of the Vikings
When Leif Eriksson and the other legendary Viking explorers ventured
far out into the Atlantic Ocean, away from any coastline that could
help them determine position, they had a secret gem weapon: iolite.
The Viking mariners used thin pieces of iolite as the world's first
polarizing filter. Looking through an iolite lens, they could
determine the exact position of the sun, and navigate safely to the
new world and back.
The property that made iolite so valuable to the Vikings is extreme
pleochroism. Iolite has different colors in different directions in
the crystal. A cube cut from iolite will look a violetish blue
almost like sapphire from one side, clear as water from the other,
and a honey yellow from the top. This property led some people to
call iolite "water sapphire" in the past, a name that is now
Pleochroism may have been helpful in navigation but it makes things
difficult for a gem cutter. If iolite is not cut from exactly the
right direction, no matter the shape of the rough, its color will
not show to its best advantage.
The name iolite comes from the Greek ios, which means violet. Iolite
is usually a purplish blue when cut properly, with a softness to the
color that can be quite attractive.
Iolite is readily available and surprisingly affordable. The better
and richer the blue, the better. It is mined in India, Sri Lanka,
Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Brazil. The Vikings probably mined iolite
from deposits in Norway and Greenland.
Iolite is relatively hard but should be protected from blows. With
its attractive color and reasonable price, it may become a jewelry
staple in the future.