A Brief Primer on Outer Space Debris
You should differentiate between these three terms: meteoroid, meteor, and meteorite. Although they may all refer to the same object, they specify where the object is in its journey. These terms can denote any kind of extraterrestrial debris, but scientists further classify them according to their structure and composition.
While small chunks of space debris move through outer space, they’re called meteoroids. “Small” is a relative term, however, as some meteoroids can reach the size of large boulders. Some meteoroids form when comets or asteroids split apart, but others developed along with the formation of star systems like our own solar system.
Once a meteoroid enters a planet’s atmosphere, its surface begins to burn up and leaves a trail visible across the sky. At this point, the proper term for the object is meteor. Meteors streaking through the Earth’s atmosphere are often referred to as “shooting stars,” though, of course, they’re not stars.
Not all meteors survive their journey through the atmosphere. Some burn up. Those that manage to strike the surface of a planet are called meteorites. Since meteorites travel at such high speeds, they form craters on impact. While larger meteorites make easily spotted craters, smaller meteorites create smaller, harder to notice craters.
More Meteor and Meteorite Terminology
The following terms describe specific types of meteors and meteorites and the circumstances of their discovery. Just as with gemstones, the source or provenance of space debris may add to the interest — and possibly the value — of meteorite jewelry.
During a meteor shower, meteors do, indeed, look like they’re raining across the sky. These meteors consist of cometary debris and enter the atmosphere as the Earth passes through comet tails.
Meteor Falls and Meteorite Finds
The term “meteor fall” identifies meteorites recovered because witnesses viewed their journey through the atmosphere, their “fall” or meteor stage.
“Meteorite finds” are meteorites that were recovered by chance, not as a result of someone tracking a meteor’s path.
Types of Meteorites
There are three main types of meteorites, each of which has a unique composition, structure, and look.
The most common type of meteorite, stony meteorites are rich in silica. Scientists subdivide them into two categories: chondrites and achondrites. Chondrites contain chondrules while achondrites don’t.
Sphere-shaped grains, chondrules consist of two silicate materials, olivine and pyroxene, and often contain refractory inclusions. Chondrules are some of the oldest particles in space (approximately 4.55 billion years old).
Only about 6% of all recovered meteorites are iron meteorites. As the name indicates, iron meteorites contain a large amount of iron. However, they also commonly contain other metals, including nickel and cobalt.
These combinations of stony and iron meteorites contain pockets of olivine and pyroxene surrounded by an iron matrix. Collectors prize stony-iron meteorite fragments and items made from them because of their beauty and rarity.
The Mystique of Meteorite Jewelry
Ancient civilizations used meteorites in decorative objects, including jewelry, as far back as five thousand years ago. At an Egyptian burial site, scientists discovered a bead made from an iron meteorite. They dated its crafting to some time between 3,350 and 3,600 BCE.
People have valued meteorite jewelry not only for its beauty but also because they believed these stones had healing properties. Iron meteorites were also commonly associated with balance and strength, and the nickel in these meteorites was believed to purify the wearer’s blood.
The iron and other metals in meteorites may attract magnets. Such magnetic reactions, combined with celestial origins, may have inspired beliefs that meteorites had magical powers.
Meteorites in Jewelry and Watch Designs
Meteorite fragments can appear in jewelry and watch designs in several ways.
Slices of iron meteorites are frequently used as watch faces, bezel set as pendants, or fashioned into ring bands because of the beautiful patterning these cross sections can show. Known as Widmanstӓtten patterns, these markings are made of long, nickel-iron crystals that form inside the meteorite and cool very slowly in space.
Jewelers can highlight these intriguing patterns by cleaning and polishing the cross-sectional slices, then placing them in an acid bath. The acid bath etches the pattern, making it more prominent.
Jewelers can also incorporate cross sections of stony-iron meteorites into jewelry, with their iron matrices filled with green or yellow silicates. For maximum effect, jewelers should set these slices so light can enter them from the back.
Meteorites as Gemstones
Jewelers sometime use small, whole meteorites or rough meteorite fragments in the same manner as gemstones, mounting them on rings or bracelets like silvery rocks. They may also use them for pendants by affixing bails to one end so the stone can be threaded onto a necklace chain or cord.
Gemstones from Meteorites
Very rarely, meteorites will contain facetable mineral material large enough to actually cut a gemstone, since the heat and impact of the fall can easily destroy most gemmy material or shatter it into tiny fragments. For example, the olivine material in stony and stony-iron meteorites can sometimes yield beautiful peridots.
Some jewelers incorporate cross-sectional pieces as well as chunks of meteorites into their designs. Traditional gemstones, as well as more exotic stones such as fossils and amber, frequently add flair to meteorite jewelry designs.
Buying Loose Fragments and Meteorite Jewelry
Jewelry designers can purchase fragments from a wide range of meteorite falls and finds. Since each meteorite fragment is one-of-a-kind, some vendors may show an example of what the fragment may look like but offer no guarantees of its appearance. Other vendors may list each piece separately, so you know the size, shape, and pattern of each fragment.
Whether you’re looking for materials to create meteorite jewelry or finished jewelry and watches, you may want to know the source of the meteorite fragments. Sellers typically list the meteorite’s recovery site, so you can search for materials from specific falls or finds. Although most people buy meteorite jewelry based on its visual appeal, knowing when and where your meteorite fell to Earth is certainly a conversation starter.