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Ratanakiri Zircon

"White or colourless Zircons are used in lieu of Diamonds by wealthy natives in Ceylon."
A. H. Church, Precious Stones (1905)

Famous for Angkor Wat (pictured), Cambodia is also the worldÂ’s premier source for Blue

 

Famous for Angkor Wat (pictured), Cambodia is also the world's premier source for Blue
'Ratanakiri' Zircon
Before I begin my take on this gem, I've got a bit of a confession. Ratanakiri 'Blue' Zircon is one of my favourite gemstones. Apart from being one of December's birthstones (my birth month), Ratanakiri Zircon has a uniquely attractive blue colour that you won't find exactly in any other blue gemstone. Sure, other blue gems can come close (or perhaps Blue Zircon comes close to them), but either way, for me this gem has a certain unexplainable, 'je ne sais quoi'. Another gemstone writer, Yasukazu Suwa agrees with this view, describing its colour as possessing "a character that is not seen elsewhere, even in Sapphire or Aquamarine". He continues, adding: "If a fancy Blue Diamond showed this colour, it might exceed $80,000 for a 1 carat stone" (2001). For most of us, this is well outside our gemstone budget, so thankfully Blue Zircon is far more affordable.

Ratanakiri Zircon is a commercial name for Blue Zircon from Cambodia or more specifically, Blue Zircon from Ratanakiri, a Cambodian deposit noted for yielding some of the world's finest specimens. Cambodia is generally regarded as the world's premiere source for this gemstone and its other Zircon deposit is located at Preah Vihear, about 100 kilometres north of the famous Angkor Wat. But in my mind, Ratanakiri is 'the place' for Blue Zircon. Out of the way and exceptionally beautiful, 'Ratanakiri' means 'gemstone mountain' in Khmer. Ostensibly named after the element 'zirconium' present in its chemical composition, the gem name 'Zircon' has two possible etymologies; one is the Arabic 'zarkun' (red), another is the Persian words 'zar' (gold) and 'gun' (colour). However, don't be confused by the colours indicated by its word origins. Zircon comes in an array of colours, including blue, champagne, coffee, cognac, golden, green, honey, orange, red, white (colourless) and yellow. It also has an assortment of historical and commercial names, which at times can get pretty confusing. Jargon is pale yellow; Jacinth is red; Hyacinth is yellowish-red (or perhaps even blue); Matara Diamond or Ceylon Diamond is white (more on this colour shortly); Starlite or Siam Zircon is blue; and Ligure is apparently generic.

Ratanakiri Zircon 9K White Gold Ring

Ratanakiri Zircon 9K White Gold Ring
 
A gemstone since antiquity, Zircon has been found in some of the world's oldest archaeological sites, which is no surprise given the mineral's durability. As mentioned previously in 'A Gemstone's Journey' (Chapter 1), a tiny mineral fragment of Zircon discovered in Western Australia is the earth's oldest known object.

Zircon is rich in history and legend, appearing in several ancient texts, including the bible and the Hindu poem of the mythical Kapla Tree, which was bejewelled with leaves of Zircon. Some sources mention a Jewish legend that names the angel Zircon as the guardian appointed to watch over Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (given how this played out, it must have been a thankless task). Called by its ancient names, Ligure and Jacinth, Zircon gets several mentions in the bible. Firstly, as one of the 'stones of fire' (Ezekiel 28:13-16) that was given to Moses and set in the breastplate of Aaron (Exodus 28:15-30) and secondly, as one of the 12 gemstones set in the foundations of the city walls of Jerusalem (Revelations 21:19). Andreas, the Bishop of Caesurae, who wrote in the late 10th century, was one of the earliest writers to link the apostles with the 12 gems of Jerusalem. He associated Jacinth (Zircon) with the Apostle Simon. According to its mythology, Zircon represents purity and innocence. Like so many other gems whose changes in their colours or lustre are said to be indicative of their wearer's mood, health or fate, Zircon's loss of lustre apparently means danger is looming.

As a jewellery gemstone, Zircon has enjoyed several peaks in popularity. In 16th-century Europe, Italian jewellers featured Zircon and later it was also used in Victorian jewellery, but it wasn't until the 'roaring twenties' that Blue Zircon got its first taste of modern popularity.

Zircon & Diamond 9K Yellow Gold Ring

 

Zircon & Diamond 9K Yellow Gold Ring
Ratanakiri Zircon comes in unique blues, often due to greenish tints, and is typically eye-clean (no visible inclusions when the gem is examined six inches from the naked eye), although you can expect some inclusions under magnification. As Ratanakiri Zircon's transparency can decrease in the darker tones, gems with medium to light colours are generally preferred. This will maintain the gem's beauty by affording visibility to its other optical attributes. Zircon is strongly doubly refractive, which means light splits into two rays as it passes through the gem. This is immediately visible, even to the untrained eye, as a doubling of the facets, although this is somewhat dependant on the angle of observation. More pronounced in thicker gemstones, double refractivity does not make the gem more brilliant per se, but often results in beautiful sparkling mosaic patterns and optical depth. Other key attributes of Zircon are its beautiful Diamond-like sparkle, brilliance, fire and lustre. In order to maximise these optical properties, Ratanakiri Zircon needs to be carefully cut. Thankfully, well cut Blue Zircons are usually available. While some sources maintain that round cuts are most commonly seen, in my experience, all the classic shapes and cuts are available, including emerald, heart, marquise, oval and pear, as well as rounds. Although it is mined in Cambodia, most Ratanakiri Zircon, as well as Zircon from Nigeria and Tanzania, is cut in my adopted hometown of Chanthaburi, Thailand. At present, this town is the only primary source for finished Zircon, with gems over 1 carat increasing in rarity, availability and price. Another source for Zircon is the alluvial (sedimentary) deposits of Sri Lanka. During my years of living in Chanthaburi, I have heard the odd 'rumour' that Zircon is still mined in Thailand, but I have yet to find any hard evidence to support this.

Its Diamond-like characteristics, along with its versatile colours continues to make Zircon one of the most desirable gemstones for those clever enough to appreciate the differences between this genuine gem and a similar sounding synthetic. While its other colours are attractive, it's the exquisitely unique blues of Ratanakiri Zircon that has captured my imagination since I first saw it almost a decade ago.

White Zircon


White Zircon

As alluded to in this section's opening quote, Zircon is the natural gemstone that possesses a sparkle and looks most similar to Diamonds. Historically, its use as a Diamond substitute probably originates in Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972) in the late 18th century when white (colourless) Zircon was mined at Matara, which is located on the island's southern coast. It is from this locale we get the historic commercial names 'Matara Diamond' or 'Ceylon Diamond'. Please note that marketing Zircon solely using these names today would be misleading as it is not 'Diamond' in composition. Zircon's high index of refraction (click here for more) give this gem its visual resemblance to Diamonds, resulting in a sharp brilliance, playful scintillation (sparkle), Diamond-like lustre (variously described as adamantine or sub-adamantine, click here for more) and high fire (also known as dispersion, this is the splitting of light into its component colours). With the advent of manmade synthetics, such as cubic zirconia and moissanite, Zircon is no longer the pre-eminent Diamond substitute, but thankfully, this fantastic gem is today valued for what it is, rather than for just looking like something else.


One thing that gets me frustrated is when poor old Zircon gets unfairly confused with that cheap synthetic Diamond imitation, cubic zirconia. While their names sound similar and White Zircon was once regarded as an excellent Diamond alternative, this is where any similarity ends. Zirconium oxide was discovered in 1892, but it wasn't until 1937 that cubic zirconia was discovered in its natural state. In nature, cubic zirconia's crystals are way too small to be cut as gemstones, so the two German mineralogists who made the discovery didn't even think the mineral important enough to give it a formal name. In the seventies, Soviet scientists at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow perfected growing cubic zirconia crystals in a laboratory. They named the jewel 'fianit', but unfortunately for our friend Zircon, the name didn't catch on outside the USSR. The institute published their results in 1973 and by 1976, cubic zirconia was being produced commercially under the trade name 'djevalite'. By the eighties, cubic zirconia was mass marketed as the Diamond substitute of choice. In my mind, gemstones are formed within the earth, not a laboratory. Remember, for a gem to be a gem it must be beautiful, durable and rare. As they can be made anytime, man-made gems are not rare, so are these 'impostors from the factory' even really gems? Zircon is a real gemstone and cubic zirconia is not, please don't confuse the two.
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