Measuring Refractive Index

Light slows down (or bends) whenever it enters a gemstone. Gemologists calculate a gem’s refractive index, or RI, by dividing the speed of light in a vacuum by the speed of light as it passes through the gem. (Since the speed of light in a vacuum is always faster than the speed of light through any gemstone, an RI is always a number greater than 1). Gemologists use a device called a refractometer to measure a gem’s RI. Since the RI ranges of gemstones have been well established, this is a valuable gem identification technique.

Which Gems Show Birefringence?

Gems with an isometric or cubic crystal system, like diamonds, have only one RI since these crystals don’t polarize light. They aren’t doubly refractive and, thus, have no birefringence. Amorphous gems like opals also have only one RI and no birefringence.

Gemstones with all other crystal systems are doubly refractive. They have two (or three) RIs based on the direction light enters them.

How do You Calculate a Gem’s Birefringence?

The difference between a gemstone’s highest and lowest RIs is its birefringence number. The greater that number, the more noticeable the effects of double refraction will…