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Apatite

Jewel of the Month
By Gary Roskin, G.G., FGA, Senior Editor
This story appears in the November 2004 issue of JCK magazine
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Three large pieces of teal-color rough stand out in this image of apatite, furnished by L. Allen Brown of All That Glitters, Methuan, Mass. These natural-color northern Madagascar gems have a total weight of approximately 138 cts. Heat-treated neon melee, two round brilliant blues from southern Madagascar, weigh .13 and .17 cts., respectively. Richard Krementz of Richard Krementz Gemstones, Newark, N.J., provided these two gems, along with the large 3.44-ct. deep teal cat's-eye. What to do with all those little gemmy crystals? Give them to Robert Bentley, New York, who will string them into a necklace like the one seen here.

While the name may conjure thoughts of food, the name apatite has little to do with eating. Its source is Greek mythology—Apate, goddess of deceit, trickery, and fraud and one of the "spirits" (diseases, sorrows, vices, and crimes that afflict humanity) found inside Pandora's Box.

Some say apatite got its name because it's a group of more than a dozen different minerals (fluorapatite, chlorapatite, hydroxylapatite, etc.), a Pandora's Box of mineral substitutions.

Other authors have noted that apatite crystals are one of the prime components of teeth, forming the junction between the dentin and the enamel. Because of the location, they try somewhat desperately to make a connection between "apatite" and "appetite." From what we can determine, however, no such connection exists.

Origin. Significant history for apatite as a serious commercial gem material begins only a decade ago, in the mid 1990s. That's when the electric blue and green Paraìba tourmalines were making big strides, selling for thousands of dollars per carat. When deposits of neon green, greenish-blue, and bluish-green apatite were unearthed in Madagascar, the industry finally had its Paraìba substitute.

"We first took notice of apatite back in about 1995," says L. Allen Brown, of All That Glitters, Methuan, Mass. (www.ATGGems.com). "It was actually hard to miss! Any gemstone with a color similar to Paraìba tourmaline will always attract attention."

Madagascan apatite originates in locales at the northern and southern tips of the island, notes Madagascan gems expert Tom Cushman of Allerton Cushman & Co. in Sun Valley, Idaho. "The smaller, more neon color comes from the south, and the larger teal-colored material is found in the north." At present, there is adequate supply of the small material from the south, but not of the northern material.

Apatite is one of those minerals that, like quartz or topaz, can be found (in non-gemmy mineral deposits) almost anywhere in the world, and in huge sizes. But as a gemstone, the most notable deposits of apatite outside Madagascar are those in Brazil, the United States, and Mexico, along with East African countries such as Tanzania, Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia.

Color. Natural color is typically green, but apatite also comes in yellow (notably from Mexico), blue, purple (with the best reportedly coming from Maine), pink, and reddish-brown. "The natural green color is a 'pine' green," says Cushman. It is described as "green or slightly green-blue" by Alain Darbellay of J. & A. Darbellay, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Some natural yellow and blue-green apatite is found in northern Madagascar, says Darbellay. "The color of the blue-green is natural, but it's not really considered a 'neon' color." Examples may be seen on his Web site at www.GGGems.com.

Darbellay and Cushman both note that the green gems known as neon apatites coming from southern Madagascar owe their color to heat treatment. There's also a mint green, Mediterranean blue, neon blue-green, and neon blue, writes Brown.

The darker, larger, teal-blue material comes from northern Madagascar and is rare. Both Cushman and Darbellay remind us that one of the major reasons apatite is in short supply is that sapphire and ruby mining is much more profitable for the Madagascans.

According to the literature, blue apatites have been found in Burma and Sri Lanka. Since some of this material was noted to have fibrous inclusions, that area may be a possible locality for the blue cat's-eye in our images. Violet apatites are said to have come from Maine and Southern California. Yellow and green cat's-eyes have been mined in Brazil, which is also the source of material that has been described as "an intense sapphire blue."

Apatite's color range is wide and varied, says Brown, so it's possible to collect many colors as well as many hues and saturations. "As long as this material is available, it will continue to sell as an alternative to higher-priced gemstones."

Size. "Up until the neon apatite started appearing on the market, we had overlooked apatite as a viable gemstone for inventory," says Brown. Back in 1995, Brown remembers seeing three large pieces of rough. Those pieces produced a 4.95-ct. square, an 11.33 carater, and a "monstrous museum piece" weighing 20-plus carats. "We haven't seen this material in the rough, nor have we seen faceted pieces of decent size, color, or clarity for several years," says Brown.

It is rare to find eye-clean neon apatite in sizes over a few carats. "Most of the material is small and is wonderful for melee, but acquiring gemstones in sizes over 1 ct., eye clean and well cut, has always been a challenge."

Quality. Gem crystals can be found in transparent to translucent qualities. Before the gemmy neon material was found, most commercial apatite was used as a source of phosphate for fertilizer, and the gemstones went to collectors.

The rough typically has inclusions, including fractures, so stones that can be faceted into eye-clean gems of more than a carat or so are rare. Some of the greens and yellows are cleaner and allow for larger specimens to be faceted. It is the bright neon blues that have always posed a challenge.

Availability of the larger faceted gems, or rough, always has been sporadic. Larger faceted pieces may be seen in the trade, but typically the inclusions are eye-visible and detract from the beauty of the color. Smaller faceted pieces have been readily available, and the price for this material is reasonable.

Jewelry manufacturers are finding good uses for melee. For larger, nicely faceted, eye-clean bright to neon colors, the price would be based on all of these factors and reportedly can be steep. Apatite possessing all of these characteristics would indeed be rare. Madagascan gem expert Anivaldo DeJesus has indicated to Brown that there should be a few kilograms of the Paraìba-like blue material available every month from the mine that he currently controls.

Prices. Sizes are generally small, but prices are right at 1% of the cost of Paraìba tourmalines, making it a terrific substitute. According to The Guide, even with its neon color, its durability problem will always be reflected in the price per carat. Stones ranging from 1 to 3 cts. in extra-fine quality are priced at $60 to $75 per carat.

Care and cleaning. Apatite is fairly soft, with a hardness of 5 on the Mohs scale, compared with 7.5 for tourmaline. Because of its softness, apatite should be used only in brooches, pendants, earrings, or jewelry settings that will protect the stone from a sharp blow or from being scratched. When used as accent stones in rings, apatite may require some added precautions, such as limited wear, to prevent damage to the gem or to its finish.

Enhancements. Typically, apatite is found in a natural green color, and then heated to create neon colors. According to Brown, "There are three distinct colors obtained from enhancement—neon blue, a Paraìba-like blue, and a blue similar to indicolite [blue tourmaline]." Depending on the heating process, it's also possible to obtain a very nice green similar to that of chrome diopside. Still, not all of the material will heat to the same color, which provides a wide range of colors.

One caveat: In the process of heating to improve color, inclusions may expand, or new fractures may develop, which obviously reduces the gem's value.

Suggested reading.Gems, Their Sources, Descriptions, and Identification, by Robert Webster, Fifth Edition, Butterworth-Heinemann publishing, 2002.

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