Topaz is best known as a Madeira or sherry-coloured stone. In the past, nearly all stones of this colour have been referred to as topaz, and this has caused considerable confusion. In fact topaz can also be colourless, blue, green and pink.
The name is believed to be derived from the Greek word topazos, meaning ‘to seek’. This was the ancient name for St John’s Island in the Red Sea, because the island was notoriously difficult to get to. The island is thought to be one of the first places where topaz was discovered. Alternatively, the etymology might be from the Sanskrit word tapas, meaning ‘fire’, to describe its colour.
Because of its crystal structure, topaz has some relative weaknesses and can break if it receives a sharp blow in the wrong place or direction. This is similar, in fact, to the way large diamonds are purposefully cut and should not pose a problem once the stone is mounted in fine jewellery.
Topaz has been used and prized for at least 2000 years. It is one of the gemstones which form the foundations of the twelve gates to the Holy City of the New Jerusalem. These so-called apocalyptic stones are intended to serve in protection against enemies and as a symbol of beauty and splendour.
The magnificence of topaz should not be underestimated – it has, on occasion, been mistaken for diamond. The enormous 1680-carat topaz from the Portuguese crown, the Braganza, for example, was for a long time mistaken for diamond.
Topaz has had considerable powers attributed to it over the years. It is said to dispel sadness and anger, protect from sudden death, make men handsome and intelligent and women fertile and happy. It is dubious to what extent these assertions should be trusted, however, since it has also been claimed that you can immerse your hand in boiling water after a topaz has been thrown into it and withdraw it again unscathed!