Peridot, a vibrant green gemstone, has been used for adornment for over four thousand years. Found in lava, meteorites and deep in the earth’s mantle, peridot is believed to symbolise the tears of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) chronicles the gem’s fascinating journey.
The word peridot comes from the Arabic “faridat”, which means “gem”. Most peridot formed deep inside the earth and was delivered to the surface by volcanoes. Some also came to earth in meteorites, but this extraterrestrial peridot is extremely rare, and not likely to be seen in a retail jewellery store.
History and Lore
Peridot has always been associated with light. In fact, ancient Egyptians called it the “gem of the sun”. Some believed it protected its owner from “terrors of the night”, especially when it was set in gold. Others strung the gems on donkey hair and tied them around their left arms to ward off evil spirits.
Early records indicate that the ancient Egyptians mined a beautiful green gem on an island in the Red Sea called Topazios, now known as St. John’s Island or Zabargad. Legend has it that the island was infested with snakes, making mining unpleasant until an enterprising pharaoh drove them into the sea. Zabargad is the source for many large fine peridots in the world’s museums.
From the earliest times, people confused the stone now known as peridot with other gems – it was one of many labelled as “topaz”. Some historians believe Cleopatra’s famous emerald collection might actually have been peridot. People in medieval times continued to confuse peridot with emerald. For centuries, people believed the fabulous 200-carat gems adorning the shrine of the Three Holy Kings in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral were emeralds. They are, in fact, peridots. Today, peridot is still prized for its restful yellowish green hues and long history.
Journey of the Stone
Peridot is the gem variety of the mineral olivine. Its chemical composition includes iron and magnesium, and iron is the cause of its attractive yellowish green colour. The gem often occurs in volcanic rocks called basalts, which are rich in these two elements. Found in lava, meteorites, and deep in the earth’s mantle, yellow-green peridot is the extreme gem.
Gem miners find peridot as irregular nodules (rounded rocks with peridot crystals inside) in some lava flows in the United States, China, and Vietnam and, very rarely, as large crystals lining veins or pockets in certain types of solidified molten rock. Sources for the latter include Finland, Pakistan, Myanmar, and the island of Zabargad.
Geologists believe both types of deposits relate to the spreading of the sea floor that occurs when the earth’s crust splits, and rocks from its mantle are pushed up to the surface. Sometimes as in Myanmar these rocks can be altered, deformed, and incorporated into mountain ranges by later earth movements. Rarely, peridot can have an extraterrestrial source, being contained in meteorites that have fallen to earth.
Some people find peridot’s colour unappealing, particularly the olive and yellow-green commercial quality stones, but many have never seen a fine rich green coloured gem. Looking at different colours of peridot side by side will demonstrate the range of colours available. Olive tones are more affordable than vivid spring greens. Although it’s most common to see peridot set in yellow gold, in fine qualities this gem is complemented equally well by platinum, white gold and silver.
Although the best peridot is a pure grass green, most peridot is yellowish-green. The colour range for peridot is narrow, from a brown-green colour to yellowish green to pure green. Large, strongly coloured examples can be spectacular, and attractive smaller gems are available for jewellery at all price points. Connoisseurs seek out large, well-cut, intensely coloured grass-green one-of-a-kind gems, but there’s a thriving market for smaller, pastel shades in standard sizes.
The best-quality peridot has no eye-visible inclusions, with perhaps a few tiny black spots actually minute mineral crystals noticeable under magnification. Other inclusions common in peridot are reflective, disk-shaped “lily pads”.
Skilled cutting will maximise peridot’s beautiful body colour to make a stunning gem. It’s available in a wide variety of shapes and cutting styles, including ovals, pears, rounds, emerald cuts, cushion cuts, triangle cuts and marquise shapes. The quality of the cut can make a big difference in beauty and brilliance. Your peridot should sparkle in a lively way, reflecting light back evenly across the entire gem. Poorly cut gems are much less marketable and sell at a discount.
The finest gems are generally found in sizes larger than 10 carats, but there are fine gems of more than 50 carats on the market. Smaller gems cut to standard sizes are affordable and readily available.
Care and Cleaning Guide
Keep your peridot beautiful by following simple care and cleaning guidelines. Peridot has fair to good toughness. It’s durable enough for jewellery wear but should be worn with some care so as not to scratch it. Warm, soapy water is always safe for cleaning. Peridot is rarely treated, but might have fractures. Ensure that fracture-filled gemstones are cleaned only with warm, soapy water.