According to a well-known industry magazine, Colored Stone, blue topaz has become the 2nd most popular colored gemstone (sapphire is consistently number one).
London Blue Topaz from GemSelectThis is not surprising. Topaz is a very hard material - 8 on the Mohs hardness scale - and blue topaz is a very pretty stone that is available in a wide range of vivid hues with a striking vitreous luster. It is also a very affordable gem when compared to the price per carat of similar colored gemstones such as aquamarine.
At the same time, blue topaz is a gem that is not well understood by many buyers and some recent controversy in the USA has led some buyers to rethink their blue topaz purchases. In this case, access to the correct information can help blue topaz customers make informed decisions about whether to buy blue topaz or not.
There are two important things to know about blue topaz. The first thing is that while topaz is very hard, it is not the most durable gemstone. That's because it has perfect cleavage, a property it shares with diamond. That means it can be chipped or split by a sharp blow, so it should be protected from hard knocks.
The second important thing is that topaz does not occur naturally in the deeply saturated blues you find on the market today. Blue topaz in nature is very rare indeed and tends to be a very pale blue. The vivid blues available on the market have all been produced by treating white topaz - with irradiation and often also with heat. The color change is permanent and stable, but recently there has been some controversy about the safety of this treatment for the consumer.
There are three different irradiation methods used to produce blue topaz. One method, used to produce a very pale blue hue is exposure to a gamma ray source in a cobalt irradiator. This method does not cause gemstones to be radioactive. The second method is electron bombardment in an accelerator. This is also known as 'linac' treatment and produces the color seen in 'sky blue' topaz. The third method of irradiation exposes topaz to fast neutrons in a nuclear reactor. This produces the darker hues known as 'London blue'.
White Topaz from GemSelectDue to residual radioactivity, the irradiated topaz must be held in a secure facility for a specified period of time before it can be released for heating, cutting and polishing. The time varies from a few weeks for topaz irradiated in a linear accelerator to a few years for topaz irradiated in a nuclear reactor. There are very strict rules in place to protect not only consumers but also the cutters and gem dealers who handle these gems on a daily basis.
In July of 2007 the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reminded the gemstone and jewelry industry that current regulations require the initial importer of irradiated gems to be licensed by the NRC. Since there are currently no companies licensed by the NRC to import irradiated gems, several large jewelry chains in the US decided to remove blue topaz from their shelves since they could not assure the public that these gemstones were completely safe.
Natural Swiss Blue TopazIn August 2007 the NRC themselves tested 9 batches of irradiated blue topaz averaging 500 carats each and found that the topaz posed no health risk. They issued a Fact sheet on irradiated gemstones to assure the public that these gemstones were quite safe. The NRC is now working with the industry to put a testing system in place that will include topaz treated in linear accelerators as well as that treated in nuclear reactors. Anything that can be done to assure the market that this very popular gemstone is safe, is worth doing.