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Garnet – Its Not Just Red, It’s A Many-Colored Gem
When most people think of garnet, they think of a dark red gemstone, but garnet is actually a whole series of different gemstones. Beyond the well-known deep reds, garnet can be purchased in cinnamon to tangerine shades of orange, light yellow, deep purple, grass greens, and soft lavender-pinks. Garnets are all colors and more. Garnets are a closely related group of different gemstones that are available in almost every color. There are garnets that change color in different light, translucent green garnets that look like jade, and garnets with stars. Some types of garnet have been mined for thousands of years, and some garnet varieties have only been discovered in the last few decades. Garnets are fairly hard and durable gemstones that are ideal for jewelry use, except for demantoid, which is a bit softer and requires more protection. Because some garnets are cheap and have been used in the past for cheap jewelry, garnet is a gemstone that doesn’t seem to get “honored.” This is rapidly changing in light of the many new varieties of attractive colors now available in garnet gemstones.
Garnet has been used as a decoration for over 5,000 years. Garnet beads have been found in Egyptian excavations that date back to 3200 BC. Aaron’s breastplate, worn around 2,000 BC, is said to contain garnets. Asians in the 4th century BC used garnet to make their seals. Frequently garnets were carved in cameos and intaglios and worn in rings. Carbuncle is an old term that usually refers to cabochon garnet. The back of the cab was hollowed out to create a brighter garnet and make it more transparent. The ancient world is full of praise for the carbuncle, the glowing red coal of the gem we now know as garnet. The name garnet is probably derived from pomegranate. Many antique pieces of garnet jewelry are studded with tiny red stones that look like clusters of pomegranate seeds!
There are 20 different species in the garnet group of minerals. The most commonly recognized are pyrope, almondite, spesertite, grossular, and andradite. The chemical formula of garnet is complex and all species have slightly different combinations of elements. During crystallization some elements are interchanged to form a mixed garnet of two or more different species. Examples of this type of intergrowth are Pyrope-Almandite, Almandite-Spessartite and Pyrope-Spessartite. Garnet has a hardness of 6.5-7.5 and is an excellent choice for jewelry. Garnet crystals form in a cubic system, typically a 12-sided crystal or dodecahedron. They are available in all colors except pure blue. One problem with some types of garnet comes from their deep saturated color. In many types of garnet, especially pyrope and some almandines, large cut gems will be too dark to reflect light and the stone will appear black. This fact must be taken into consideration when purchasing a large deep colored garnet. In general, garnet is not treated to change its color like many other gemstones. Here is a brief description of some well-known gemstone varieties of garnet gemstones:
Almandine is probably the most common of the garnet family, and is a deep red to reddish-brown stone when people think of garnet. It is a cheap stone, but new mines in East Africa are producing almandine in shades of red to red-orange without brown. Major sources of almandine are Madagascar, India and Sri Lanka. Almandine is sometimes available in larger sizes and most garnet sculptures are made in almandine. Entire cups or vases are made from single crystals. Because of the depth of color and saturation, some faceted gems cut too large from this deeply colored material will not sparkle because they are too dark to reflect light.
Rhodolite is a name used to describe a beautiful pink, purple or lavender red garnet that is a mixture of almondite and pyrope. The name was first used in the late 1800s to describe a new rhododendron shade of garnet found in North Carolina. In general, rhodolite garnets are not as dark as common pyrope or almandine garnets. Most rhodolites seen today are of African origin and are bright, transparent gemstones. These are probably the most popular garnets seen in fine jewelry today. Common shades of rhodolite include red stone, purplish red, and the popular raspberry rhodolite, a rich red-purple with bright lavender highlights. Rhodolite garnet is mined in Africa, India and Sri Lanka. Brazil is producing dark purple rhodolite, sometimes called grape garnet, because its consistency resembles grape jam in color.
Tsavorite is the most desirable of all garnets, with an amazing purity and intensity of its beautiful green color. Until the discovery of Tsavorite in the late 1960s, there was no gem other than emerald that could give the gem buyer such a rich, dark green color. This magnificent green garnet has been in high demand for jewelry since its discovery, and for good reason: it is harder than emerald, more durable in jewelry, less expensive than emerald, more brilliant than emerald, and much rarer than emerald. In short, it is (by all accounts) a good gem, but it lacks the magic and antiquity of the “emerald” name. For this reason it is much less known, much less sought after, and therefore much less expensive than emeralds of comparable color. However, due to its beauty, tsavarite is the most expensive of the garnet family. It is actually grossular, having a green colored appearance due to the presence of trace amounts of metallic vanadium.
Tsavorite was first discovered in Tanzania and Kenya; The name “Tsavorite” is actually a trade name coined by Tiffany & Co. in reference to the Tsavo National Park in Kenya (located near the Tsavorite area). The geology of Tsavorite is such that supply is extremely scarce. The heating and folding of the rock billions of years ago that formed tsavorite also fractured most of the crystals. It is extremely rare to find tsavorite larger than five carats, and most facet stones are less than two carats. Many deposits of Tsavorite are small and unpredictable: seams suddenly narrow and disappear, not indicating where to look next. Most of the rough terrain is highly weathered in places (due to centuries of earth movement), which accounts for the rarity of large, clear stones.
There are perhaps 40 different areas where Tsavorite has been mined but only four mining operations are still producing on a commercial scale. The Scorpion Mine in southeastern Kenya is now producing from a tunnel sunk more than 200 feet. Other major producers in the area have extensive open-cast operations up to a depth of 40 feet from which large quantities of tsavarite have been recovered. Unfortunately, the owners are unable to continue mining in this manner and have started underground mining. Recently, a new tsavorite-producing area was discovered in Lokirima, about a thousand kilometers northwest of the previously known localities. Although the area produces very little, it is promising that the possibility of discovering tsavorite exists over a wider area than previously thought.
Tsavorite garnet has tripled in price since its introduction to the market, but at current price levels it still sells for a tenth or less of the price of emeralds of comparable quality. Stones over 2 carats are extremely rare and 5+ carat gems are virtual museum pieces.
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