What do former Russian royals and the Red Sea have in common?
Gems, of course–in particular, one famous peridot plus a few smaller ones. All of these stones came from Zabargad Island in the Red Sea.
It’s not easy to find a color image of the royal Russian chrysolite (an old name for peridot), but it looks majestic even in black and white.
Although you can’t see it here, the gemstone is set in silver and gold, surrounded by 30 diamonds. That setting was made early in the 19th century, but sometimes the enormous chrysolite is exhibited alone. Unlike most other peridots, it is close to perfect, with only three microscopic cracks!
Probably Romanov ladies wore it as a brooch or locket.
The lore handed down about this Russian crown jewel was that some crusaders had brought it out of the Holy Land. However, in 1900, gem experts connected it to Zabargad Island in the Red Sea.
Today Zabargad – a little piece of mostly barren land in the mdist of sparkling warm water – is a popular diving site. Back in the days of the pharaohs, though, it was the only place in the known world where you could mine peridot.
While ancient Egyptians certainly had true emeralds, some of their green stones actually may have been peridots. Anyway, the pharoahs kept such close control over Zabargad that any unauthorized visit could easily earn you the death penalty.
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder was familiar with this famous mining site, which was called Topazios back then, as well as less glittery names, like the Island of Death and Snake Island.
During the Crusades it became known as St. John’s Island and then Zabargad–Island of Green Stones.
I don’t speak Italian, but Zabargad is such a popular diving spot now that it’s not easy to find videos online that focus on the land. (If you understand the narration, feel free to share it in a comment.)
Although Arizona and Norway are the go-to places for today’s peridot miners, Zabargad is still an island of green rocks because of its geology.
As we saw recently, peridot is a mantle gem and this island was originally part of Earth’s upper mantle.
Its peridotite and gems were probably uplifted when the Red Sea spreading center between the African and Arabian plates first opened up roughly 35 million years ago.
However, the green rocks of Zabargad Island may record events that happened deep underground 600-700 million years ago, when this region might have been a subduction zone and the supercontinent of Gondawanaland was taking shape.
Either way, that’s a lot of geologic drama to produce such a quietly elegant gemstone.
Gübelin, E. 1981. Zabargad: The ancient peridot island in the Red Sea. Gems and Gemology. 17(1): 2-8.
Revheim, O. 2015. Peridot from St. John’s/Zabargad Island. Mindat.org. https://www.mindat.org/article.php/2053/Peridot+from+St.+John%27s+_+Zabargad+Island Last accessed March 8, 2018.