Topaz from Minas Gerais, Brazil. PHOTO: Rob Lavinsky,

These are some notes from my research files, typed down quickly in all sorts of rushed circumstances. If I’d eventually used them in Jewels: A Secret History, I would definitely have checked them first for word-for-word accuracy! The Braganza story is at the end.


The ancients called it chrysolyte, from the Greek word for golden stone. But today it refers to another stone, yellowish green and sometimes confused with the cymophane and peridot. (Castellani p. 68)

“The true topaz is a “gemm translucide, perspicuous or transparent, with an excellent aureus or golden splendour, or as I may so say, with a pleasing sun-shine splendour,”  (Thomas Nicols A Lapidary 1652 pp108-112)

THERE ARE THREE KINDS: the first which is the true chrysolite is a very hard, glorious sunshine gemm “which Albertus Magnus saith doth discover the greatest of its beauty in the mornings and at other times of the day is lesse beautiful than then.” The other two kinds are not as good: chryselectrum and melichrysus, both of which are somewhat golden but less glorious and softer.


(Again sourced from Nichols, 1652)

AFRICA: “The best oriental ones are found in Ethiopia “they are the hardest of all other jewels but the Diamond” – and others are found in Arabia but these are often to yellow and too small’ ‘but these fall much short of the glory of an excellent Chrysolite, whose sunshine beauty will easily make it known from all the soft troubled clouded kinds thereof”.

EUROPE: “The European ones come from Bohemia, and they are as glorious but a little softer than the Asian ones. Some excellent ones are from India and Bactria, and they can weigh 12 pounds. “Anselmus Boetius saith that he saw a Bohemian Chrysolite that was given to Rodolphus the second, Emperour of Rome, that was two ells long and half an ell broad.”

SIBERIA: Some of the best topaz crystals were found in the 19th century close to the Urulga River in the remote areas of the Borschchovochny Mountains in Siberia. Most were sherry coloured and some weighed up to 10kg. Symes & Harding Crystal and Gem p11.

Intense blue topaz from Zimbabwe. PHOTO: Rob Lavinsky,

BRAZIL: Careless handling in Brazil resulted in radioactive parcels of blue topaz being sold in the 1980s. Fortunately none has been reported at the retail level and some were confiscated at a well-known wholesale gem show (Joan Ahrens, Hong Kong Gems and Jewels p.41). In antiquity all yellow stones were called topaz and this practice continues today with much quartz sold as “smoky topaz” or “golden topaz”… the words precious or Imperial should precede the golden variety. (Ahrens p.104)


“Boetius saith that a water coloured with Rhubarb or with Saffron doth make a representation of the tincture of a Chrysolite,” Nichols writes. “There are several ways to adulterate Topaz, the best of which sophistications is as follows: R. of powder of Crystall, or of glass lb. Put two drachmes of crocus martis to it and a little minium: this must be put to it as it is molten upon the fire or in the furnace. …”


Cardanus said that with the powder of it in wine he cured Cesar Palavicinus of a fever he had for 15 days, and another man he cured of Melancholy and of the falling sickness. The powder is said to be good in “asthmatick passions” … and if it is held under the tongue by someone with fever it is said to quench thirst. “it is cold and dry as all other pretious stones are.”

It is also one of the twelve sacred gems as listed in the Book of Revelations. (21.20) “This is one of those stones by which the glory of the seventh foundation of the wall of the New Jerusalem is discovered to us.” – it is perfectly hard, so that by the heat of fire it may be made diaphanous and void of all colour, and thus like the best sapphire changed into an admirable diamond… “no other stone whatever can better resemble an Orientall Diamond than it will.” A chrysolite weighing eight grains is worth four crowns (one of the excellent ones of 12 grains is worth nine crowns, and one of these glorious one of the weight of two scruples is worth 100 crowns.” (Nicols)

Anselmus Boetius said that he saw one of these that weighed scarcely 2 scruples and it was sold for 200 crowns. The colour of which (he saith) being separated from it, it was so exactly set in a ring that a skilfull jeweller could not know it from a true Diamond. It is whitened like sapphires. Ovid 2. Metamorphosis, doth very splendidly feigne a chariot of the sunne made of a chrysolite in that he saith:

Aureus axis erat, temo aureus, aurea summae/ Curvatura rotae, radiorum argenteus ordo/ Per juga Chrysolthi, positaeque ex ordine gemme/ Clara repercusso reddebant lumina Phoebo.

One translation of that is from Ovid, The Metamorphoses translated by A.S.Kline (the second sentence): “The warning ended, but Phaethon still rejected his words, and pressed his purpose, blazing with desire to drive the chariot. So, as he had the right, his father led the youth to the high chariot, Vulcan’s work. It had an axle of gold, and a gold chariot pole, wheels with golden rims, and circles of silver spokes. Along the yoke chrysolites and gemstones, set in order, glowed with brilliance reflecting Phoebus’s own light.


Diamond workers in Brazil c.1830 from John Mawe Travels in the Interior of Brazil

In around 1790, three criminals were banished into perpetual exile in the interior of Brazil. They were ordered not to approach any big towns; the penalty for disobedience was life imprisonment. The three men decided to try their luck mining in the Rio Plata area, hoping that a big find of gold might reverse their fortunes and their sentences. In 1797, after six years of searching (and avoiding cannibals and government soldiers on the way) they came to the river Abaite. It was a drought and the waters were at their lowest levels known in living history.

While panning for gold they were surprised to find, in one of the pans, a stone of excellent heft that weighed nearly an ounce. A clergyman helped get them access to the governor at Villa Rica who consulted a jeweller to decide whether the stone was or was not a diamond. It was decided that it was, and the men were pardoned. It does not appear that they were allowed to keep the jewel.

It was called the “Braganza”, after the Portuguese Royal House of Braganza. However now the stone has disappeared from sight, and it is believed by many experts not to have been diamond but topaz.

It was first recorded by Mawe in Travels in the Interior of Brazil who described the unlikely story of the pardoned criminals and their incredible find.

Nineteenth century jeweller and adventurer Edwin Streeter noted in 1882 (Great Diamonds of the World) that John Murray, in his Memoir on the Diamond, “tells us that it is still uncut”, although Don John VI had a hole drilled through it and he suspended it around his neck on feast days.

“If genuine, the Braganza is by far the largest diamond – not only now in existence, but of which there is any record. But its very size, weighing no less than 1,680 carats in the rough, has caused it to be suspected, and no opportunity has hitherto been afforded of examining it…”p37 Even if only one third of it survived the cutting process, Streeter pointed out that it would still be twice as large as the Great Mogul, the next largest cut stone of which we have any records.

Streeter notes there are other accounts and many possible weights attributed to the Braganza. He tells a story of the German Aulic-councillor Beireis of Helmstadt, who possessed a stone he believed to be a diamond – weighing 6,400 carats. He kept it locked up in a cabinet and spread the story round that he had received it from the Emperor of China. “Nobody of course believed this story, but the strangest part of it was that at his death [in 1809] the stone had disappeared” – even though Goethe himself testified to its existence. It could be that he loved mystery, or it could be that he wanted to save his reputation by preventing the true character of the gem from being known. “It is well to remember that the topaz, which consists of a fluorosilicate mixed with silicate of aluminium is apt to be mistaken for the diamond by unpractised eyes.” (p.45)  Some even suggest it was not topaz, but rock crystal.

A final note on the Braganza, Portugal has not has a King since 1932, when its last monarch, the exiled Manoel II, died at Twickenham, after a day of watching tennis at Wimbledon.


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