Topaz crystals have been held in high regard as gemstones from classical times, though they went under the name of 'chrysoprasios', the golden stone, and not 'topazios'. At that time the stone we call topaz was probably lumped together with other yellow gems, such as yellow sapphire, beryl and chrysoberyl. The wholly improper trade practice of applying the name 'topaz' to the much cheaper citrine quartz is now, fortunately, less prevalent than it used to be.
Most people know topaz as a yellow gemstone, and in jewelry it is seen most commonly in a range of tints from pale yellow to rich brown. The most desirable shade is a medium brown with a tint of red, a subtle color not found in any other gemstone. Pink topazes are also much admired, the more so the deeper their color. They are very rare in nature; practically all are produced by a carefully controlled heat treatment of brown stones. A topaz color seen in jewelry as blue is enhanced to become blue, because few blue topazes have a sufficiently deep color. Most are paler than aquamarines and like these can have a greenish tint. Most common and also less valuable is completely pure, colorless topaz.
Colored topazes have been very popular from the sixteenth century onward, and have often been worn in exquisite settings as necklaces, earrings, brooches or entire suites. Being hard, they take an excellent polish and display a fair lustre. Their depth of color varies from stone to stone, so that it is no simple matter to match a number of stones exactly.
For this reason, and also to deepen and brighten their color, both pink and brown topazes were often backed with metal foil of an appropriate shade which largely compensates these inequalities. Such foiling, also used with other pale transparent stones, has to be contained in a closed setting (one that covers the entire back of the stone). An open setting, which leaves the pavilion largely uncovered, usually indicates that the stones have been more carefully matched for color. This in turn implies that a wide selection of stones was available which was not the case until the nineteenth century. Foiling old jewelry therefore carries no pejorative implications, even when the original foiling has faded and lost some of it's virtue. It is often not practicable to refoil and reset the stones without damaging them, quite apart from the adverse effect on the historical value of the jewelry.
Topaz came from mines in Upper Egypt; during the middle ages and subsequently it was brought from the East (Ceylon) and from the eighteenth century onwards, from Brazil; from Russia. There are also some minor localities in Scotland and Ireland. In the USA topaz was found in California, Colorado, New Hampshire and Utah. Very well-formed crystals came from South-West Africa and Nigeria, but these are mainly colorless. Very large crystals are exhibited at several museums, some of which weight over 100 pounds.
Topaz is not synthesized commercially, the usual substitute being citrine. Some synthetic spinel and, of course, paste, has been marketed imitating both pink and sherry-colored topaz.
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