What is Gemstone Dispersion?

gemstone dispersion - cerussite
The “Light of The Desert” is the world’s largest faceted cerussite, a very soft gem notoriously difficult to facet. Jewelry aficionados can’t wear this gem species easily. The “Light” is no lightweight. It weighs 898 carats, around 6.33 oz, and measures about as large as a human palm. It resides in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. “Light of The Desert.” Public domain.

Have you ever seen the colors of the rainbow coming from deep within a finely cut gem? That effect is known as gemstone dispersion, or a gemstone’s “fire.” Diamonds are well known for their dispersion. However, other gems, like cerussite and rutile, can exceed their fire.

Although you can appreciate gemstone dispersion strictly on an aesthetic level, gemologists can measure it with a refractometer and use that information to identify a gem. The higher the measurement, the more dispersion the gem can display. Diamond’s dispersion is measured at 0.044. Cerussite’s is 0.055. With a dispersion of 0.28, rutile exceeds diamond by more than six times.

What Causes Gemstone Dispersion?

“Solar spectrum with Fraunhofer lines as it appears visually.” Public domain.

Normal white light is composed of a rainbow of colors. Each of those colors is a wavelength of light. When white light passes through a gemstone, each of its colors travels through it at a different speed. This is literally “dispersion”: the wavelengths previously joined in white light “disperse” and exit the gem separately, creating the rainbow color display. For example, blue is a short wavelength of light and travels slowly through a gem. Red is a long wavelength of light and travels more quickly through a gem than blue.

Every gem species refracts the distinct wavelengths of light (colors) at different speeds. Gems have a refractive index (RI) for each wavelength of light. Gemologists measure gemstone dispersion by taking the difference between a gem’s red RI and its violet RI.

gemstone dispersion - rutile
Rutile, from “Rutile and Zirconia” by yellowcloud. Licensed under CC By 2.0. (Cropped from original to show detail).

Faceting and Gemstone Dispersion

A gemstone’s density, color, and RI all affect how it disperses light. However, faceting plays a critical role. Skilled lapidaries can control how light moves within a gem. They can cut a gemstone so that light enters and strikes the pavilion facets at critical angles, causing light to be reflected internally and then back out through the crown facets. This maximizes the fire effect for wearers and admirers.

The optics and electronics industries use lithium niobate or linobate extensively. Gem cutters also used this synthetic as an early diamond simulant due to its high RI (2.3) and dispersion (0.13). However, its relatively low Mohs hardness (5.5) made it too soft for most jewelry uses. Nevertheless, custom faceters still cut this material for collectors and some jewelry enthusiasts due to its incredible fire.

This amazing faceted lithium niobate gem weighs a gargantuan 374 carats and measures 38 mm in diameter.

“Lithium niobate.” © Mark Oros, Hashnu Stones & Gems. Used with permission.

How Does Gemstone Dispersion Differ From Birefringence and Pleochroism?

Although dispersion, birefringence (double refraction), and pleochroism are all effects of light passing through a gemstone, they’re distinct phenomena. Different gem properties affect them.

Pleochroism and birefringent effects are results of how a gemstone’s crystalline structure polarizes light. Only gemstones with non-cubic crystalline structures may show pleochroism, two or three colors, or birefringent effects like double vision and fuzziness.

The use of the evocative term “fire” to describe dispersion is also a good way, if a bit poetic, to distinguish dispersion from pleochroism. The colors created by dispersion seem to be “active” and appear to emanate from little fires within the gem. Pleochroic colors seem to be “conditions” or qualities of the gem itself (even though you may have to turn the gem to see the different colors).

Some of the gems with the most dazzling dispersion, such as diamonds and cerussite, have no pleochroic effects. (Diamonds have a cubic crystal structure and cerussite is usually colorless). However, there are gemstones, such as sphene (also known as titanite), that are pleochroic and have a high dispersion, though they may not show both properties at the same time.

For example, this titanite crystal shows its yellow and green pleochroism but no dispersion.

“Titanite,” Capelinha, Minas Gerais, Brazil. © Rob Lavinsky, www.iRocks.com. Used with permission.

However, faceted sphene gems, such as these, show their dispersion beautifully.

“Three Fine Sphenes” ©All That Glitters. Used with permission.