Pale Fire

The first time I saw a moonstone, it set off a tiny lust-storm. It was in a silver ring worn by a classmate—we were college sophomores in a drama program where I didn’t belong, because introverts make lousy actors. The stone had a blue flash that made me want it, and a name that made me want it more.

Moonstone - rough and cabbed. Cabochon is approximately 5 ct.
Rough and polished gem-quality moonstone, from the GIA website

How I got to be nineteen years old without knowing what a moonstone looks like, I can’t tell you. Moonstones are neither rare nor costly. They’re in the feldspar group, and feldspar is one of the most common minerals on earth. Moonstones have been used in jewelry for many centuries—they’re one of my birthstones, for heaven’s sake.

Moonstones have a long history of sending people into romantic fits. Ancient Hindus and Romans believed they were solidified moonbeams. As talismans, moonstones were said to bring you luck, make you clairvoyant, and help you sleep. René Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany used them in gorgeous Art Nouveau designs; Georg Jensen used them in rather cooler Scandinavian ones; and Antonio Pineda put them in modernist Mexican silver. In the 40s and 50s, many a brooch featured flowers with moonstone petals. And since the 70s, they’ve been the go-to hippie-girl stone, the stone you’re supposed to cleanse your consciousness with. They often get carved with Man-in-the-Moon faces, which is a bit too literal for my taste.

My mother helped me acquire my first moonstone from an antiques dealer who was breaking up a necklace. He set it in a ring I wore for years—carefully, as moonstones are prone to fracture if they get knocked around. (My drama school classmate worked as a carpenter backstage, and her stone got pretty chewed up.)

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My first moonstone, originally held in place by prongs, reset in a more protective bezel by the late Blanche Hess. I still need to be careful with it.

Where does the flash come from? Moonstones are formed from two intermingled kinds of feldspar, orthoclase and albite. As the mineral cools, the two feldspars arrange themselves in alternating layers stacked like the pages of a book. When light hits these layers, it scatters to produce a milky flash that moves as the stone is turned, a phenomenon called adularescence. Very witchy.

Gem-quality moonstone is clear with a blue or blue-green flash, like the stone in my ring. Garden-variety moonstones are a cloudy white, orange, brown or gray. They’re not at all expensive, though some have special optical effects, like stars or cats-eyes, that make them interesting to play with.

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Orange moonstone with a cross

The peach-colored moonstone above, for instance, has an optical cross I’m finding difficult to photograph, but you get the idea. Once upon a time, I thought enough of it to have it wrapped in gold wire. It must have been during one of my New Age Magic Stone phases, because I’ve never adored the thing. Maybe it’s the word ‘moonstone’ I’m in love with. I can usually resist the actual mineral.

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Moonstone pendant by Gabriella Kiss

The pendant above, however, was not to be resisted. It’s by Gabriella Kiss, a designer whose work I’d long wanted to own. This is her trademark setting, a bezel that swoops up at key points to hold the stone securely while displaying as much of it as possible. The moonstone is backed with gold, making it even more luminous. That’s what I call a talisman.

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Rainbow moonstones from Garrick Beck of Natural Stones in Santa Fe

The other stones I reliably fall for are called moonstones but are technically something else: labradorite, another form of feldspar. A moonstone cousin, if you will.

Moonstone, remember, is made of two interlayered minerals. Labradorite is a single mineral (plagioclase feldspar), but it, too, scatters light in a way that produces flashes of color. Labradorite that’s white or clear is marketed as rainbow moonstone, shown at left, because it really can flash the colors of the rainbow. Clear labradorite with an intense blue flash is sold as royal blue moonstone. (Temple St Clair uses this stone lavishly and expensively.)

The earrings shown below and at the top of this post are labradorite moonstone. Their flash is more dramatic and iridescent than the soft haze of an orthoclase moonstone. They are, in their quiet way, spectacular.

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Moonstone drop earrings by Nan Irwin. The two have matching flashes, though this is hard to capture in a photo.

Which brings us to the dark gray labradorite you may be familiar with. It is indeed found in Labrador (Canada), though these days it’s likelier to come from Madagascar. It may have something called a schiller effect, meaning it has iridescent flashes of blue, green, red, orange and yellow. This is sometimes called spectrolite. Never mind what it’s called. Labradorite has charms of its own. It’s the dark side of moonstone.

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Labradorite beads from Nan Irwin

The necklace above reads as a soft gray with blue and green flashes that dance in any kind of light. They’re understated, but then again they certainly aren’t. This, for me, is the whole idea of moonstones. They are a private elegance, graciously shared by the wearer. They are an introvert’s sort of flash.

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Cats-eye moonstones. I always keep loose moonstones around the house, as a good introvert should.

2 thoughts on “Pale Fire

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