U.S. NRC Blog

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Blue Topaz — The Irradiated Gemstone

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer

There are a lot of great things about having a November birthday. The heat of summer is over but winter hasn’t set in so the weather can be magnificent. When the leaves are changing, the landscape is even more beautiful than in spring. It is the month of football, first frosts, harvesting the last of the summer vegetable garden, and my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. But the one thing I never liked about my November birthday was my birthstone—topaz.

topaz 1Orange is just not my favorite color. I was always jealous of my family members, whose stones were so much prettier—amethysts in February, diamonds in April, and sapphires in September. Then one year I received as a gift some earrings with a beautiful blue stone. That was my introduction to blue topaz.

I was so happy to discover there was an alternative to the traditional orange topaz, I never thought to wonder what was behind the blue color. I figured topaz just came in blue, too.

Well it turns out blue topaz can be found in nature but it is very rare. Most blue topaz on the market has been exposed to radiation.

This is no cause for alarm. Irradiated gemstones are not harmful. Because they may be slightly radioactive immediately after their treatment, the NRC regulates the distribution of these products to ensure public health is protected. Any measureable radiation decays away within a couple months. Treated gemstones are set aside and are not sold until the radioactivity falls far below levels that can impact public health.

Distributors of irradiated gemstones must have an NRC license, which requires them to do radiological surveys before selling the gems. Their sophisticated instruments can detect very low levels of radiation. Once the radiation is low enough, no further licensing is required.

topaz 1Topaz is not the only gemstone treated with radiation to change its color. Diamonds, pearls and other gemstones are sometimes irradiated to change their color. In general, the longer stones are exposed to radiation, the deeper and more attractive the color.

Incidentally, not all radiation treatments applied to gemstones make them radioactive. If they are bombarded with neutrons, as in a nuclear reactor or accelerator, trace elements in the stones can become “activated” or radioactive. But gemstones can also be treated using gamma radiation (high-energy photons), which does not make them radioactive.

If your holiday shopping list includes jewelry this year, don’t be afraid of irradiated gemstones. The NRC license ensures they don’t reach the market until they are completely safe.

10 responses to “Blue Topaz — The Irradiated Gemstone

  1. Lee January 9, 2017 at 8:35 am

    what companies or where does one find companies in the US or overseas doing irradiation of gemstones i.e. yellow scapolite ?/ How is it also treated ? Thank you

  2. Elvia K. Jones August 10, 2016 at 6:48 am

    Great article! There is a way to know if the gemstone was tested and is safe to use?

    • Moderator August 11, 2016 at 4:06 pm

      Any residual radiation can be detected with a hand-held survey meter. Determining whether the radiation is below the NRC’s regulatory limits requires a trained radiation professional to use sophisticated survey equipment. The jeweler who provided the gemstone should, but is not required to, have records from the distributor indicating this survey was done before the gemstone was distributed.

      Maureen Conley

      • lj kuhn August 28, 2016 at 12:02 am

        I just bought this beautiful blue topaz from Macys, but now I am very worried. Where can I have it tested in Westchester County New York?

      • Moderator August 29, 2016 at 8:56 am

        We suggest you talk to the retailer from whom you purchased it.

        Moderator

  3. Anonymous March 19, 2015 at 9:19 am

    I have found some literature about methods to change the color of topaz:

    Surface treatment of gemstones, especially topaz – an update of recent patent literature

    and a site with more information:

    Topaz – Literature (Articles & Patents)

    Does anyone know other sites/publications about treatments of topaz?

  4. Robin December 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Thank you for your comment. I read however that some of the blue topaz coming from China that was assumed safe was not. I found an article in a trade magazine from 2010 describing 15 irradiated blue topaz gems that were tested and where they found that 4 had higher than allowed levels of residual radiation? Has this been addressed? And how can the public be assured that “hot” stones are not illegally placed on the market? I just bought a London blue topaz ring from Macy’s. They have very little information on the history of this or other gems. Is it safe to assume the gem was tested for radiation and went through proper regulatory channels? How can we be sure?

  5. shashank neekhra December 27, 2014 at 2:09 am

    Mr. Robert A.Leigh , I agree with you completely on the matter of nuclear weapons or any weapon of mass destruction. However, as the author of this blog has already mentioned that all the gemstones which have been irradiated to enhance the gemstones color pick up a slight amount of radiation, which is managed on a very standardized and safe manner.I have been working with an E-commerce firm dealing with all kind of gemstones and here we are selling treated and untreated gemstones, but we treat only those stones which are in need of irradiated color enhancements and we retail them only after their radiation has decayed to a point where its not a risk to public safety.

  6. dick0645 December 8, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Pardon me, but I just have to say this…This, NRC, is a “gem” of an article. No doubt radiation can be good for a lot of things; for blue topaz; for medical purposes; even for preserving food. However, let’s draw the line there. No nuke weapons or nuke power plants. They are just not worth the risk. Let’s give up our dangerous infatuation with those types of “dinosaurs”.

    • Robert A. Leigh December 16, 2014 at 3:44 pm

      Mr dick0645, I read your statement. I agree that I wish we could do away with nuclear weapons, just like I wish we could do away with all weapons of war. This world does not allow us that luxury.
      As far as nuclear power, I have worked in all “facets” for greater than 30 years, including the blue topaz. Nuclear energy is managed on a standard greater than any other industry I can think of. We have a safety record that we are very proud of. I am not being narrow minded, I work for a company involved in many forms of energy production and care greatly about our environment.
      I believe if you will do good research, it will allay some of your concerns. Merry Christmas!

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