you consider that most gem beryl varieties have special names, don’t you think gem red beryl should be so honored?

Why don’t we call it “utahite”, since it is found only in that state? Why don’t we call it “wahwahite” after the mountains in which it is found? Unfortunately, these names fail to stir the imagination of gem lovers. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to recognize red beryl as a very special beryl gem and call it “red emerald”? It is actually rarer than green emerald or any other gem beryl!

A choice specimen of red beryl exhibits a fine cluster of richly colored crystals. (Bob Jones photo)

Let’s examine the argument for using the term “red emerald”. I became aware of the effort to rename the gem when I attended the Dallas Mineral Symposium in August 2016. I was approached by a young fellow named Seth Rozendaal, who handed me a delightfully illustrated book entitled The Red Emerald Suite Treasure.

The book, only 15 pages long, was generously illustrated with color photographs of the finest red beryl jewelry I’ve ever seen. Seth, in his quest to rename the red beryl of Utah, had this jewelry professionally designed and made to highlight the marvelous gem. As we chatted, I realized Seth’s dedication to making a concerted effort to study the occurrences of red beryl in Utah. He had acquired a considerable cache of the red gemstones, from which the jewelry pictured in the book was made.

My first impression regarding Seth’s mission was that it was an impossible task, since tradition concerning the chemical composition and color of emerald was so firmly entrenched. But what if tradition were not enough to limit our thinking? Why can’t red beryl have a special name? I certainly can’t make such a change in the nomenclature, but I can raise the question!

Seth’s arguments in support of the term “red emerald” for Utah beryl crystals are quite rational, even persuasive. Red beryl of gem quality and in significant quantity has only been known for a few decades, so it has not developed any traditions. Its small crystal size and very limited supply has not attracted the same attention that other gem beryl enjoys. Given time, it should!

Only 0.5% of all gems reach the half-carat sizes seen in this bracelet from the Red Emerald Suite Treasure.
(David Rozendaal photo)

In Asia, it is paired with green emerald to represent the yin yang of Chinese philosophy. This pairing lends credence to the idea of the name “emerald” being applied to both red and green beryl.

Perhaps the gem industry ought to run some sort of opinion survey or contest to come up with a special name for Utah’s red beryl, and consider “red emerald” as one possibility. Seth’s justification for the change is well expressed: “[W]e have not yet invented another title which resonates more resoundingly within the soul of human history to the awesome scarcity and prestige of this breathtaking gemstone.” Surely, the best argument for honoring these rare red beryl crystals with the name “red emerald” lies in the beautifully created Red Emerald Suite Treasure jewelry.

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