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Retroreflection and Gemstone Brilliance

How is a faceted gem like a retroreflecting prism? Learn to distinguish gemstone brilliance from scintillation and how gem cutters choose pavilion angles.

3 Minute Read

What is a Retroreflector?

A retroreflector returns light to the source’s direction. As a two-dimensional example, consider a billiards shot into a corner. The ball bounces off one cushion, onto another, and leaves the corner, returning to the shooter (neglecting spin, of course). You can easily find three-dimensional examples, too. Just take a close look at a taillight lens or a highway or bicycle reflector. Have you ever noticed they’re made of arrays of cube-corners? You’ve certainly noticed how bright they are at night.

Various NASA missions have left cube-corner arrays on the Moon’s surface. In order to measure continental drift, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory ran installations in New Zealand, Greece, and Brazil. These locations conducted laser ranging by bouncing lasers from these lunar arrays. Even if the angle wasn’t perfect or the array wasn’t level, the laser beam was returned back to the observatory.

Here’s another good way to study this concept. Save it for the next time you’re in a doctor’s waiting room and have read all the Golf Digest issues.

Stare at a corner of the room where the two walls meet the ceiling. (This will also keep you from being annoyed by the other patients). Since…

Jon Rolfe

Jon Rolfe is the president of Gearloose Lapidary, LLC -- an innovation leader in lapidary technology. Find him at

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