One of the best gem mines on earth is the seldom-visited Tokovaya. The little group of mines, located on the Tokovaya River which gently flows into the Pyshma on the Asiatic slope of the Urals, is about 91 kilometers east of Ekaterinburg, as the town was known until the Soviets named it Sverdlovsk [the town has now reverted to its original name]. Factories in and about Sverdlovsk manufacture politically sensitive articles, and visitors are discouraged from entering the region though travel is physically easy. Over the years the Ekaterinburg sector’s pegmatites and metamorphosed zones have been rich in amethyst, aquamarine, blue topaz, quartz, phenakite, chrysoberyl, emerald, and alexandrite. Nearly all gem varieties and species found there occur in fine crystals. Some are exceptional.
By the early 1800s, Ekaterinburg was already a fair-size city on the great road from Russia to Siberia It was named for Empress Catherine II, whose love affairs rated at least equal billing in Ekaterinburg along with stones from the new gem finds. Most of the city’s residents were connected in some way to mining. Russian coins were minted there, and large and efficient lapidary shops constituted a major industry. Cutters were expert at faceting, engraving seals, and carving gemstones. Prices were relatively low and street merchants annoyed visitors with offers of stones for sale.
In October 1830, a peasant charcoal-burner was making his way through the forest along the banks of the Tokovaya River when he came upon a large tree felled by a storm. In the exposed roots he found a number of green stones which he took to the gem cutting works in Ekaterinburg, then controlled by Czar Nicholas. The stones were identified as emeralds, and in 1831 the mica-schist deposit was developed as a mine. In many ways the new Tokovaya gemstone deposit geologically resembled the age-old Cleopatra emerald mines at Sikeit in Egypt’s Zabara Mountains, except that the Egyptian mines produced only emerald. Here phenakite, aquamarine, fluorite, apatite, and rutile occurred as well.
Emeralds from the Urals generally have fine dark green color but are so flawed and interspersed with mica that usable stones are very rare. Emeralds of lighter hue tend to contain fewr flaws. Crystals do not form with the perfection of Colombian emeralds and, therefore, command much less attention. Russian emeralds do come in grand sizes, however. Some crystals reportedly reach dimensions of 40 by 25 centimeters. A choice, rich green emerald crystal in the Fersman Mineralogical Museum vault measures 12 by 8.5 centimeters, and another in the American Museum of Natural History is 11 by 6 centimeters.
Czar Nicholas decreed that the imperial lapidary in Ekaterinburg receive the best available gems, cut or carve the gem material, then send finished stones to the palace in St. Petersburg. For some reason, a small collection of the best emeralds seen up to that time did not reach St. Petersburg, but instead arrived in Germany where they were sold to a prince. Some time later, the prince’s wife, wearing her emeralds, visited St. Petersburg. When the Czarina admired the stones the wearer confided that they came from Siberia. Astounded, the empress sent an officer to search the lapidary director’s house in Ekaterinburg. He found several emeralds of great value hidden away and the director was sent to prison.
An entirely new gemstone discovered in Tokovaya’s mica schists had the strange ability to change color under prevailing light. In daylight, rich green colors reflected from its dark background, while at night, under artificial light, it emitted red hues. Ostensibly found on April 23, 1830, the day young Czarevitch Alexander Nicolajevitch came of age, the new gem (a variety of chrysoberyl) created a sensation. It was named “alexandrite” in honor of the youth who would become Czar in 1855 [reigned 1855–1881]. To ensure even greater popularity, alexandrite’s colors of red and green were Russia’s national military colors.
Miners worked the emerald and alexandrite deposits under very primitive conditions. They worked best in spring, summer, and fall, mining known deposits and searching for new ones. But the long, harsh winters with mountainous snowdrifts and biting cold slowed mining activities to a virtual standstill. Most mining occurred in trenches or open pits but small tunnels sometimes followed the narrow veins.
The largest and finest alexandrite crystals ever found are from the Tokovaya deposit. Edwin Streeter wrote in Precious Stones and Gems (1898): “The wonderful alexandrite is an emerald by day and an amethyst at night. Its market value is extremely variable, and sometimes as much as £20 per carat is paid for a fine stone.” In 1980 a gem with the same qualities would be worth many thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately for the lapidaries, larger crystals, usually highly fractured, yielded little facet-grade material and some crystals would not facet at all. Large (over 3 carats), clean alexandrite gems are among the rarest and most costly of all gemstones. The greatest of all alexandrite specimens known to the author is housed in Moscow’s Fersman Mineralogical Museum. The 18-by-13-centimeter matrix contains at least 22 large alexandrite crystals. The largest, in the specimen’s center, measures more than 6.5 centimeters across. Single crystals have been reported measuring 12 centimeters, but their current location is unknown. Max Bauer in Precious Stones (1896) stated.