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GEMSTONES (29)

 

Chatoyant Gems - The Cat’s-Eye Phenomenon


What causes the bright line of reflected light that moves under the surface of a chatoyant gem?

cat's-eye chrysoberyl

Cat's-eye chrysoberyl: Chrysoberyl is the gem that exhibits the finest "cat's-eye." When the name "cat's-eye" is used alone, it is understood that the speaker is referring to a cat's-eye chrysoberyl. When the speaker is referring to any other gem with a cat's-eye, the name of that gem is used after the words "cat's-eye." For example: "cat's-eye apatite." This green cat's-eye chrysoberyl was produced in Sri Lanka and is about 5.6 x 4 millimeters in size.

What is Chatoyance?

Chatoyance is an optical phenomenon in which a band of reflected light, known as a "cat's-eye," moves just beneath the surface of a cabochon-cut gemstone. Chrysoberyl and tiger's-eye are two of the best-known gem materials that exhibit this phenomenon. Excellent specimens of chrysoberyl exhibit the finest chatoyance, and tiger's-eye is the chatoyant gem most widely used in jewelry.

Chatoyance occurs in stones that contain a large number of very thin parallel inclusions within the stone, known as a "silk." The light reflects from these inclusions to form a thin band across the surface of the stone. The band of light always occurs at right angles to the length of the parallel inclusions. These inclusions can be crystals, hollow tubes, or other linear structures that are present throughout the stone and are usually aligned with a crystallographic axis. Needle-like crystals of rutile and hematite are well-known for producing a cat’s-eye in many specimens.

Tiger's-eye cabochons

Tiger's-eye cabochons: Two "honey" tiger's-eye cabochons with very nice chatoyance. These stones are 8 x 6 millimeter ovals and cost a few dollars each. They were cut from material mined in the Central African Republic. Tiger's-eye is the only chatoyant stone that is produced in large quantities in calibrated sizes. That makes it the only chatoyant stone commonly seen in mass-production jewelry stores. It is very popular in men's rings and cufflinks.

Chatoyance - Eye of the Cat

The name "chatoyance" originates from the French word "chatoyer," which means "to shine like a cat's eye." The analogy also matches the way a cat's pupils will narrow to a thin slit under bright light.

Cat's eye with a slit pupil

Cat's eye with a slit pupil: This cat's eyes have responded to bright light by closing their pupils to a narrow slit. This is where the "cat's-eye" gemstone name originates. Image © iStockphoto and Astrid Gast.

cat's-eye actinolite

Cat's-eye actinolite: Two cat's-eye actinolite cabochons cut from material mined in Tanzania. Actinolite is an amphibole mineral that often has a fibrous internal texture that serves as a "silk" and produces very strong eyes. These stones are 7-millimeter rounds.

Understanding Chatoyance

A good analogy for the chatoyance effect is how light reflects to form a line across the surface of a spool of silk thread. Viewing and moving a spool of silk thread under a beam of incident light can be a useful way to develop an understanding of how parallel inclusions produce an "eye" within a gemstone.

Cat's-eye on spool of thread

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