An Art Deco turquoise and diamond brooch

Art Deco Turquoise and Diamond Brooch
Christies Sale 7804
10 December 2012
London, South Kensington

Turquoise was mistakenly named as such (‘Turquoise’ means Turkey) because the Europeans of the 16th century thought that Turkey was where this lovely blue-green stone came from.  However, it only passed through Turkey on its way from Iran.

Turquoise was particularly prized during the Victorian era.  The sky blue variety was especially valued and it was considered a perfect stone for women of all ages, but especially younger women.  Turquoise was valued more highly than we value it today and therefore it was usually set with gold and often other precious materials, including diamonds.  The Georgians also loved it and tended to mix it with other gems, such as pearls. However, the use of turquoise was really at its height from the mid 1800s through to the early part of the 1900s, particularly in connection with Egyptian revival. It was nearly always cabochon cut; occasionally it was carved, faceted or worn as nuggets.


Enamelled gold brooch, set with a ruby, cabochon garnets, turquoises and pearls, England,1848
V&A Museum

The bright blue colour reminded Victorians of forget-me-nots, which signified true love in the language of flowers. Turquoise was a particularly popular gift for bridesmaids, often in the form of doves. In 1840, Queen Victoria gave her twelve bridesmaids turquoise brooches in the shape of eagles (This is according to the V&A Museum, although I have also seen reports that she in fact gave them portraits of herself framed in turquoise). Turquoise was traditionally believed to ward off danger.


Christie’s Sale 5388
Important Jewels
13 June 2012
London, King Street

Nowadays, turquoise is nearly always set in silver rather than gold. The kind of turquoise we see today that is webbed with matrix and that we associate with the American South-West was never used in previous eras in Europe; rather you only see pieces used with completely flawless, smooth color.  Turquoise is highly porous and today is treated to avoid the absorption of oils and other materials.  However, in the Victorian era it was never treated and therefore it is not unusual to see pieces which have changed color throughout the same piece, some stones remaining a sky blue, whilst others have turned a deeper green.  To me, this natural variation that comes with time adds character and depth to a piece and is superior to today’s more sterile and bland interpretation of the stone.

There are also nowadays a number of synthetic and imitation turquoises around which further give turquoise the reputation for being less than the beautiful and precious material it truly is.  It is important to note that many antique pieces appear to contain turquoise, but on closer inspection turn out to actually have turquoise colored glass.  Amazonite can also be a stone mistaken for turquoise (on close inspection Amazonite shows a mottling of the surface not seen in turquoise).  A gemologist can tell if it is synthetic turquoise or not using magnification; this is not generally a concern in antique pieces, however, as the first truly synthetic turquoise was not created until the 1970s, although there have always been turquoise imitations.

Persian quality turquoise
(Photo by ICA/Bart Curren)

Turquoise and gold earrings, circa 1900

Gold and turquoise ring, circa 1900


Gold and turqoise earrings, England circa 1830.
V&A Museum


Necklace, England, circa 1835-1840
Silver and gold, pavé-set with turquoises, with rubies, pearls and brilliant-cut diamonds
Serpent motifs were often set with turquoise

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” Look, here it is, the prophetic Russian stone! O crafty Siberian. It was always green as hope and only toward evening was it suffused with blood. It was that way from the beginning of the world, but it concealed itself for a long time, lay hidden in the earth, and permitted itself to be found only on the day when Tsar Alexander was declared of age, when a great sorcerer had come to Siberia to find the stone, a magician.”    Leskov, Nikolai Semyonovich (1884), “Alexandrite”

Today, I’d like to share just a little about one of my favorite stones of all time, “Alexandrite.”  This amazing color-changing gem has a most fascinating history.  It was discovered in Russia around the time that Tsar Alexander II was celebrating his 16th birthday in 1834 and it was named after him.  This gem came to be intrinsically tied in with Russia’s dramatic history and fascinated the Russian aristocracy and future generations.  It was also said to be the favorite gem of  Tsarina Alexandra. Her wistful beauty and the story of her tragic life cannot fail to move anyone.


Tsarina Alexandra

In 1891, The Ladies’ Home Journal wrote: “… Alexandrite appears to be in the ascendancy jewel comes from Siberia, and is of a beautiful dark green transparent color, which under any artificial light changes to that of pigeon blood ruby.  The Alexandrite is cut like a diamond and is being used by the leading jewelers for lace pins, bracelets, and other ornaments.”

To this day, Alexandrite is associated with duality, hope and sadness, pain and pleasure, loss and life, tears and laughter.  This is truly a mystical and fascinating stone and it definitely appeals to those with a literary or artistic sensibility.  Looking at genuine Alexandrite can evoke strong emotion in a sensitive person.


Christie’s sale number 1350, 15 November 2007
Set with a square-shaped alexandrite to the lavender enamel tapered gold band, circa 1890, ring size 8, with St Petersburg assay mark for 22 carat gold (1908-1917)

For more info see here.

In daylight, Alexandrite is green or blueish green (symbolizing ‘hope’) changing to red or purple or lavender (symbolizing ‘blood’).  Natural Alexandrite does not come in any other colors than this (if it is yellow or brown it is probably color change crysoberyl which is often sold as Alexandrite). The closer the green is to emerald and the closer the red is to ruby, the more valuable the stone. It is extremely rare to find a stone which changes to red however, normally the color is purple or lavender. Naturally mined Alexandrite is rare and valuable and very seldom comes in large carats.  Nearly all of the Alexandrite you see today in contemporary jewelry is lab created.  I personally would only look for something in a vintage setting with small stones as a big stone is almost certainly lab created (if it is natural it should command a very high price!)  But only a trained and trusted gemologist can tell you for certain.


Here is a natural Alexandrite specimen from the Ural mountains. This one is a spectacular true green and lavender.


A naturally mined Alexandrite and 9 ct English ring from my personal collection. Judging by the Art Deco setting, I would place this ring from 1920 to 1940. It was hard to capture the colors with my camera, but the stones change subtly from dark green to dark purple in daylight.

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