On Rarest Gem’s Birthday
On 17 April 1834, Alexander II of Russia turned 16. He had received countless gifts: a collection of historical medals, Turkish swords, even Alexander Brullov's paintings. Yet, they were nothing compared to an unexpected gift handed by a famous Finnish chemist.
According to an official story, the very same morning Nils Nordenskiöld, superintendent of the Mining Board in Finland and a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, found a strange-coloured mineral in a trip to the Ural. He identified the dark-green stone as emerald at first, but not entirely pure. The scientist decided to continue his examinations and study the mineral later in the field. He put the sample in a pocket and realised it was there only in the evening. While looking at the specimen under candlelight, the mineralogist was astonished to see it turn raspberry-red. Further analysis confirmed Nordenskiöld had discovered a brand new type of mineral. Since Alexander Romanov, the heir to the throne, became of full age that day, Nordenskiöld named the stone 'alexandrite' in his honour.
This story is widely popular and often mentioned in publications on precious and ornamental stones. A considerable role in the popularisation of the story was played by Nikolai Leskov and his fictional work "Alexandrite". It is based on real-life events but, as often happens, was reinterpreted and exaggerated. The correct part is that the future Tsar did become the owner of the gem. He also believed it had miraculous power, so he made the stone his talisman.
There is also another version of the stone's discovery, which somewhat differs from the previous one. Some of Alexander II's biographers strongly doubted that Nordenskiöld could have found alexandrite on his own. The first person who got his hands on the mineral sample was probably Yakov Kokovin, descending from a family of jewellers and acting as a chief of the Yekaterinburg Lapidary Factory. In the early-19th century, all the noteworthy gems found in the Ural were first seen by him. As he decided he had encountered an unusual variety of emerald, Kokovin sent it over to St. Petersburg.
Therein the newly found sample was studied by Count Lev Perovskii, a mineralogist and collector. He, just like Kokovin did, noticed alexandrite's distinctive property - to change colour in artificial light compared to daylight. Perovskii suggested the name 'diaphanite' (from the Greek 'di' two and 'phan' to appear). However, his utmost desire was to ingratiate himself with the Imperial family. So, he made a last-minute change, named the specimen 'alexandrite', and presented it to tsarevitch Alexander on his birthday.
Perovskii, Minister of Internal Affairs, was not a professional geologist; therefore, a thorough study of the stone was conducted several years later by Nils Nordenskiöld. It was not until 1842 that a scientific paper providing the first-time description of alexandrite was published. This work's popularity ensured an unbreakable link between the Finnish researcher's name and the Tsar's amulet. Hence, Nordenskiöld's primary role in the proper study and examination of the mineral is undeniable.
Alexandrite is now considered one of the world's rarest precious minerals - only about 40 kg are mined per year. The biggest supplier is Brazil (93%), with Russia coming second (4%). Over 75% of extracted alexandrite are low-grade small-sized stones, whilst 7% are specimens of the highest quality and larger size. They are significantly more expensive than the smaller samples.
Alexandrite from Russia shows a dramatic colour change, which is why samples found in the Ural Mountains are traditionally valued much higher than any others. Faceted crystals coming as part of jewellery items may cost between $3,000 to $10,000 per carat. They often sell at a higher price than sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. Nonetheless, such jewels are extremely rare and are predominantly one-offs.
The good news is that there is a museum showcasing the best-ever alexandrite specimens. Under a decree of Catherine II, owners of mining enterprises and deposits were obliged to send the most outstanding samples of minerals, ores and factory products to the Mining Museum in St. Petersburg. The museum has since become home to the first extracted samples of alexandrite, which are among the world's largest.
Alexander II survived several assassination attempts. A legend says he always had an alexandrite ring on his finger to ward off any kind of disaster. On the day of his death, Alexander was unfortunate enough to have left the talisman in his bed-chamber. He received injuries incompatible with life, as a result of which he died in March 1881.
There is probably not much use in exaggerating the mystical power of the stone studied by the Finnish mineralogist. Still, for some strange and inexplicable reason, the Emperor of Russia had a deep affection for Finland. He initiated several successful economic and political reforms and elevated Finnish to a national language equal to Swedish. He re-convened the Diet of Finland and gave a start to drafting the first constitution. As a courtesy to Alexander II, a monument was erected in the centre of Helsinki. It has never been deconstructed - neither after Finland gaining independence nor even during the Winter War.