Category Archives: Rare Gems

How to launder money

OK, time to think like a criminal! Let’s say you are a syndicate boss for the Chinese triads in a North American city like Vancouver, Los Angeles, or New York; your job is to get a huge, fat stack of cash to your jefe in Hong Kong.  The money you have, millions of dollars of it, was obtained nefariously and you need to not only conceal its existence, but also be able to move it out of the continent to Asia without anyone knowing such a transfer was taking place.  What do you do, and how do you do it?

Easy, put all that wealth on your wife’s (or girlfriend’s) fingers, in her ears and around her neck and no one will even think twice when she walks through airport security. Using a proxy to bid, you purchase one of a kind jewels from a prestigious auction house; your Christie’s, your Sotheby’s, your Bonham’s, etc…  You purchase said jewels at one of these public auctions so that everyone is now aware of how much they sell for and the items have now established a price precedence that can later be advertised.


What exactly did you purchase at auction?  Well, it has to be able to be worn.  So large items like paintings, sculptures, and antiques are all out of the question.  Fine Jewels like large diamond rings, jadeite necklaces, and south sea pearls are what you are looking for.  If one blue diamond ring, or one emerald pendant can be worth several million dollars this is a lot less messy to smuggle out of the country on a flight than the uncouth method favored by amateurs of strapping gobs of cash to one’s body like in The Wolf of Wall Street.

This is how dummies try to conceal the source of wealth. Don't be a dummy.
This is how dummies try to conceal the source of wealth. Don’t be a dummy.

Not only is the risk greater because it is less conspicuous, but it is much harder to argue that cash strapped to your body or stuffed into your briefcase was a family heirloom, or a gift from a lover.  This is exactly what customs and the TSA are trained to look for, but everyone has a wedding ring on their finger, so they ignore these.

In 2009 the economy took a dive and dragged down some rather large players in the scheme game.  Everyone knows the name Bernie Madoff, but Mr. Madoff wasn’t smart enough to actually have made-off with anything.  Others just as awful, but who put a little more thought into their getaway, where able to flee with much of their wealth intact.  Here in Seattle we had our own terrible white collar criminals in the Mastro family.

The details of what the Michael and Linda Mastro did are available on the web, but in short, the Mastro’s developed land, took out loans to do such, and then squelched on about $600 million in loans and skipped town when the real estate market collapsed.  They did all the normal white collar things; set up off shore accounts with dummy corporations in Belize, transferred ownership of all their fine things like their Rolls Royce and their home to said dummy corporations, and then moved to France.  It was this move to France which was almost genius as they put 40cts of diamonds onto a couple of Linda Mastro’s fingers and hopped a flight to Toronto and then on to Paris.  Like I said, “almost genius.”  These two didn’t bother moving to a non-extradition country with their millions of dollars in gems, so in 2012 French authorities arrested them and sent their wrinkly butts back to the states for trial.

Enough about the failings of the Mastros, so now back to you and your triad organized crime wealth and your future success  You need to get $5,000,000 from North America to Hong Kong, what are you buying?  Well, looking at what is up next for auction at Christie’s we find that the the June 16th “Important Jewels” auction in New York has several items that would entice even the most obtuse money launderers.  Well, just purchase the $2,000,000 sapphire ring (lot 232), the $2,000,000 art deco diamond pendant (lot 227), and the $600,000 diamond ring (lot 231) and you’re pretty darn close to $5 million right there (bidding wars are your friend because it drives up the value at the next auction).


Now that you have your fine jewels and you have put them on the fingers and neck of yourself or your loved one, you need to then charter a private jet to fly you to Hong Kong, because really, who wants to wait in the TSA line like a commoner and then go through regular customs like some poor schlub?  Not you, you’re an important criminal!

Now that you are in Hong Kong you need to turn these gems into cash.  Well, just head to one of the offices of Sotheby’s, Christie’s, or Bonham’s in Hong Kong and put the same pieces of jewelry back up for auction!  The auction houses don’t care so long as they get their commission, and the fact that these items sold recently for an extravagant amount of money means that their perceived wealth is already fresh in bidders’ minds.  A few weeks later you get cut a check for your (almost) $5 million and present this to your triad boss and get a nice promotion and pat on the back.

People don’t realize this, but there is more wealth tied up in just diamonds alone than all of the stock markets combined.  Not every family owns stock, but almost every family (at least in the first world) owns a diamond.  Jewels have been a way of obtaining and moving wealth for thousands of years.  The Maharaja in India, the crown Jewels of England, the entire reason everyone and their mother has tried to invade and control Burma for the past several centuries, all has to do with maintaining and creating wealth via pretty things.  If someone has the jewels, you need to get the jewels.  If you need cash, you either sell them or pawn them, and I don’t care how rich you are; if you need to put a million dollar ruby up as collateral on a loan you just pawned the sucker.


Drug dealers, organized crime syndicates, investment bankers, hedge fund managers, corrupt politicians, all of them, buy and sell fine jewels to launder huge amounts of wealth all the time.  So, when it is your turn be smart and don’t tape cash to your body; it is undignified.

The Rare Gem Series: Meteorites (Part Two: Gas Clouds to The Sky is Falling)

Our last installment I learned y’all about where the existence of everything came from.  This time around you get to know how rocks condense out of clouds of gas spiriting around outer space, how they get stuck together, what they are made of, and how they made the Earth!

Meteors love Russia…

After gigantic, spectacular, awe-inspiring, neighborhood-killing supernovae explosions, the blast waves can expand from the epicenter at rates of speed close to 40% the speed of light.  This is really, really fast!  When these insanely speedy blast waves bonk into the aimless clouds of hydrogen and helium in the galaxy the clouds get compressed.  This compression can be the catalyst for the formation of a new star.  If you remember last post (, when a large interstellar cloud is compressed it can begin to collapse thanks to its new, denser center of gravity.  The cloud contracts even further as it begins its journey to becoming a star.

For the first few million years after the star inside the cloud begins to fuse hydrogen and enter the main sequence of its life cycle, it’s not very bright thanks to all the dust and debris obscuring the light of the young star.  Both the cloud and the star inside are rotating much like a figure skater who pulls in their arms to spin faster.  As the cloud collapses it begins to spin faster and faster (when the core of a supernova collapses into a black hole or a neutron star it can be spinning at several (hundred? thousand?) times a second!).  This orbiting debris around the dim new star can crash and smash into each other on the atomic and molecular level sticking together thanks to static electricity.  Think of the atoms like a bunch of socks and fleece pullovers in the dryer colliding and sticking while continuing their orbit of the star.  When enough bits get stuck together (well, a lot of bits) they can begin to have enough mass to attract other atoms, molecules, and bits of matter.  These hunks of matter are what we call ‘asteroids’ and if they got big enough, ‘protoplanets’.

Planets forming from the dust around a new star.
This is an artists representation of the disk of a proto star forming planets from the dust and debris that orbit it. (From

Protoplanets are like Rumba robot vacuum cleaners blindly going around the solar system sucking up debris.  These protoplanets were originally comets and asteroids as they clear a swath around the stars cloud and eventually the biggest chuck of rock in a particular orbit monopolized gravity and started to absorb anything in it’s reach.  One of the definitions of  a planet is an object that “sweeps its orbit” of all the dust and debris and incorporates it into its planet (the other two main rules for a planet: must be rounded, and must orbit in the plane of the solar system).  The Earth began dominating its region of the solar system and clearing its orbit somewhere around 4.4 billion years ago

When an interstellar cloud collapses, and begins to spin, the big blobby cloud will flatten out, like a disk of pizza dough spinning through the air, condensing the cloud adding to the material being swept clean by the protoplanets.

As the protoplanets clear the area around the new star more light begins to shine throughout the star system.  The hot and energetic solar winds begin to blow the lighter material into the further reaches of the solar system concentrating large swaths of hydrogen and helium far away.  This is why we have the gas giants like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all 500 million or more miles from the Sun.  Out at these distances the light particles lose much of their energy and find themselves trapped gravitationally much more easily to nearby objects.

Closer to a newborn star we find rocks condensing where it is too hot for ice or gas to still exist.  Rocks are made of heavy things like silica, iron, aluminum, zinc, and other metals (astronomers refer to anything heavier than helium as “metals”… I think it’s just to piss of chemists), stuff that is too heavy for solar winds to push out into the far reaches of the star system.  We all know that it can take a few thousand degrees to melt metal or a rock, and only a couple hundred degrees to melt something like water or to sublimate carbon dioxide, right?  Well, space knows this too, and while it may be completely inhospitable only a few million miles from a star, it is cool enough that things like iron, nickel, silica, and aluminum will no longer be gas (even though it may be 1000 degrees or more).  This is why we find rocky planets near the sun like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.  It’s so warm that most of the lighter particles energetically vibrate away from the strong pull of gravity generated by these small planets and then get blown far away by the solar winds.

It’s also true that the closer a planet is to the Sun, the larger the percentage of it will be comprised of iron and nickel, and don’t have much in the way of water, methane, CO2, or ammonia (which are largely made up of lighter elements than the stuff of rocks).  Planets like Earth most likely got most of its atmosphere and water from the impacts of comets.

The solar winds are constant.  As long as there is fabulous radiation produced by the nuclear reactions inside a star (or in our case, the Sun), small particles will have a constant force acting upon them trying to push them further and further way from the star.  Into the farthest reaches of the solar system they go.  Since all the dense atoms are solidifying not too far from the star itself they begin to randomly bonk into each other.  Many of these particles have been stripped of electrons and when they clumsily run into a counter part they can stick statically like a sock to a sweater in the drier.  If enough of these particles being to stick to each other the begin to actually draw in other atoms and small clumps of matter to them via gravity.  The solar system has just made it’s first asteroids and proto-planets!

As for all the light bits of matter that are kicked out of the inner circle and sent to the great beyond, they too begin to cool off once they reach a zone where the light from the star is too weak.  Water, ammonia, and CO2 will begin to freeze and form their own chucks of ice balls.  These too can become large enough to start to attract wayward particles via gravity.  Out at this distance from the star, loose atoms of hydrogen and helium do not have the energy to escape anything that is large in mass.  As these balls of ice smash into more balls of ice they too begin to form proto-planets.  When the proto-planets are big enough an ever-thickening atmosphere comprised of hydrogen and helium begins to form.  These are the gas giant planets with Jupiter as their king.  Any planets that formed beyond the asteroid belt were formed beyond what scientists call the “Frost Line”.  Any closer and their constituent materials melt.

Frost Line of the Early Solar System
Any planets inside the Frost Line are mostly comprised of rock, any planets beyond the Frost Line are mostly comprised of volatiles. (From the University of Arizona)

The early solar system is a violent, violent place.  Rocks hurtling in random vectors at speeds beyond 100,000 MPH can obliviously smash into each other in outrageous explosions; their obliterated remnants quickly coalescing into a new celestial body drawn into the center of their collective mass.  Soon, at varying distances out from the star, alpha proto-planets begin to appear.  These large rocky or icy bodies begin to “sweep” their orbits clean; meaning, anything smaller than the proto-planet gets “sucked” in via immense gravitational pull.

When the proto-planet is about 500 kilometers across (~300 miles) gravity begins to round it into a sphere.  For an early solar system this period of violence can last billions of years.  In our own solar system the Sun started out with maybe only 2% of the gas cloud it formed from comprised of something other than hydrogen or helium.  This means that the heavy elements that condensed near the Sun to form the rocky inner planets didn’t really have that much material to work with.  For the outer planets this means the opposite was true as there is way more volatile material rich with hydrogen and bits of helium that got blown to the outer solar system by solar winds.  Thus, the inner planets are rocky and small while the outer planets are gassy and ginormous.

Early Earth was hell.  Literally hell on Earth.  Imagine a barren sphere whose surface is comprised entirely of hundreds of millions of square miles of boiling lava.  There is no discernible atmosphere beyond the thin wisps of fart-smelling vapor pooped out by bubbles of gas of the churning oceans of lava.  This is the Earth of about 4.55 billion years ago.  Every few hours a new rock from space the size of a city smashes into the surface at tens of thousands of miles per hour with enough force to vaporize solid rock into gas creating yet another reason the surface is molten.

Nothing but magma, folks
So much lava, so much violence.

This goo-ball Earth is just a big jiggly mess, its gravity constantly inviting trouble upon its surface.  There is one advantage to being a hellacious ball of goo: differentiation.

Rocks in space want to smash your face.
Rocks in space were just waiting for their turn to vaporize upon impact and become one with the Earth.

Differentiation is when heavy stuff sinks and light stuff floats.  We have all see it work with a rock and piece of wood in some water, but what about with lava?  Here is a fun experiment to try:  If you have two ping pong balls and you place them at the bottom of a jar, then pour sand over them they will stay at the bottom of the pile of sand, right?  Same thing if you then place two steel balls on the top of the sand, those balls aren’t going to go anywhere.  What if you added energy to the jar?  Say you could put a vibrator to the jar and make the sand jiggle much like how atoms in a liquid would jiggle.  Two things will happen; the steel balls will vanish into the sand and the ping pong balls will suddenly appear at the surface!  The early Earth was in a constant state of fluidization since it was a giant ball of liquid. The heavy metals began sinking toward the Earth’s core and the lighter materials began to float toward the surface.  This is why today the surface of the Earth is rocky and about 3.5 grams per cubic centimeter in density, while the Earth’s core is metal and about 12.5 grams per cubic centimeter.

Differentiation also meant that light fluffy volatiles like CO2, oxygen, nitrogen, water, etc… that somehow found themselves weirdly trapped inside of early Earth, and not blasted into the deeper reaches of the solar system, rose to the surface.  Earth began building a very crappy atmosphere.  Way to go, Earth.

Oops, I spoke too soon.  Somewhere between 4.5 billion and 4.25 billion years ago the Earth got into an accident.  A planetoid (a fellow proto-planet) got thrown off course, probably by a larger body like Jupiter acting like a gravitational slingshot, and crossed the Earth’s path.  This planetoid is likely to have been about the size of Mars (about 10% of the Mass of today’s Earth) and the two decided to engage in a hostile merger.  The collision was so large as to be essentially unexplainable in comprehendible magnitude.  Both planets (if there was any solid features between them) instantly vaporized most of their constituent material.  Much of the Earth’s crustal material splattered into space resulting in billions of new pieces of rock that would rain back down on the Earth’s surface further liquefying the young injured planet.  About 1/80th of the mass of Earth stayed in orbit above the Earth and eventually coalesced into what we know as the Moon.  The Moon is not very dense and is about 3.5 grams per cubic centimeter; meaning it has about the same density as the Earth’s surface.  This is the largest telltale sign that the Moon was born of the Earth.  All rocky bodies in the inner solar system are denser than the Moon.  If the Moon had been a captured body that wandered near the Earth’s gravitational field, it would more than likely be denser with a larger metallic core.

When planets collide.
Something about the size of Mars smashed into Early Earth blasting much of the surface material out into space which later formed our Moon.
The Moon forming
A computer model of how the Moon probably formed.

Many of these early proto-planets and planetoids that were quickly maturing throughout the solar system also differentiated.  Many of these objects were blasted apart by collisions.  This leaves us with four basic kinds of materials that smash into objects in the solar system today (I am being very hand-wavy and leaving out lots of details that will be explained in Part III):

1) Ancient “first” rocks. These are the asteroids that first condensed out of the cloud from which our Sun and solar system was born (scientists refer to them as “chondrites”.

2) Differentiated rocky material.  These are rocks of igneous nature that are the bits of surface of near by moons and planets, or the blasted apart surface material of obliterated planetoids.

3) Differentiated metallic material (more commonly referred to as “iron-nickel” asteroids.  When a differentiated planetoid is blasted apart due to a collision this is the remaining core material.

4) Comets.  Balls of ice from much deeper out in the solar system.  The most common prevailing hypothesis ties comet impacts to the source of most of the Earth’s water and atmosphere.  Since the European Space Agency’s successful landing of the Rosetta probe on the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko this hypothesis has been turned on its head.  Rosetta drilled into the comet and discovered that the ice material is different isotopically from the majority of the material found on Earth.  Oh, science!

The odds of the Earth experiencing another mass extinction via a comet of meteor impact is 100%.  What we cannot predict with any statistical certainty is if this will occur while humans are still alive.  In lieu of significance in our probabilities we instead turn to hard data by mapping our solar system and charting the orbits of every object we have ever seen.  At the moment astronomers are aware of, and are mapping, about half a million objects that are known to cross the Earth’s orbit.  These objects are important for two reasons: One, they have the potential of ending our species; and two, they could be worth trillions of dollars.

Remember those iron-nickel asteroids?  Yeah, just one of those little guys can potentially be worth more than all of the human productivity in our entire history.  Here is how it works:  A planetoid is at one time a bubbling, boiling mass of magma and lava.  All the heavy metallic elements are sinking toward the core, and all of the light rocky material is floating toward the surface.  Then some other asshole jerk-of-an-asteroid/planetoid collides with our differentiating body and explodes the whole thing to kingdom come.  Now chunks of differentiated core is floating around space just chock full of base metals like iron, nickel, copper, zinc, etc… as well as really heavy precious metals like gold, platinum, uranium, rhodium, palladium, and so on…

Iron-Nickel meteor thin section
The differentiated innards of some poor son of a bitch that done got exploded. Eventually it hurdled through space and smacked into the Earth. This is a thin section of an iron-nickel meteor.

One iron-nickel asteroid a mile in diameter has, in just precious metal, $4-5 trillion dollars in material.  Why are we wasting our time planning missions to stupid fucking useless Mars when there are trillions of dollars to be made off of space rocks? I have no clue.  Fortunately there are a few eccentric billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson who see things my way, and they are investing large portions of their fortunes into space exploration companies like SpaceX and Planetary Resources.

Mining space has a couple of benefits.  Chief among these is that we would have no need to ever mine the Earth for metals ever again.  A huge source of pollution and environmental degradation gone!  The drawback?  How do we do it?  Do we capture an asteroid into our orbit and mine it from there utilizing something like a space elevator?  If so, how do we capture it without accidently killing everything on Earth when we make a wrong calculation and miss our target and instead hit the Earth’s surface?

Every thing has a risk and reward, I suppose.

Next time join me for Part III and learn about how often meteors hit us, where we can find them, how we can find them, what you can sell them for, and why they love Russian dash cameras so much!

Kickstarter Me Up! Bring my exploits to your living room.

I have launched a Kickstarter to fund a pilot for a new television program “Get Your Rocks Off With Houston”!

Follow a merry band or ne’er do wells into the wilds of America as they test their metal against Mother Nature for the treasure she’s got buried below!

The concept for the show is different from any other mining show on television.  It is an educational program that highlights the adventure of prospecting for gemstones.  Each episode will focus on a particular gemstone found in North America.  It will begin with the science of the stone itself; how the Earth created, what its’ properties are, where it is found, and what famous ones exist.  Then we travel to wherever I think we can find it and go looking.  In the process we’ll explore old ghost towns and abandoned mines, and party down with the locals.  Upon finding the stone(s) we’ll then show you how to cut and polish it, or make it into a sculpture or jewelry.

I will be setting world records with some of the stones we find!

It’s going to be fun and hilarious, and you just might learn something!

We need so much more on television than fat stupid people breaking equipment and yelling at each other, while simultaneously raping the Earth and polluting our environment with mercury.  Just say “no” to stupid television, and “yes” to smart, fun TV.  Lowest common denominator be damned!

The Rare Gem Series: Meteorites (Part One: The Big Bang to Supernovae)

Timeline of the Universe. (National Geographic)
Timeline of the Universe. (National Geographic)

About 13.8 billion ago the lights turned on.  Or more accurately: THE Light turned on.  That is when scientists have estimated the Big Bang occurred; the singularity that began it all.  As an astronomer as well as a geologist I can go on for days about the fractions of a second in which our story began.  Instead, I will only go on for a few minutes… Or more, depending on your reading skills.  (Please note: if you really don’t want the literal History of the Universe, too bad, because I can’t talk about what meteorites are and where we can find them when I haven’t explained what asteroids are and where they came from, and to explain where asteroids came from I have to explain what they’re made of, and to explain what asteroids are made of I have to explain where matter came from, and to explain where matter came from I have to explain how stars formed and the extent of their lifecycles, and to explain how stars formed and how they die I have to take you back to the beginning of it all.  Thus, when you are finished with these articles, you will essentially have the equivalent of an Astronomy degree without the ability to do the math and physics that makes such a degree useful.  Satisfied?  Didn’t think so.)

For starters, all around us, matter and antimatter are going to war.  It’s an ancient war, the most ancient of wars.  It has been waged since the beginning of time, and possibly, since always.  It is a useless war, one that only ends in photons (nerd joke).  Basically, every second of every day, out of fucking nowhere, a piece of matter appears, and at that same moment, its antimatter counterpart appears as well.  The particles scratch their hooves like angry bulls and make a go at their nemesis.  They violently collide and as instantly and randomly as they appeared, they disappear.  Nothing to show for it but a single gamma photon thrust into the Universe as an orphan with random vector.  Why? Beats the hell out me.  It just does, and that is as good an answer as you will get from anybody.

Matter/Antimatter collision (NASA)
Matter/Antimatter collision (NASA)

So, this instant where the singularity, this infinitely dense, infinitely small point in an infinite Universe that did not even exist yet went *blamo*, the very moment when it all began, nothing but a hot mess could exist.   The amount of energy that was released was so unbelievably unfathomable that nothing bigger than a quark, gluon, or a lepton could exist.  In other words, atoms, the building blocks of matter, did not exist because the infant Universe was hotter than the melting point of atoms themselves.  Run that through your brain for a minute or two.  Hotter than the melting point of atoms themselves…

Atoms melt?

Well, when there is more energy present than either the strong or weak nuclear forces that holds the constituent particles together that form constituent nucleons of an atom the glue is melted and quarks run free!

OK, what’s a quark?

Fuck you. You figure it out.

Back to the message at hand:  This beginning, when the Universe was only 10^-37 seconds old (or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds), the greatest matter/antimatter war that will ever exist raged.  We are the only survivors.  Well, us and the 250 billion other galaxies in the known Universe (and the countless billions in the unknown Universe).  For some reason, yet to be explained by some supernerd (who is more than likely not to have even been born yet), there was more matter than anti matter that farted out of the singularity.  Something on the order of one extra quark or lepton in every thirty million particles.  Think about that.  All the matter that exists in the Universe is impressive, but at the moment of the Big Bang there was not thirty million, but SIXTY million times more matter in the Universe that just obliterated each other out of existence in just a few seconds.  *POOF*

We have no clue as to why there was more matter than antimatter.  There just is.  Maybe on the other side of the Universe there is nothing but entire reaches of space made up of antimatter with antipeople pondering why there is more antimatter than matter.  I don’t know, I am an not an interdimensional space traveler who can answer that for you.

As the nanosecond war of existence raged, the Universe became instantly less dense.  Combine this with the huuuuuge expansion of the nearly instant expansion of the fabric of space with the explosion of the Big Bang and things began to cool down.  At about 10^-6 seconds ( or 0.000001 seconds) temperatures dropped to a mere several billion degrees and the quarks, gluons, leptons, antiquarks, antigluons, and antileptons were allowed to combine into baryons to form things like protons and neutrons, and antiprotons and antineutrons who continued the war for survival even more violently.  By about 1 second (or 1.0 seconds) electrons and positrons sprang from the womb with their fists clenched and swinging.

A few seconds in and the war was over. Matter won and temperatures continued to drop.  A few minutes later with the Universe at a balmy one billion degrees the first hydrogen and deuterium atoms formed out of the protons and neutrons that were basking in the glory of their victory over their anti-selves (it was still too hot for the electrons to join in on the fun).  It took close to 400,000 years for things to cool off enough for electrons to happily orbit the nucleus of an atom, then we started really cooking with fire… er fusion.

Think of this early Universe as a giant, billion light year-wide cloud of particles.  Where the matter was more dense, the pull of gravity brought giant swarming clouds of particles into spinning giant clouds of particles and thus the earliest galaxies began to form.  Even denser regions of clouds inside these galaxies condensed into the first protostars.  At this time the Universe was about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with no heavier elements.  As the clouds within the clouds began to collapse they got really warm from pressure forcing the particles of helium and hydrogen to bounce off of each other with ever more vigor.  As more particles were attracted to the growing center of mass of this cloud, the pressure became greater and things heated up even more.  Soon so much matter was inside these clouds that they began to glow from the pressure oven they had created giving off a bunch of infrared radiation.  The Universe was on the verge of is second light turning on.

The more mass one of these protostars had, the more gravitational pressure there was within the protostar.  If enough material gathered the hydrogen and helium atoms stopped having enough elbow room to really bounce around and they started smashing into each other, fusing their nucleuses of protons and neutrons into each other forming newer, denser matter.  This is how we got things like lithium (hydrogen + helium), beryllium (helium + helium), and boron (lithium + helium, or beryllium + hydrogen), and so on.  Whenever two atoms smashed together and fused, an insane amount of radiation was emitted.  Once fusion reactions began in the very dense core the protostar ceased to exist, for now it had become a man–I mean a STAR.

Inside a star (UC Berkeley)
Inside a star (UC Berkeley)

This star wasn’t that bright, literally; there was still a lot of gas blocking the light being emitted.  Inside the baby star as more and more nuclear reactions were taking place the high-energy photons being released from these reactions began to push the star out against the pull from gravity.  Gravitational pressure wants it to be a nice dense sphere, while radiation pressure wants everything to explode and scatter.  Eventually, the stellar winds of light being emitted by the new star blow away the remaining loitering cloud of gas lingering around, and the light is now able to broadcast the star’s existence to the Universe.  It is during this time when the star finally gets the hang of the battling pressures and finds itself perfectly balanced between the squeeze of gravity and the push of radiation it enters a state known as “hydrostatic equilibrium.”  The star has now begun the “main sequence” of its life.  Just learning the words “hydrostatic equilibrium” has now given you half of a bachelors of science in Astrophysics, by the way.  Good job!

Oh, how these were the halcyon days for our new star.  Happily smashing hydrogen atoms into helium, emitting light into the Universe, having no cares… until that fateful day.  That unforgettable, fateful day.  The day the hydrogen-fusion died.  After tens of millions, or even possibly billions of years of carefree atom smashing our star found itself old and not able to get it up like it used to all of a sudden. “I swear, this has literally never happened to me before!” Exclaimed the star to no one, because stars can’t talk and there wasn’t anything that existed yet who could listen to its cries.

You see, as the star was fusing all these hydrogen atoms into helium, at the very center of the star, the core, the newly formed helium began to pack into a dense degenerate ball of non-fusion.  As the star made more and more helium, this degenerate core got bigger and bigger.  Hydrogen is easy to fuse; it doesn’t take much energy (relatively speaking) to do it and you get a whole bunch of energy out of the reaction to do it some more.  Helium, on the other hand, takes a lot more energy to make them fuse together, and you are not going to get as much energy out of the reaction as you do with the hydrogen. When the core gets bigger and bigger, with more and more helium that refuses to fuse into anything, then the hydrogen fusion zone gets smaller and smaller.  Gravitational pressure is its greatest at the center of the star.  If the center of the star is full of a bunch of stupid helium then the only hydrogen fusion that is going on is at the outside of the degenerate core where gravitational pressure is weaker.  Soon, the number of hydrogen fusions that occur become less and less, and the radiation pressure gets lower and lower, and the star gets all limp and tiny as it begins to collapse in on itself.

There is a silver lining to this rather doomed state; as the star collapses in on itself the gravitational pressure starts to climb like it did when the start first burst onto the scene.  The degenerate helium core starts to feel the squeeze, starts to feel the pressure, and just can’t hold out any longer and *squish*.  A whole bunch of helium just fused into Boron, the star just experienced what is known as a “helium flash” as the core begins to switch to burning helium.  This causes the start to inflate and as it gets bigger it grows redder in color because the envelope of gas surrounding the star is cooler with more surface area.

Hydrogen burning leads to helium burning (University of Manitoba)
Hydrogen burning leads to helium burning (University of Manitoba)

If our star is really big, much bigger than our own Sun, then the core starts to fill up with carbon that was created out of fusing all sorts of combos of helium, hydrogen, and other light elements.  Just like before, the radiation pressure is weaker on the outside of the core where the helium is being smushed together, blah, blah, blah… Eventually *squish* we have a carbon flash.  Now the star is a geezer burning carbon.  If the star is really, really big, like nine times or more larger than our Sun, it will go through oxygen, neon, and silicon flashes.

Stars are born, they get old, and like all things, they die.  Sit down, clutch your security blanket, and steady your heart; it’s time to talk about death.  Stellar death can range from the most pitiful whimper to the greatest party in the Universe.  A teeny tiny star, like a red dwarf star, will never die.  The smaller the star, the more efficiently it burns its hydrogen and can last anywhere from 10 trillion to 100 trillion years or more!  A star like our sun will last about 10 billion years before it withers and does not have the mass necessary to fuse anything above carbon.  The star contracts under its own gravitational pressure, gets really hot, and the remaining gas inside the star either becomes part of a dense core or gets blasted away by the heat.  The star is dead.  This is death by white dwarf.

The exciting death, the only one anyone really cares about, is the death of big mutherfukkers.  Stars that are anywhere from nine to twenty five times larger than our own sun.  These guys know how to party.  A nine solar mass star might live 100 million years.  A twenty-five solar mass star may only last as little as 5 million years.  These idiots burn everything they’ve got as fast as they can.  They’ll spend about four million years burning hydrogen, one million burning helium, 500 years burning carbon, six months burning oxygen, a week burning neon, and maybe one day burning silicon.  The size of the degenerate core at this point is gigantic.  The moment the core itself is more than 1.44 times the mass of our own Sun it can’t handle it, and everything collapses like a house of cards.

Crab Nebula
The supernovae remnant known as the Crab Nebula

Imagine the core.  It’s dense, it’s hot.  There is no room to wiggle.  It’s basically the nuclei of atoms stacked on the nuclei of other atoms.  Just protons, electrons and neutrons chillin’ with nowhere to go.   Nothing but the weak nuclear force to keep them separated, and the strong nuclear force to keep them what they are.  Things are about to change.  The moment the core reaches 1.44 solar masses, known as the “Chandrasekhar Limit”, gravity has now become stronger than the weak nuclear force and the protons and electrons fuse to become neutrons (positive + negative = neutral).  This sudden collapse of the core draws in the remaining envelope surrounding it.  The instant and sudden gravitational pressure squeezes everything together and causes the star to burn upwards of 10% of it’s entire mass in one instant.  The star has gone supernovae.

When the star is just being a star, the heaviest element it can make through fusion is iron (26 protons), in a supernovae everything else is made.  Anything heavier than iron comes from a supernovae; radium, iridium, lead, gold, silver, krypton, everything else all the way up to uranium get blasted into existence by the intense explosion of a supernovae.  When a supernovae explodes it outshines the other 100 billion stars in its galaxy combined for an entire month!

This explosion can leave behind one of two things, if the star is big, but not freakishly so, a neutron star will be all that is left.  A dense dark ball of nothing but neutrons a few kilometers wide spinning really fast.  One spoonful of a neutron star would weigh hundreds of millions of pounds… If you could get yourself and a spoon close enough to the surface without somehow become nothing but neutrons yourself, of course.  The second option is the one that overwhelms the strong nuclear force that keeps quarks in their shape of something like a neutron.  If the envelope around the star is really massive when the core collapses at the moment of supernovae, an excess of material can be added to the core that overwhelms the neutrons and forces them to become an infinitely dense singularity, like the point of space from which the Big Bang began.  A black hole.

I’m not going to go into the physics of a black hole.  That would require another few months of writing to describe the mind fucks that go on inside one.  Another time, maybe (but probably not).

Stars die and make more stars (NASA/JPL)
Stars die and make more stars (NASA/JPL)

The explosion of a supernovae is tremendous.  If one occurred within 30 light years of Earth everything would die.  Everything.  Dead.  Forever.  Sanitized.  Even miniscule things like bacteria.  Gone.  EVERYTHING!  The blast wave from a supernovae will travel as fast as 40% the speed of light.  This wall of newly formed elements find themselves slamming into previously content clouds of gas in the galaxy and generate new bouts of star formation.  This time instead of the clouds only being made up of 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, they’re composed of 74% hydrogen, 25% helium, and 1% other things heavier than that.

After about 1300 generations of super giant stars going supernovae we find ourselves in the present where newly formed stars have as much as 5-10% elements heavier than helium.  It is these heavier elements that comprise the elements that make every rock you have ever held, every planet in existence, and every comet that has streaked through the cosmos.  Carl Sagan was right, we are nothing but stardust.

The next installment I will learn you on how the planets formed and just what the hell meteorites are made of.  Until then, revel in the fact that you just became an expert cosmologist.  You’re welcome!

The Rare Gem Series: Black Opal

Imagination time! Put yourself in the stirrups of a Pony Express rider galloping across the Northern Nevada high desert. You stop at a creek in a pristine oasis known as Virgin Valley to give your horse a drink when you glance down to see an iridescent, magical, alien stone that must have come from space laying on the ground.  Curious, and somewhat confused and scared, you pick it up and feel the weight of it in your hands.  The stone is dark and smooth, and as you turn it in your hand it plays with the light.  Fires of bright colors flash and disappear.  Entire rainbows sear their spectrum into your brain.  You lose track of your objective and why you’re here.  This amazing stone has hypnotized you.  You are lost with out it.  Your past no longer exits.  You cannot envision a future without it.  It’s possession is your everything. It is your precious.

This is was how the black opal was discovered.

That’s a lie.  This is the myth created by the Nevada Tourism Board of how the black opal was discovered.  The truth is that the Pony Express followed the routes of the Oregon trail far to the North and the California Trail far to the South.  Also, the Pony Express only lasted 18 months, from April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861.  In reality it was probably some ranch hand, or ranch rider that discovered the first black opal about forty years later in 1900, and his response was probably more along the lines of, “What the fuck is that?”

"What the fuck is that?" image from
“What the fuck is that?” image from

Lightning Ridge, Australia has a more gruesome beginning.  The town in New South Wales near the border with Queensland got its name in the 1870s when some passersby discovered the bodies of a rancher, his dog, and some 600 sheep all of whose hearts had basically exploded from being struck by lighting.  That’s something to put on the old “move here” brochure to promote your town; except that is also probably a lie, but a badass one at least.

Halfway across the world from Virgin Valley, in 1902, Charles Waterhouse Nettleton, a struggling opal miner from White Cliffs in Eastern New South Wales, migrated North into Queensland in search of his own strike.  He struck out.  Pretty much like he had every other time he tried his hand at prospecting.  Nettleton, defeated but ever the optimist, and since he was a stoic, kept on chuggin’ along.  He decided to walk the 400 miles back to White Cliffs, and on his way back Nettleton stopped off in Lightning Ridge and camped with the Ryan family .  The family showed him some freaky black stones that flashed color.  Nettleton recognized them as opals, but like nothing he had ever seen.

With nothing else to do (or lose) Nettleton gave a shrug and dug a big hole.  He set up camp and sunk his first shaft on October 15th, 1902.  Yeah, Nettle didn’t find shit.  Again.  Not to be deterred, Nettleton moved his camp and sunk a second shaft in 1903 and struck pay dirt.  Tens of pounds of the crazy black stones ranging from a carat to a hundred carats in size came tumbling out of the walls of Nettleton’s mine.  The hill where he made his strike is known as Nettleton Hill today.  Excited from his success Nettleton made his way to Sydney (over 350 miles by foot!) to show the stones to a jewel dealer who was not as impressed with them as Nettleton was, and only offered $1 for the lot.  “Well, fuck that,” said Nettleton, and in November 1903 Nettleton walked back to White Cliffs (remember, this is another 503 miles BY FOOT) where he knew there were people who where knowledgeable and could give a good price for his opals; unlike that dickweed, suit-and-tie pissant in Sydney.  On November 11th, 1903 an opal merchant in town offered him $30 bucks for his lot. “Oh hells yeah!” said Nettleton (or whatever the backwoods, Australian-hick equivalent would be) and sold them right there.  Think about this, Nettleton was a brute; he had dug several giant mine shafts (by hand), walked over 1,800 miles, and for his two years worth pain and struggle was psyched to be given $30 for his life’s work.  Stoics, what would this world be without them?

The connection had been made.  The opal dealer started sending his partners to Lightning Ridge to purchase large quantities of the stones.  The rush was on.  Nettleton was a hero.

A beautiful full-spectrum harlequin black opal from Richard W. Wise at
A beautiful full-spectrum harlequin black opal from Richard W. Wise at

By this time Australia had already become the opal capitol of the world with strikes in White Cliffs, and the boulder opals of Queensland.  It didn’t hurt that Queen Victoria loved the stone, and soon after Nettleton’s first rich strike in Lightning Ridge opals were discovered in Andamooka, and Coober Pedy, Koroit, and Minitabie.  While these stones are beautiful, nothing except the stones from Virgin Valley, NV and Lightning Ridge were truly black bodied.

The first big mines opened in Virgin Valley in 1905.  The first big mines opened in Lightning Ridge in 1905.  The rock that forms the area around Lightning Ridge is sandstone from the early Cretaceous Period that formed a shallow sea.  Not only are there opals there but important fossils dating back some 110 million years… Then again, the opals are fossils themselves.

What’s that?

Oh yes, opals are fossils.  What happened was that there was a volcanic eruption from somewhere nearby that coated the area in silica-rich ash.  If a creature or a plant kicked the bucket while in a puddle of water and got coated with ash, the water and ash worked together to preserve the dead critter/plant.  Over millions of years (likely) the silica combined with the water to replace the cellular structure of the organism with opal.  Opal is just a combination of water and silica creatively known as “hydrated silica”.  SiO2 is quartz, SiO2nH2O is opal.  Volcanoes pump out silica during an explosive eruption, if that silica ash buries something wet there is a good chance opal may form.  The water content of the black opals from Lightning Ridge is about 5% making them not likely to craze or crack when unearthed from drying out.

In Virgin Valley it is a different story.  Around 16 million years ago there was a series of volcanic eruptions of rhyolite that lasted for darn near two million years.  These eruptions spit out all sorts of silica-rich ash and the volcanic rock formed a series of hills that encircled an ancient basin that geologists named Canyon Rhyolite.  These volcanic eruptions are no joke.  Once the mountain goes *boom* a superheated blast of air and ash can travel across the region at hundreds of miles per hour killing everything in its path.  Combine this with a few hundred feet of ash covering the Earth around the volcano, and nothing survives.  Nothing.

Canyon Rhyolite, since it was a basin, held a series of lakes and ponds where critters flourished in a rich forest dense with ginkgo, sequoia, spruce, hemlock, birch, cedar, larch and chestnut.  The region was spared from major volcanic events for about four million years when a jerk of a hotspot decided to flood almost the entire region of what is today the Northwestern United States with flood basalt.  This buried Canyon Rhyolite under a dense, solid layer of lava that solidified above it.  Over the course of the last ten million years hot springs began to bubble up through the Earth yearning to break free.  With the hot trickles of water came bits of that silica-rich ash that permeated the buried remains of the lush forests of the now vanished canyon.  What did we just learn about the combination of silica and water?  You guessed it; opals!

The hot spring squirted through the basalt and started dribbling downhill.  Today that hot spring has carved quite the path and formed what is we know today as Virgin Valley.  Along the Valley’s walls, at about the 5090ft level you will find a layer of moist gray clay.  This marks the floor of the ancient forest.  The clay layer may vary from a few inches to a few feet thick, but here is where you will find your opals.  Petrified wood, opalized tree limbs, even the teeth and skeletons of forest creatures preserved forever as majestic hunks of gemstone.  A pretty noble way to go if you ask me.

When I die, I want someone to lay my carcass down in a bog next to an erupting volcano so that maybe, someday, several million years from now I can be dug up and brutally bandsawed and then ground down and polished into ornamental pieces of jewelry for some rich housewife.  A boy can dream can’t he?

The problem faced with many of these Virgin Valley opals is their extremely high water content of 20%; much higher than that of their Australian counterparts.  This makes many opals gorgeous but notoriously unstable.  When these opals are unearthed the majority are placed into containers of water to keep them from drying out.  When an opal dries out it crazes (forms cracks), will loose it’s dark color, and quite often will explode!  Some apply sealants to the stones to retain their water content, some just roll the dice and dry them out and hope for the best, but most just keep them submerged.  While it would be awesome to have a nice large, dry Virgin Valley opal, putting a $100,000 stone in the sun in hopes of it not exploding or just fading into a $10 rock takes some serious balls.

A Virgin Valley black opal being preserved in water.
A Virgin Valley black opal being preserved in water.

Throughout Ethiopia new opal fields are being discovered almost every year.  These precious opals may have white or blue bodies, and some even chocolate, but the black bodied opals resembling those of Virgin Valley or Lightning Ridge haven’t materialized in the numbers hoped for, or possibly at all!  That doesn’t mean they haven’t been sold.  A process known as “smoking” is putting lower quality crystal opals into the market and trying to pass them off as the elite black opals.  Essentially, the tricksters are taking normal light bodied stones and “smoking” them until the soot permeates the interior of the stone’s matrix.  To the common eye they look amazing, but in the long run, the stones are more likely to crack, pit and fade than the real deal.  Just don’t pay a bunch of money for a black Ethiopian opal just yet.

Other black opals discoveries have reportedly been make in Indonesia (but some of those stones have been “smoked”); with two recent discoveries in central Wyoming, and along the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River in Washington State!  With the incredible ash fallout that originates from hotspot volcanoes like the Yellowstone Caldera and the Long Valley Complex in California I would surmise that there are thousands of undiscovered sites for precious and black opal from Wyoming through Colorado and Nebraska; and in California, Arizona, and Mexico.  Get hunting!

I know, you just read a ton of words and all you want to know is, “what are they worth?” Fine.  A precious black opal with small blue/green shifts in color covering about 50% of the stone will get you about $200 per carat.  The more of the stone that is iridescent, and the larger the color flashes are, and the more of a red/green shift those stones have the more money they are worth.  A stone that is 90-100% covered in red/green flashes, with a black body, can expect to sell for upwards of $5,000 to $10,000 per carat.  These are among the rarest fine quality stones in the world, so keep your eyes out for fakes!  Fakes may include treated or smoked stones; doublets and triplets (stones that have a thin veneer of actual opal glued to the outside of an otherwise boring stone); as well a created matrix opals (stones that are the shavings and cuttings of larger opals that are then glued together using resin); and synthetic stones that are made of weird space-aged polymers and shit.  Just don’t get screwed.

Some helpful guides from

Black Opal Grading Chart from
Black Opal Grading Chart from
Types of black opal from
Types of black opal from

The Rare Gem Series: Alexandrite

Once upon a time in Russia… Some dudes found a rock and named it after the crown prince since it was his birthday.

The end.

No wait, I mean: The Beginning.

A 1.29ct Russian Alexandrite, Tino Hammid Photography, Inc
A 1.29 carat Russian Alexandrite.

One day in the Summer of 1830 Finnish mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld (1792–1866) was sitting in his office at the Mining Board in Helsingfors when he received a parcel to examine.  Nils was pretty much the most renowned mineralogist of his day so shiny hunks of dirt got sent to him all the time.  No biggie.

Upon opening the contents of the parcel Nils said, “Green, transparent, shiny… Emerald” (or more accurately: “vihreä, tranparant, kiiltävä … smaragdi“), and almost didn’t conduct any further tests; but something just wasn’t sitting right with him.  He began to poke, scratch, smash, and do all the things a good mineralogist does with Earthly byproducts, and he couldn’t get over the fact that the stone was just too hard and not brittle enough to be an emerald.  Weird.

After fussing with it for a while Nils lost the sunlight so he grabbed some dinner and pondered this strange stone while he pushed peas around his plate.  Being a good scientist he abandoned his meal and returned to the lab to inspect the stone under candlelight.  “Mitä vittua?!” Nils half exclaimed/half asked.  The stone, which a few hours earlier had been deep green, was now a rich red!  The next morning the stone was no longer red and had returned to its former deep green!  “Voi Luoja!”

This was no emerald.

The package with the strange stone had come from Count Lev Aleksevich von Perovski (1792-1856) who at the time was trying to climb the social ladder as the royal mineralogist for Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.  Perovski had also identified the stone as an emerald, but the problem was that he kind of sucked at his job, so he sent a specimen to Nils to double check his “work”.

Earlier that Summer Perovski’s team had been poking around in the Izumrudnye Kopi (Emerald mines) in the Ural Mountains (you remember the Urals, that is where Demantoid Garnets were discovered as told via the previous Rare Gem Series post: when they discovered the stones in an alluvial deposit (think gravel river bed) along the Tokovaya River.  By 1831 Perovski had opened his new “emerald” mine and was in full whipping peasants mode to dig faster when Nils sent him a message:

“This ain’t no emerald, genius.  It’s a color-change chrysoberyl and I am calling it  ‘diaphanite‘ which is Greek for ‘something your small brain cannot comprehend’.”

I paraphrase, of course.

Perovski, ever the ladder climber, had other plans in mind.  He wanted to ingratiate himself further with the royal family, Perovski spun a tale that he had discovered it April 17, 1834, the sixteenth birthday of the crown prince and heir to the throne Alexander II, and named it “Alexandrite” in his honor.

Perovski didn’t know how to be a very good scientist, but he knew how to play the game like a champ.  His ploy was well received and he got his ass ingratiated into the royal family like no body’s business; creating the Russian Geographical Society in 1845 and being named the Minister of Internal Affairs, and later the Vice President of the Appanage Department by Tsar Nicholas I (basically, he became the dude in charge of the imperial family’s estates, investments, personal property, and income).  This fancy post also meant that Perovski was in charge of the jeweled trinkets and souvenirs the imperial lapists and jewelers created as rewards for the Tsar’s subjects.

Perovski was a greedy piece of crap.  He used his position of power to threaten, bribe and steal the best stones for the Appanage collection which often found their ways into his own personal collection.  One of Perovski’s underlings, Yakov Kokovin, the director of the Ekaterinburg lapidary, stole an amazing Ural emerald and was caught by Perovski and was braought to trail and later was “compelled” to commit suicide in the dreadful Ekaterinburg Prison.  When Perovski finally kicked the bucket in 1856, the stone, which had now become known as the “Kokovin Emerald”, was found in Perovski’s personal collection. Dick.

Alexandrite quickly became one of the most desirable gem stones in the world. Many sources I have read claim that this is because red and green were the primary colors on the Russian Imperial Flag.  Well, considering that the Imperial Flag was red white and blue, this “fact” is bullshit.  It became popular because it is a rad stone that CHANGES FREAKING COLOR!  Imagine yourself a rich asshole living in Feudal Europe:  you have a fancy house, you have some books, you have a really comfy chair, you have candelabras, you have… well, that is pretty much it.  Some other rich asshole comes along and shows you his new ring that is green during the day and red at night.  “Holy shit!” You’d yell out, “I’ve got to get me one of those, especially since the invention of television won’t happen for another 90 years!”

A beautiful example of a natural Alexandrite in matrix
A beautiful example of a natural Alexandrite in matrix, from Kevin Ward at Exceptional Minerals

By the beginning of the 20th century Russia had pretty much gobbled up all of the Alexandrites in the Urals.  There has been no significant deposits of Alexandrite discovered in Mother Russia since the 1917 revolution.  To this day the best red/green specimens are Russian stones.  They are also the most valuable.

As mentioned above, Alexandrites are a form of chrysoberyl.  While chrysoberyls contain beryllium, they are not related to beryls (emeralds, aquamarine, Bixbite, Morganite, etc…)…  Only sort of-ish, I guess.  Here’s how I would describe the stone as if I were the beaten, over-qualified interpretive guide of the hypothetical “Chrysoberyl Museum” leading a group of tourists in flip flops and aloha shirts:

Leading the tour group into the great hall of the museum: “Chrysoberyls are different from beryls mainly because of their crystal structure.  Beryls are silicates that have big molecules and chrysoberyls only have one beryllium atom so there is less crap glommed onto the beryl atom.  Chrysoberyls only form in pegmatites–“

“But so do Beryls!” Says some interrupting know it all eight year old.

“Shut up, not all of them do!” Says the pissed off tour guide, “Some beryls form in rhyolites. Ha! Now shut your yap and let me do my damned job!”

“What’s a pegmatite?” Asks some oafish dad dragging his bored children along (noses buried in their cell phones).

“Well, that’s a stupid question,” replies the guide (the know it all eight year old nods his head in agreement), “Especially considering that there isn’t a geologist alive that can accurately describe it to you without sounding like a child explaining the story line to “Syriana”.  The facts: a pegmatite is an igneous rock (meaning that it was once molten magma goo that formed far beneath the crust); it created big crystals in its matrix as it cooled; the stuff inside those crystals is similar to that of granite (you know, the kitchen counters in the homes of yuppies); and for geologists it’s like porn, you know it when you see it.  Does that help?”


“Whatever.  Moving on.  When this magma comes oozing up deep from the mantle, it can begin to gather up a bunch of ground water as it moves higher through the Earth’s crust.  The magma is too hot to allow the now super-heated water to join into the formation of any crystals inside the magma.  By the time the magma had mostly cooled, the trapped water formed chrysoberyl in the cracks and crevices out of bits of beryllium and aluminum.  Basically, if it wasn’t for the water being present in the magma, the oxide that is chrysoberyl could not find the oxygen needed to form in the first place!  All you need to make Alexandrite from here is some chromium and your set!  Pretty bitchin’, right?  Does that help?”


The eight year old nods because he already knew that.

*Sigh* “OK, beryls are a silicates that have the basic chemical composition of Be3Al2(SiO3)6, meaning the crystalline molecule forms an asymmetrical spur on one side of the molecule leading to a hexagonal crystal when the molecules are stacked, like parallelograms.  While chrysoberyls are tinier than beryls and only have one beryllium atom to form around, so their crystal structure is much more symmetrical and forms an orthorhombic arrangements, sort of like cubes with dips in the middle.  Does that help?”


Eight year old roles his eyes because everyone should know that by now.

Considering that none of you have learned anything from the prolonged inside joke above, I digress…  To find Chrysoberyls one essentially needs to find pegmatites with beryllium and that also look like they had a lot of water in them when they formed.  To find Alexandrites you find those same pegmatites but also look for evidence of there being chromium too.

The great things about gemstones is that there is always a new discovery to be found somewhere.  Once the Ural source for these groovy stones played out, other deposits began to be discovered.  Also, these pegmatites don’t just form chrysoberyls, they will have also have formed fantastic crystals of quartz, garnets, tourmaline, spinel, and corundum to boot.  So, where there are chrysoberyls there are a shit load of other stuff to make some overlord really rich.

Most significant mineral discoveries come from alluvial deposits along some river or stream.  In early 20th century discoveries of Alexandrite were made in Sri Lanka and India where the stones were nothing more than weathered pebbles found in streams.  The stones are not of the most vivid color; with color changes going from brownish-orange to yellowish-brown.  Other discoveries of Alexandrites have been made in Tanzania, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Brazil with most of the today’s production coming from mines in India and Brazil.

In Brazil, Alexandrites and other forms of chrysoberyls are found in the states of Espento Santos, Bahia, and Minas Gerais.  Minas Gerais means “general mines” and was settled by prospectors looking for gold.  Later, discoveries of diamonds, rhodonite, tourmalines, garnets, and everything else one would expect made it one of the great gem centers of the world.  Miners in Minas Gerais work at the earth in the most primitive fashion imaginable.  Modern mining technology isn’t really needed in an area where one can unearth a million dollar stone while digging a latrine, or putting a fence post in the ground!  Noosphere Geologic has a near flawless 8.53 carat oval cut Brazilian Alexandrite as the flagship stone in our collection.

An 8.53ct oval cut Brazilian Alexandrite that is part of the Noosphere Geologic Collection
An 8.53ct oval cut Brazilian Alexandrite that is part of the Noosphere Geologic Collection

There have been several places in North America where one can find chrysoberyls: Pend Orielle County, Washington (also home to some GIGANTIC green beryls); the Black Hills of South Dakota; the border region of Nevada and Arizona in Northwestern Arizona; in North Central Colorado in the Front Range; and all along the Appalachian Mountains (basically the same age and type of mountains as the Urals) from North Carolina, Virginia, and all throughout New England.  The only place so far, that I know of, where Alexandrites have been found in the United States is at the La Madera Mountain mine in Rio Arriba County, in central New Mexico, which is reported to produce occasional small chrysoberyl crystals with weak color change.  I have yet to see any of these stones first hand, but I plan on getting me some!

Natural Alexandrites are among the most valuable stones in the world. True, clean red/green stones sell for more than $10,000 per carat.  When the stones have more of a brownish or orange tint to the colors they sell for about $2,000 per carat; with raspberry/blue stones (common to the Brazilian variety) selling for about$8,000-$10,000 per carat.  If the stone is Russian then expect to pay $50,000 per carat.  If the stone is Russian, with red/green color change, is over ten carats, and is inclusion-free, just put a million dollar minimum on it from the get-go.

You can find a bunch of beautiful examples of lab-created synthetic Alexandrites out there, as well as imitation stones that are usually lab-created colorchange spinel or colorchange sapphire that are made with vanadium.  Sometimes you can find “crown” or “doublet” Alexandrites that have thin, real sheets of Alexandrite glued to a different stone and sold as the real thing.  If you are going to purchase an Alexandrite, take it to someone who knows what they are doing.  Look for bubbles or curved striations inside of the stone with a microscope; this is a sign that it is lab-created and should only sell for a few dollars per carat.  Also, having a certification from a reputable gemological laboratory is a good idea (like the GIA, EGL, AGL, Swiss Lab, IGTL, etc…), this will give you confidence that what you are purchasing is the real deal.  You don’t want to drop $40,000 on that engagement ring to find out that you just bought a $5 stone that was made at a lab in an office park in Bangkok!



The Rare Gem Series: Demantoid Garnet

Demantoid?  That’s kind of a satanic sounding name.  The guy who named that stone must have been color blind because they’re green, not red.  Oh well, the Russians named it and used the Dutch word for diamond, “demant”, and the Greek word for alike, “eidos” and mated them together to get “demantoid”.  Discovered on the banks of the Bobrovka river in the central Western Ural Mountains in 1868 the stone quickly became popular among Russia’s elite due to its high indices of refraction and superior color dispersion to that of even diamonds.

Jeffrey Mine Specimen
A rich specimen of demantoid in wollastonite from the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine in Quebec, Canada (

Demantoids are the green version of andradite garnets, a calcium and iron rich silicate mineral.  Garnets are defined in a weird way; they are called “solid solutions”, meaning that the stones will always have a the structure of (SiO4)3 contained with in it, but will be bundled with a different series of atoms to form the particular molecule of the different garnets.  In the case of Demantoids, the molecule looks like this: Ca3Fe2(siO4)3.  I know it is a bit technical, but bear with me.

The Urals are a mountain range born of collision.  They form the seam where the continents of Europe and Asia bonded and made the super continent of Eurasia.  When two continents collide everything gets all orogenous.  As the two massive hunks of Earth merge they have two options: 1) if they are of different densities the denser of the two will subduct (like what happens off the coast of Washington and Oregon between the dense Juan de Fuca Plate and the lighter North American Plate; or 2) if the are the same density (like two chunks of continent) they collide and start to push up as they attempt to override the other equally-matched mass of rock.  We can see this happening today in the Himalayas where the Indian Sub Continent has slammed into South Asia.

The big collision that formed the Urals was about 250-300 million years ago making these mountains among the oldest on the planet.  At one time, when they were a young whipper-snapper, the Urals may have approached 30,000ft in altitude like that of the greenhorn Himalayas.  Time, combined with weather, has reduced the Urals to but a 1,500 mile ridge of hills today ranging from 1,100ft to about 6,000ft at its highest.

When Europe and Asia collided and formed the Urals a lot of rock cooking happened.  When  continents collide and form a mountain range, a bunch of earth is uplifted and piled upon more earth like wrinkles in a bed sheet.  When rocks are buried miles deep they come under great pressure (how long do you think you would last as the bag full of water that is your human form if you had five to twenty miles of rock piled on top of you?), and fantastic temperatures.  Sometimes the temperatures can be in the thousands of degrees!  This heat and pressure metamorphizes rock; essentially there is enough heat and pressure to change the chemical structure of the material, thus creating new minerals in the process.

Metamorphosis is how andradite garnets appear into being.  When the limestones that formed the seafloor between the two colliding continents merged and squished, the added heat and pressure caused mineral leaching.  In Russia, this just happened to occur with some squishing serpentinites (soapstone).  The calcium and iron from these two stones bonded to form the solid solution with the oxygen and silica, that is the basis for all garnets, creating the demantoid.  The special thing about the Russian demantoids is that the serpentinite cased the garnets to form around this stuff called chrysotile which is a form of asbestos.  The thin, long strands of chrysotile make wispy curved inclusions in the stones that look like horsetails.  The demantoids with these inclusions are simply known as horsetail garnets; and they are worth a lot of money.

Microscopic image of a horsetail inclusions in a Russian specimen (Emporia State University, Kansas and the Gemological Institute of America)

From the time demantoids were discovered in 1868, up to the Communist Revolution in 1919, Demantoids were wildly popular.  Even famed jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé (of Fabergé Egg fame) regularly incorporated demantoids into his pieces.  After the revolution jewels were not much of a concern for Soviet population.  Mine production in the Urals started once again in the 1970s when it was realized that outside markets were demanding this extremely rare stone.  Some mining in the Urals carries on today, and rarely some Russian stones can be purchased at auction.

More recent discoveries in Namibia (1996), Madagascar (2009), Italy, Iran, and Afghanistan have come on to the market.  The Jeffrey Mine in Quebec, Canada is producing some of the largest, most beautiful demantoids ever seen.  The Jeffrey is the largest asbestos mine in the world and a big source of contention among Quebecois.

Jeffrey Asbestos Mine Quebec, Canada
The Jeffrey Asbestos Mine is the largest open pit asbestos mine in the Western Hemisphere. It is a fantastic source of mesothelioma and garnets!

Most Demantoids are incredibly small with most gem-quality cut stones being under 1ct.  Stones over 2cts are rare, and stones over 3cts are incredibly rare.  Noosphere Geologic has in its private collection a 5.4ct round-brilliant cut Russian horsetail, as well as a 1.32 oval cut Russian demantoid.  We also have several larger uncut stones in matrix from the Jeffrey Mine, and from Madagascar and Namibia.

The value of demantoids are generally very high.  Eye-clean Russian stones larger than one carat can easily fetch $25,000 to $50,000 per carat, while stones with visible inclusions will get between $1,000 to $5,000 per carat.  The largest eye-clean Russian demantoid is only 8cts and worth upwards of one million dollars.  The largest single stone ever found was a Russian 252.5ct ugly green blob.

5.4ct Russian demantoid
This is a 5.4ct Russian horsetail demantoid specimen (Noosphere Geologic)

In the United States there are several potential locations in the Southeast, Montana, California, and even my home state of Washington where old asbestos mines exist.  If you are going to look, be careful.  Wear masks if recommended, and if you see the long fibrous strands of serpentine (different that serpentinite or soapstone) get out!

The Rare Gem Series: Spinel (The Balas Ruby)

Spinel?  Really, that cheap fake crap that you can get at Forever 21? Rare?  You bet.  To explain why, I have to take you time travelling; going back maybe a thousand years to the domains of some lost civilizations in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Spinel used to not exist; way back when, there were only rubies and sapphires. If it was red, it was a ruby.  If it was a color other than red it was a sapphire.  That was a pretty simple classification, the type of classification that drives my birding roommate up the wall.  To me there are six kinds of birds:  crows, seagulls, not-crows, and not-seagulls, chickens, not-chickens.  I know I’m wrong, but it’s too much fun to watch him pop a vessel when I play the moron.

In the mountains of what is now the border region between Afghanistan and Tajikistan shiny, gemmy red stones were discovered and a very primitive mining began.

The Black Prince Ruby
Queen Elizabeth the Second’s crown is adorned with the Black Prince Ruby, that is actually a spinel.

Who commissioned the mine? When were they opened?  The first known historical reference to these “rubies” was by the Central Asian Divinci of his day, Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973-1048):

Ruby mines are situated near the village of Warzqanj which is situated in the direction of Kharukhan while going from Badakhshan at three days’ journey. It is a part of an emperor’s domain, the capital of which is Shakasim, which is close to the mines producing this stone. The approach to the mines via this route is easier, and it passes between Shakkasmi and Shaknan. This is why the governor of Wakhan keeps the most precious jewels for himself, and precious jewels pass this way clandestinely. Jewels weighing beyond a certain size are prohibited from being carried outside the mine, and only stones weighing up to the sizes he has fixed or specified are permitted to be taken out.

It is said that the mine was located when there was an earthquake in the area and the mountain was cloven. Big rocks fell down and everything was destroyed. Rubies were disgorged in the process. Women thought the stone was something with which clothes could be dyed. They ground the stones, but no colour came out. Women showed the rubies to men and the matter was publicised. The king ordered the miners to locate the mine. When they found it they began to excavate it.

al-Bīrūnī 11th Century

al-Bīrūnī was an amazing person, by the way.  A true polymath (renaissance man, genius, righteous dude), al-Bīrūnī spoke Persian, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac, and probably others.  He was a master of physics, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, is known as the “the world’s first anthropologist”, and the founder of geodesy (the science of accurately measuring the surface, shape, and features of the Earth).  This article isn’t about al-Bīrūnī, but maybe a future one will be, until then read up on the dude, he was amazing.

 Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī
The Divinci of his day… I guess Divinci should be called the Biruni of his day since he came afterwards.

I digress… In the early 1970s, Dr. Mira Alekseyevna Bubnova,  an anthropologist from the Tajik Academy of Sciences, found evidence that mining operations may have began as early as the 7th century.  The empire of Shakasim funded and controlled the mining operations for the “rubies” and the local governor of Wakhan managed to keep the best stones for himself.  There were also problems of miners “high-grading”  the nicer stones for themselves (“high-grading”: that act of sneaking big, fancy stones or gold nuggets, etc, out of a mine) and then smuggling them out of the realm.  The laws were fairly strict, only a stone smaller than a certain size was allowed to be removed from the mines, leaving many of the greatest stones right where they were found.

Some of the most famous rubies in the world came from these mines; the Timur Ruby, the Samarian Spinel, and the Black Prince Ruby.  Wars were fought over various crown jewels; the majority of which managed to be coalesced by the Mughal Empire.  The Mughals were a mix of Persian and Mongolian ancestry that were direct descendants of the Genghis Khan.  These warrior lords invaded and ruled much of the Indian subcontinent from the 16th to the 19th centuries.  The wealth of the maharajahs who ruled the empire were legendary.  Portuguese and English sailors who were presented to the courts of these men told the world of the piles of jewels that surrounded them in the throne rooms and of the elaborate, ornate jewelry that adorned the monarchs and their family.  Much of the gold that was discovered in the gold rushes of the Yukon, California, and Colorado went to the maharajahs to create their jewelry; where they traded their lesser stones for the gold.  One particular tradition that began with the Mughal Maharajahs was to inscribe their names on the grand stones.  Some saw this as vandalism while others, like Emperor Jehangir, saw it as a way for their name to live on forever.  In his case, it has.

Rubies and Sapphires were so important to the world’s powers that England overthrew Burma to take theirs.  It was not until gemological sciences started to become more refined by the 19th century, as did all sciences with the Industrial Revolution, that was realized that what we had been calling rubies and sapphires were not really exactly what we thought they were, but different stones that were basically named wrong.  It turns out that there were two stones involved, just not he distinction of rubies and sapphires like everyone thought, but of corundum and spinel.

The problem: Scientists had to decide on their definitions.  Which stone would remain a “ruby”, which stone would remain a “sapphire”, and which stone would get the new moniker of “spinel”.  Well, 150 years later we have our answer.  If it was corundum and red, it was called a “ruby”.  If it was corundum and any other color, science henceforth dubbed thee “sapphire”.  Everything else then became “spinel”.  The downside to this was that the largest red stones in the crown jewels of Iran, Russia, England, France, and India were all ignored as useless because they were no longer “rubies” as previously thought.  Spinel’s problem was that rubies had 4,000 years of marketing behind them, and spinel had none.  If the scientists had decided the other way around and called what are now known as rubies and sapphires “spinels” instead things would have turned out different indeed.

Only recently (in the last decade or so), have spinels started to get noticed in their own right. Jewelers and collectors started seeing the inherent beauty in the wide array of colors of spinels.  Those in the know have also realized how rare these stones actually are.  Historically, gem-quality spinel was only found in three places around the world: Badakshan (Afghanistan/Tajikistan); the gravels of Sri Lanka; and Mogok (Burma/Myanmar).  Two recent discoveries in Luc Yen, Vietnam and in Mahenge, Tanzania have come to the forefront as of late.  Mahenge is the real reason for spinel’s revival.  The discovery of the neon orange/red/pink stones there have driven up prices world-wide with stones larger than 5 carats fetching $10,000 to $20,000 per carat, now rivaling the finest rubies of the same quality and size.

Spinels are usually found in metamorhic rock, marble mostly, all over the world.  There are deposits on every continent, including North America.  It is the discovery of gem-quality stones that evade us here in the the “New World”.  You can find examples of ugly, brown cubic crystals of spinel in New York and New Jersey, and Ontario.  There are reports of gem-quality stones in East Fresno County, CA of various colors and sizes–I haven’t seen any yet, nor can I find any photographs of these supposed spinels.

I listed a couple famous spinels from the mines of Central Asia a little earlier.  The current world record holder is the Samarian Spinel at 500cts.  The stone is heavily included, brownish red in color, “polished in the rough”, and worth tens of millions of dollars.  In ancient times spinels, and most stones in general, were polished in their rough form as exact faceting methods where not necessarily invented yet.  In the 18th century, the Persian King Nader Shah captured the stone and its 270ct cousin in an invasion and conquest of India.  There is a hole drilled in the Samarian that was supposedly used to affix it

Pink Mahenge Spinels
Spinels from Tanzania that are famous for their neon characteristics. From Swala gem Traders

around the neck of the Biblical Golden Calf that the Israelites created while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments.  The problem is that the Samarian was most likely from the mines of Northern Afghanistan and was mined a couple thousand years after Moses yelled at the idol worshipers in Sinai.

The most valuable spinels are as follows: Balas rubies (the stones that were originally thought to be rubies from Afghanistan/Tajikistan); neon Mehenge spinels (a 10ct stone will cost you about $200k!); pigeon blood spinels, usually from Mogok, Sri Lanka, or Vietnam; and cobalt spinels (often from Sri Lanka or Tanzania, they are a steely blue hue and color come from, you guessed it, cobalt!) which can be valued upwards of $5,000 per carat.

Cobalt Spinels
Tanzanian Cobalt Spinels from Pala Gems

This brings us to my big announcement:

I proudly present the new record holding polished spinel:  I am the proud owner of the The Sinful Red Spinel (named such because it is sinfully ugly).  The original stone was 2000cts and was found embedded in white marble in Mahenge, Tanzania.  I received the stone in the rough and polished it myself.  Keeping with the tradition of the great Mughal emperors the Sinful Red is polished in the rough and weighs in at a hefty 689cts crushing the old world record holder!

I have a large collection of Tanzanian and Vietnamese spinels that I will be polishing in the coming months and I look forward to sharing them with you.

10.24ct Ceylon raspberry spinel from Sri Lanka
10.24ct Ceylon raspberry spinel from Sri Lanka. Owned by Noosphere Geologic.

7ct Mogok spinel.
7ct Mogok, Burma spinel. Extremely rare, owned by Noosphere Geologic.