As the story goes, Alexandrite was initially discovered in the 1830s, in the emerald mines of the Ural Mountains of Russia. The bright green stone was at first mistaken for emerald, until the sun went down. In the light of candles, its greenish hue vanished and a bright purplish-red took its place.
This was no emerald. Not only did it exhibit this extraordinary dichroism, but this new stone also proved to be far harder than emerald, registering an 8.5 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness.
A Brand-New Gemstone
Its discovery is most commonly attributed to the Finnish mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskjold (1792-1866). Others attribute its discovery to the man who ended up naming the stone, Count Lev Alekseevich Perovskii (1792-1856). Count Perovskii was an important nobleman and politician in Russia. He was also an avid mineralogist.
In truth, it is unlikely that either of these men drew the first sample out of the ground. However, they were among the first to put it under the microscope and are therefore credited with its ‘discovery’ as a brand-new gemstone.
In one version of events, the Count, perhaps perplexed by some of its non-emerald characteristics, is said to have sent a sample to Herra Nordenskjold for further study. The Finnish mineralogist at first mistook it for emerald, but its hardness caused him to investigate further. Looking long into the evening, the stone’s surprising change from green to red confirmed his suspicions: He was holding an exciting new gemstone in the chrysoberyl family. Having experienced this exciting revelation, he decided to give it a name.
Herra Nordenskjold went with diaphanite, based on its color-changing characteristic. This scientific name may have accompanied some documentation of the stone, but in the end, it wouldn’t stick. In a move motivated by politics, the Count stepped in and made a grand gesture. On April 17, 1834, he declared publicly that the new stone would be named after Russia’s future Tsar, Alexander Nikolaevich, who on that very day entered his majority (16th birthday).
The name stuck, and to this day alexandrites are linked inextricably with Tsarist Russia’s infamous history.