Nova (1974–…): Season 44, Episode 5 - Treasures of the Earth: Gems - full transcript

This program explains the formation, chemistry, variations and allure of the most notable gemstones; diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, jade and opals.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Gemstones, precious metals,

and power--

building blocks
of civilization.


But how are they created?

Our Earth is a master chef.

She knows how to cook.

These gems are really forged

in unimaginable conditions
deep inside the planet.

How did metal shape our past?

I love steel.

It's actually the backbone
of our society.

And how will these gifts be used
to build the tools of tomorrow?

Such a simple element has
enabled all of the technology

that surrounds us today.

It is amazing that this came

from the sand that exists
in our deserts.

We're going to launch
this incredible telescope,

and we're going to send it
a million miles into space

from the earth

to actually unlock the secrets
of the universe.

And it will all rely
on two ounces of gold.

In this episode, we go
behind the sparkle of gemstones.

When you look
into a beautiful gemstone,

you're seeing something
quite miraculous.

What are the secrets
to their beauty?

This is no magic trick.

This is just chemistry.

And what scientific mysteries
do they reveal?

These are the biggest questions
you can answer about geology.

It's amazing the role
diamonds have played

in understanding Earth
as a whole.

"Treasures of the Earth,"
right now on NOVA.

Major All around us,VA is
pwe see Earth's abundance:

spectacular mountains,
Caribbean blue seas,

and plentiful crops.

But Earth's bounty
is not just skin deep.

Some of our most important
resources are forged

even deeper inside our planet.

These are the minerals
that help make our modern world

and inspire us
with their beauty:

gemstones like diamond,
ruby, and emerald.

We guard these treasures

and cherish them
as symbols of our love.

But they also hold secrets

about the formation
of Earth itself.

Just off Central Park,

along Manhattan's famous
5th Avenue,

America's premier jeweler,

has been selling these treasures

to some of the world's
richest people,

from the Gilded Age
to the heydays of Hollywood.

The store even played a starring
role in this famous 1961 movie,

Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Tiffany's is the quintessential
jeweler for the world.

Melvyn Kirtley,

Tiffany's chief gemologist,
says that last year,

Tiffany sold more than
$4 billion worth of jewelry.

Our goal is to really search
for the ultimate--

those unique, rare specimens.

When you look
into a beautiful gemstone,

you're seeing something
quite miraculous.

You know, it's arresting.

Here, we've got really

the most beautiful
emerald necklace

with this magnificent
45-carat emerald.

The color is just verdant green.

It's just got this incredible
saturation to it.

This is really
truly spectacular.

At Tiffany's workshop,

top quality gems are crafted
into prized jewelry.

One piece can take months
to create.

That's when you get
the beauty from the stone.

That's when you get the life,
the brilliance.

That's the "wow" effect.

But the story of how these gems
were created

goes back billions of years...

(rumbling explosions)

...forged in some of the most
tortuous conditions

found anywhere on Earth.

How can such violence
and intensity

create such delicate beauty?

Clues about the massive
force required

lie just off the coast of China.

Here, geologist Lung Chan

searches for evidence
in the ancient rocks.

It seems like the rocks
are talking to me,

and there is always
a story to tell.

Hiding behind the tranquility

and the peacefulness
of the rocks

is a story of violence
and tremendous complexities.

It doesn't take long for Chan

to find a layer of rock
folded nearly in half

by the forces that create

This rock layer used to be
flat-lying and continuous.

Now it's completely folded,
forming a V-shape.

The same kind of violent forces
gave Earth gemstones.


Every gemstone is forged
by a unique geologic recipe

of chemistry, heat,
and intense pressure.

Our Earth is a master chef.

Setting the temperature
and pressure just right,

using the right ingredients,

she knows how to cook
various kinds of gemstones.

The most treasured of all gems

are created hundreds of miles
below the earth's surface.

It is here

where extremely high pressures
and hot temperatures

turn one of Earth's
most basic elements

into exquisite hard crystals:

So what are diamonds made of?

To discover the ingredients

requires doing something
horrifying for any gem lover:

torching a perfectly good

which is exactly what chemist
Andrea Sella will do.

We often hear that

diamonds are forever.

But when we put this guy
into a really hot flame

and drop him into liquid oxygen,
it begins to sparkle.

And look--
the diamond is burning away.

As it burns, it gets smaller
and smaller and smaller.

Eventually, it disappears.

It's gone.

We can burn it away to nothing
except carbon dioxide.

And that's because diamonds

are made of nothing
more than carbon.

So we've taken

the hardest natural material
and we've made it disappear,

and yet,
this is no magic trick.

This is just chemistry.

Carbon is one of Earth's
most common elements--

nature's building blocks.

It is essential
to all living things--

plants, animals,
even our bodies--

and crucial
to man-made structures

throughout our modern world.

Carbon's versatility
can be seen in two things,

both pure carbon
but completely different:

diamonds and graphite,
or ordinary pencil lead.

When you look at these two,

the diamond
and the tip of the pencil,

it seems almost insane
to imagine that they're made

of the same substance,
the same element carbon.

And yet what it comes down to

is the way in which those
carbons are linked together.

The way in which atoms
link together

is the essence of chemistry.

In diamonds, one carbon atom
bonds with four others.

This is repeated to create

a dense, cage-like
crystal structure.

But in pencil lead, carbon bonds
with only three others,

forming flat sheets that stack
like a deck of cards.

The sheets lie on top
of each other

but are not fully bonded.

They can slide
one past the other,

and when we write with a pencil,
what we're doing is

we're peeling those sheets off
one or two at a time,

leaving a little gray trail,
a little bit like a snail.

So why do carbon atoms
sometimes make three bonds,

like in pencil lead,
and at other times four?

This is just
an extraordinary thing.

How can one
of the softest materials,

one of the hardest materials,
both be formed of pure carbon?

Bob Hazen of the Deep Carbon

says the difference
between pencil lead and diamond

can be explained
by the environment

where the bonds form.

If you have fairly low pressure,
the atoms can spread out,

they don't feel compressed
or strained,

and so you have a much more
relaxed crystal structure.

Graphite, or pencil lead,

forms in low pressure,
like near Earth's surface.

But diamonds only form

hundreds of miles
deep inside our planet,

where the temperatures
and pressures are extreme.

As soon as you get pressure,
the atoms are forced together.

They have to be more and more
efficiently packed together.

And so the thing
about diamond is

carbon atoms are incredibly
efficiently packaged together.

Those efficient bonds

are the key to making
these prized treasures.

Recently, a remarkable diamond,

the second largest gem-quality
stone ever discovered,

was found in Botswana,

weighing in at an incredible
1,109 carats.

It's truly historical.

This could be, you know,
the most incredible piece

of a diamond ever cut.

The estimated value
of the diamond is $70 million.

That's a whole lot of money
for a rock

that is nothing more than
efficiently organized carbon.

The secret of that efficient
organization of atoms

lies deep
within the architecture

of the carbon atom itself.

At the atom's center
is a nucleus

with six protons and neutrons.

Surrounding the nucleus

are an equal number
of orbiting electrons,

arranged in what are called

The innermost shell can hold
only two electrons.

The second shell can hold eight.

But carbon's six electrons

only fill up half
of that outer shell,

leaving the atom unstable.

Every atom wants to find

a comfortable
electron arrangement--

a filled shell.

Now, carbon is
in a funny position.

It's got six electrons,

so it's four away from two,
it's four away from ten--

it's in the middle.

So carbon is never quite
that happy.

It's always kind of striving

to find a different

The configuration when carbon
is most happy

is when its electron shells
are filled,

like in this diamond crystal.

But there are many combinations
that can fill carbon's shells,

and that's why it's such
an important element

in our natural world.

It even plays a starring role
at this glamorous Tiffany gala.

The movie stars' hair
is made of protein,

which is packed with carbon.

Their flawless skin
and high cheekbones

have a lot of carbon, too.

And of course under the extreme
conditions deep inside Earth,

carbon atoms bond
into the exquisitely hard,

exquisitely clear,

and exquisitely expensive

But it took a lot more
than beauty

for these diamonds to get
to the red carpet.

(rumbling explosion)

Diamonds are forced
to Earth's surface

in a very special kind
of volcanic eruption.

The rock inside

traveled hundreds of miles
through Earth's mantle

at up to 30 miles an hour.

The diamond just comes along
for the ride.

Raw diamond crystals can be seen
still embedded in this rock,

known as kimberlite.

The diamond was just
an accidental passenger

en route to the surface
of the earth.

These eruptions leave behind

very deep funnels
of kimberlite and diamond,

which is why mining diamonds

takes a severe toll
on the landscape,

and, at times,
an even bigger toll on humans.

In places like
Sierra Leone, Africa,

uncontrolled mining
has led to horrific conditions

for the miners.

The diamonds they find

can head straight
for a black market

that have funded warlords
and weapons

in brutal civil wars.

These are the so-called
blood diamonds.

Diamonds that are
legally exported

are subject to strict controls

and sent to just a handful
of diamond centers worldwide.

90% of America's diamonds
pass through one city:

New York, famous for its
hustle-bustle and bling.

This is 47th Street,
the Diamond District,

where trader Ronnie Vanderlinden

is one of its many
unofficial mayors.

Welcome to 47th Street--
the land of everything.

But what this street
is really known for,

what it's about,
is its magnificent diamonds.

I like the shizzle.

I like it all.

Today, he has a little business
with Gregory Jezarian.


Hey Ronnie, how are you?
How are you, buddy?

Do you have those stones?
I do.

Negotiating the sale

of a quarter-of-a-million dollar
square-shaped diamond.

I think this might be
the winner.

A key step to make a diamond
worth that kind of money

is the cut, which reveals

the sparkling beauty
of the stone.

Michael Kaufman is
a master diamond cutter.

I've been in the business
since 1966.

I started off as an apprentice
diamond cutter.

I was a baby, literally a baby.

Today, he's repairing
a chipped diamond.

While diamonds are
the hardest material on Earth,

they aren't very tough,

which means if you strike it
at the just the right angle

between the planes
of carbon atoms, it will break.

This line of weakness is called
the cleavage grain.

I'm going to look
for the grain of the stone.

People don't realize that
diamond has grain

just like wood has grain.

If you have this entire building

and put it on top
of this diamond in the street,

it will make a hole
in the street.

But yet if you hit it
on the cleaving grain,

it will take off a small piece--
sometimes not so small.

That grain is also key

to transforming the rough rock
into a shimmering faceted gem.

When the job is done

and all the facets
are where they should be

and I see the brilliance,
I see that stone talk to me.

It says, "Michael,
you did a good job."

Revealing a diamond's beauty

comes down to the careful
arrangement of these facets.

Diamonds need to be cut

in very, very specific

to get it to maximize
light return.

This is the round brilliant cut,

one of the most popular shapes
in the world.

When a diamond is proportioned
in a perfect way,

it will act as
a hall of mirrors.

If it's not, then the light
will push out of the back

and you'll basically lose light.

In 1919, a Belgian mathematician
named Marcel Tolkowsky

used principles
of optical physics and math

to determine the optimum number
and angle of facets

to create a diamond that
perfectly caught the light.

When he came along,

it was more putting a science
to the actual proportions

and understanding that
they matter.

Imagine this is an uncut crystal
with a smooth surface on it,

and now we're going to shine
green light onto it.

Debbie Berebichez, a physicist,

explains how light
can be captured in a crystal

by using a green laser
so our camera can see it.

So we see that spot on the wall

because most of the light
is getting transmitted

to the other side.

Now, if instead we use
a faceted crystal,

we can see how most of the light
is getting trapped

and bouncing around
inside the crystal,

and a lot of it is coming back
reflected into our eyes,

very much like
a hall of mirrors.

Tolkowsky found that a diamond

cut with nearly 60
carefully angled facets

created an exquisite geometry

that reflected light
around the stone many times,

then bounced it out
through the top

and into our eyes.

We call this phenomenon

When white light
enters a diamond

at just the right angle,
something extraordinary happens:

these facets,

along with how the diamond
affects wavelengths of light,

disperse it into a rainbow
of colors

like light through a prism.

This creates the flashes
of color called fire.

Because of diamond's hardness,

the polishing of the facets
create such incredible mirrors

that the diamond bounces
the light back to the eye.

So you're really getting
a combination of light

to give this beautiful
dispersion and sparkle.

It turns out that
a diamond's brilliant sparkle

comes down to optical physics--
something truly to sing about.

♪ But square cut
or pear shape ♪

♪ These rocks
don't lose their shape ♪

♪ Diamonds are
a girl's best friend ♪

As Marilyn Monroe did
in this 1953 classic...

♪ Tiffany's ♪

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

♪ Cartier ♪

In Washington D.C.,
there's a very special diamond

that Marilyn Monroe would surely
have loved to get her hands on.

6:00 a.m.

Inside the Smithsonian's
Museum of Natural History,

the gem gallery is on lockdown.

Curator of Gems
Jeffery Post

is removing the museum's
most infamous

and most visited exhibit
from its bulletproof case.

What I'm holding right now

is probably the world's
most famous diamond.

This is the Hope Diamond.

It is a large blue diamond,
45-and-a-half carats,

the largest, finest blue diamond
that we know of

anywhere in the world.

Post says it is impossible
to estimate the diamond's value

in part because of its long
history of intrigue.

It was bought
in the 17th century

by Jean Baptiste Tavernier

and sold to King Louis XIV
of France.

It is believed that
during the French Revolution,

the diamond was smuggled
to London, re-cut,

then purchased
by the Hope family,

where it got it name.

But only after it was sold

to the American socialite
Evelyn Walsh McLean,

whose family was soon struck
by a series of tragedies,

did the diamond earn its famed
reputation of being cursed.

So finally, this legendary
and mysterious diamond

was purchased by the jeweler
Harry Winston

and given to the
Smithsonian Institution.

There is, of course,
no scientific way

to shed light
on the diamond's alleged curse,

but there is definitely science
behind its magical blue color.

And today, Jeffery Post wants
to reveal the secret.

The precious diamond is put
into a mass spectrometer,

where a laser is used
to break free individual atoms

that then travel
through the machine.

A clear diamond is pure carbon,

so all the atoms would travel
at the same speed.

But today, the machine detects
a few atoms flying faster.

This means there is an impurity
in the diamond.

Boron, yeah, right here.

Traces of a lighter element
called boron.

On average, our measurements
revealed the Hope Diamond

has about a half of a part
per million of boron.

It is the tiny little bit

that is just enough
to make a colorless diamond

the deep, dark blue color that
we know as the Hope Diamond.

But boron isn't blue,

so why does this impurity
change the color?

It results from how
different atoms handle light.

The carbon atoms in a diamond

are bound together
by their electrons,

but these electrons
can also interact with light

when it shines into the gem.

In clear diamond crystals,

since all the electrons
are bound together,

all the colors in white light
pass through.

In the Hope Diamond,

an atom of boron
replaces a carbon atom,

but boron can only make
three bonds, not four.

That changes the electronic
structure of the diamond.

When white light hits this atom,

it absorbs some of the
wavelengths of red light.

But the blue light
passes right through,

making the Hope Diamond appear
its unique color of blue.

The Hope Diamond is one
of the most unique objects

in the world.

Look at how many other
blue diamonds

comparable to the Hope Diamond
have been found,

and the answer is zero.

There may not be another diamond
quite like the Hope,

but gems can come
in a surprising array of colors.

We all know emeralds are green,
rubies red, and sapphires blue.

Well, frankly,
that's just plain wrong.

Is this a sapphire?

This is blue.

It looks like a sapphire,
it's nice and big,

but it's not sapphire.

You can't go by color.

In fact, none of these green
stones are emeralds.

Yet surprisingly, all of these
are what we call sapphires.

Color is something that
Mike Scott is passionate about

and wants to understand

in everything
from brilliant gemstones

to the koi fish
he keeps in his backyard.

Color brings out
all kinds of emotion,

just like smells do.

I enjoy the complexity

or understanding
how things works.

To me, color sets
what mood I'm in.

Scott has amassed
what is considered

one the world's most important
collections of gems

outside of royal family.

Mike Scott is one of the world's
great connoisseurs of gems.

He goes out of his way

to find the most beautiful
colored stones,

and each of those colored stones
is telling us a story.

Part of my collection
is to just show

there's more to the world than
sapphire, ruby, and emerald.

Scott may not have a diamond
quite like the Hope,

but he's collected diamonds
in almost every known color,

including yellow, green, pink,
and even the rarest:


Scott's rainbow collection
was made possible

by Apple Computers.

He made his fortune
as the first CEO,

taking it
from Steve Jobs' garage

to going public on Wall Street.

I hand-built
the first ten Apple IIs.

But Scott says
his first task at Apple

came not from Steve Jobs,

but the other employees
at the time.

My first job

as president at Apple

was to tell Steve Jobs
he had to take a bath.

It seems that Steve's special
diet was creating body odor.

He negotiates everything,

so he agreed
to take a bath more often

and I had to agree
to read his diet book,

hopefully that it would cause me
to lose some weight,

which it didn't.

Scott didn't plan on investing
his fortune in gemstones,

but he got hooked

the first time he tried
to buy himself an expensive one

because it turned out
to be a fake.

That got me further
interested in

how do you know
the difference

since you can't just tell
by color

and by looking at the stone.

A physicist by training,

Scott wants to better understand
the nature of minerals--

materials that are crystalline
in structure

and include gemstones.

Scott is so devoted
to this pursuit

that he has removed
all the traditional furniture

from his Silicon Valley
living room

and turned it into a world-class
gem and mineral lab.

Out with the couch,
in with the Raman spectrometer.

Mike Scott has put

part of his fortune

into building the world's
largest database of minerals:

their structures,
their properties,

their optical characteristics.

So we understand
this rich realm,

the kingdom of minerals,
in much more complexity

and completeness
than we ever have before.

Today, Scott is analyzing
a sapphire: a 30 carat one.

This one's from Sri Lanka.

Like the Hope Diamond,
it's blue,

but how it got its color

is a completely different
geologic story.

Sapphires are actually more rare
than diamonds.

Making one requires the force
of moving mountains, literally.

Sapphires are formed
in Earth's crust--

not the deeper mantle
where diamonds form--

during the geologic process
of plate tectonics.

All the continents on Earth
ride on giant tectonic plates

pushed and pulled by heat
deep within the earth.

For likely billions of years,

the continents
have moved around,

crashing over and under
each other...


Causing earthquakes
and pushing up huge mountains.


Beneath Earth's surface,

heat and pressure created
from the massive friction

liquefy rock
that reforms into new minerals,

sometimes sapphires.

Many of the best sapphires

come from the island nation
of Sri Lanka,

off the coast of India,
which was caught in the middle

of colliding plates
600 million years ago.

Gemologist Andy Lucas

is on the hunt
for these precious stones,

a task that requires going down
in a traditional pit mine.


Can I take a look?

Thank you, sir.

Entering the mine,
Lucas finds himself in a wet,

potentially dangerous

Now, you can see
the wooden braces,

you can see the struts
supporting them.

Now, they have a problem here
with groundwater,

so they can't go too deep,

and they have to be careful
for the erosion

so they don't have
a tunnel cave-in.

What they are mining is
a loose gravel called illam.

And they'll take this metal bar,
this pointed metal bar

and they'll dig it
into the illam.

Then they put it in bags.

The bags are hoisted up
on ropes.

Andy's route back
up the slippery bamboo scaffold

is a bit tougher.

Once on the surface again,
Andy examines the gravel illam.

It's going to look like
a lot of mud,

but also with some pebbles
in there.

Now, I'm not seeing
any gemstones yet,

but after washing bag after bag
after bag of this muddy gravel,

then they might find something,

maybe something that
could change their lives.

The illam is sediment
comprised of rocks and dirt

that washed here from upstream.

Nature kind of did
a bit of the work

and concentrated them
in an area.

If a miner is lucky enough

to find a gemstone
in this loose illam,

it is sent to the city to be
polished into true treasures.

Armil Sammoon and his family

specialize in polishing
and cutting sapphires.

My family has been in the
business for five generations.

It comes into your blood
and then it stays there.

It is the beauty of the stone.

It's just beautiful.

You can just sit for hours
just drooling over it.

Today, they are at work

trying to figure out how to cut
a 90-carat rough sapphire.

A finished gem jumps in value

when it hits a larger threshold
like ten, 20, or 50 carats.

It's almost a perfect crystal.

Sammoon's goal is
to cut this down

to a well faceted 50-carat gem,

but that will take
careful planning.

We can sit on it
for two weeks, ten days,

just, you know,
fool around with it,

think what's best.

Come back, take a look,

have a cup of tea,

and then think about it.

Make the wrong decision

and it could be
a costly mistake.

One of the world's
most celebrated gems

is the 12-carat sapphire
from Sri Lanka

that was worn as an engagement
ring by Lady Diana.

Today, the same ring is worn
by the new duchess of Cambridge.

This brilliant blue sapphire is
estimated to be worth $400,000.

But in the bustling
Sri Lankan market,

the sapphires
that Lucas discovers

are not what you might expect.

This stone has

very little color in it--

not quite colorless,
but almost.

Believe it or not,
this is a sapphire.

Sapphires are a variety
of the mineral corundum,

which in its pure state
is colorless.

Corundum crystals are made up
of aluminum and oxygen atoms.

It is the second hardest
natural gemstone after diamond.

But colorless corundum
is not a treasure;

its value comes
from its impurity.

What gives corundum its color
is what we call trace elements.

In the case of blue sapphire,
it's iron and titanium.

Different impurities
absorb and reflect

different colors of light,
similar to the Hope Diamond.

Take a look at the color.

Would you believe me
if I told you

this was a sapphire?

This stone is purple
and it's still a sapphire.

Sapphires come in yellow, pink,
and of course blue,

but one color of sapphire
has a name all its own:


I think most people
don't realize

ruby and sapphire,
they're related.

They're both
from the mineral corundum.

They're varieties.

It's just the color distinction

that we give these gems
their famous names.

Rubies' color comes
from the element chromium.

Their rarity makes them one
of the most valuable gems.

Sapphires and rubies show how
even Earth's imperfect recipes

can lead to some of its
most beautiful creations.

Cooked by the heat and pressure
of colliding tectonic plates,

impurities can turn
a simple dull rock

into a rainbow of rare
and precious gemstones.

But not all gems are found
washed loose.

Emeralds are some
of the rarest gems.

But hunting for them requires
patience and explosive power.

Jamie Hill and Ed Speer
of North Carolina

have been mining emeralds
for more than 30 years.

Almost ten percent

of all of the emeralds
found on this property

are greater than 100 carats.

That means they're that big
or bigger.

These are some of the biggest,
best emeralds in the world.

Emeralds are formed by the hot,
mineral-rich fluids

when land masses collide,

as they did
about 380 million years ago

here in what is now
North Carolina.

The challenge for Jamie and Ed

is that these emeralds
can be anywhere here,

still encased in the rock
where they formed.

That's a nice specimen.

That's where the firepower
comes in.

We've got over 3,500 pounds
of high explosives.

It's gonna be
over 10,000 tons of rock.

This is gonna be a big one,
I mean, a real big one.

(booming explosion)

Blowing up a lot of earth

is all in a day's work
for Ed and Jamie.

But today, like most,
they come up short.

The explosion didn't reveal
any obvious new emeralds.

We've got several days
of hard work here.

But I'm very excited

because emeralds could be
anywhere at any moment.


There's the big one.

Remember that one?

Remember that one?

It's that big one you found
at the end of the day.

You were about to go home.

I wanted to go home,
I was tired.

I'll never forget that.

That emerald weighs
over 1,450 carats.

Making it one of the ten
largest emeralds ever found

in North America.

And this is only one
of the treasures

Jamie and Ed have found.

To date, they have uncovered

$9 million worth of emeralds

and have no plans
to stop looking.

But if two men at one location
can uncover that many,

it begs the question:

are precious gems like diamonds
and emeralds really that rare?

It's so funny to think

about the marketing of diamonds,

making them sound incredibly
rare and incredibly valuable.

And, of course,

a big, perfect diamond
is a rare object.

But the typical diamond,
half a carat, one carat diamond,

they're available
by the billions,

and they have to be
because otherwise,

you wouldn't have
a jewelry market.

Robert Hazen believes that
the value of gemstones

is largely a creation
by the jewelry industry,

not nature.

But in some cases,

the value comes from traditions
thousands of years old.

Nowhere is that more evident
than in modern Beijing.

Here, despite the onslaught
of rising wealth

and luxury goods,

there is one ancient treasure
that rises above all others:


In China, jade can be even more
valuable than diamonds.

LISA DONG (translated):
This jade necklace
is called "water's love."

It is made up
of the highest-quality stones,

perfect for attending galas.

It will elevate the party-going
lady's status instantly.

Whoever wears "water's love,"

she will be the queen
of the party.

Lisa Dong sells jade pieces that
can cost upwards of $20 million.

Even traditional jade bracelets,

which have been worn by women
here for thousands of years,

can easily cost
tens of thousands.

When you click
two jade pieces together,

the clicking sound represents
a character trait--

a refusal to be contaminated
by evil influences.

Jade bracelets are thought
to bring luck and happiness

with no end or beginning,
just like their shape.

DONG (translated):
When a Chinese woman marries,
diamonds are not important.

What is important is to have
a jade bracelet and ring.

They embody the ideas
of Confucius:

benevolence, righteousness,
courtesy, wisdom, and trust.

How can one stone mean so much
to so many?

There's no better place
to find an answer

than in the heart
of Imperial China:

The Forbidden City.

Lin Xu is a specialist
in ancient jade.

XU (translated):
Westerns may believe jade

is a normal stone,
but in the eyes of us Chinese,

jade is not only
a beautiful stone.

We have such a long history
of jade objects in China.

From its initial use
of connecting us to the gods,

we add more functions to it
throughout the years.

And now, the culture of jade

coincides with Chinese culture
and history.

Over China's very long history,

jade became
increasingly connected

with the imperial ruler.

XU (translated):
Jade's association

with the emperor
developed in stages.

Owning jade was forbidden
to common people.

They could lose their heads
if they were caught using jade.

There were strict rules.

Some of the most important
pieces of jade

were the emperor's seals,
called xi.

XU (translated):
All of the 25 xi

were equally important,
tightly connected

to the emperor's rule
and law-making.

This is a green jade xi
for signing important documents

that make announcement
to the entire nation.

Whoever owned the xi was
to own the entire country.

Ever since then, every dynasty
carried on the tradition.

Dynasties fought
over the control of the xi.

The English word for jade
describes what are actually

two completely different
minerals: jadeite and nephrite.

In my left hand

is a mineral called jadeite.

In my right hand is a greenish
mineral called nephrite.

Both are, generally speaking,
referred to as jade,

but chemically, these are
two very different minerals.

One way you can tell
between a jadeite and a nephrite

is to rub one against the other,

and you can see the jadeite,
being slightly harder,

can scratch the nephrite.

Nephrite has the much longer
history in Chinese culture.

One massive piece
of nephrite jade

that was prized above all others
by the emperor

still sits
in the Forbidden City.

Altogether, this sculpture took
ten years to complete.

It is also the largest
jade sculpture in China.

That tradition
of intricate carving

still continues
in the town of Yangzhou,

north of Shanghai.

Jade is not chipped away
like marble.

pedal-powered machines

and a hard abrasive were used

to slowly grind and shape
the stone.

Even today,
with the help of modern tools,

jade requires patience to slowly
reveal the beauty of the stone.

Master carver Yijin Gao says

it is unlike diamond,
which is cleaved.

You can't cut jade.

The first step is to remove
the unnecessary parts.

The second step
is grinding slowly

for the piece to take shape.

The earliest uses of jade
were as primitive tools

because the toughness
and durability of the stone

allowed it to be shaped
into useful forms.

Richard Vinci is a materials
scientist at Lehigh University.

Mostly, we associate

toughness or being
damage-tolerant with metals.

With a lot of minerals,

as soon as they start to crack,
they just come apart.

Jade is a little bit different,

and it comes down
to the internal structure--

not down at the atomic scale,
but at the micrometer scale.

That's looking more promising.

Maybe if we were to come
into this area over here?

This piece of jade

has all of these
little crystal fibers

that are long and skinny,

they look almost like
little noodles of spaghetti,

and they're all
packed together tightly

to make the solid crystal.

In this area, the fibers are
all running this way,

but in this area, it looks like
they're running cross this way.

Down here, they're running
at sort of a diagonal.

So as you try to crack it,

the crack may go through
one bundle following the fibers,

but as soon as it hits
the next bundle

where the fibers are oriented
in a different direction,

it has a very difficult time,

and that gives it
a fair degree of toughness.

That toughness
has led to another belief

widespread in China:

that jade protects the person
who wears it--

one reason so many people buy
jade jewelry.

Chinese people normally believe
jade carries a blessing.

We've all heard many stories
that a piece of jade shatters

in order to protect his master.

I think it's often the case

that people associate
physical characteristics

with more moral
or mystical characteristics.

So the characteristics that
we associate with that material

are coming
from its individual atoms

and their electron structure

and how those atoms
are arranged.

We really can't appreciate that

at the level
at which we're using it,

but we certainly appreciate
the properties

that result from it.

There is another gem

with unusual microscopic

that some call the Queen,

and it is mostly found
Down Under.

Australia has 95%
of the world's precious opal.

Black opal is the most rare

and famously comes
from one town:

Lightning Ridge.

Anthony Melonas is
a fourth-generation miner.

It's in my blood.

I look at diamonds
and emeralds

and rubies and sapphires.

Well, opal's the queen.

Opal is the queen
of all the gems.

Melonas says the only way
to find an opal

is to careful dig away
at the Outback's clay walls.

The thing about opal:

just when you think
you know what you're doing,

it will surprise you.

It can form anywhere.

And what you don't want is
this piece of machinery

going right through a big opal.

Fortunately, in the white rock,

the colors of opal
make it relatively easy to spot.

These vivid colors are what
gives the stone its value.

Opal can come in many colors,

including deep blue-greens,
intense purple, or fiery red.

And it has a sparkle
all its own,

again a result
of its microscopic structure.

I love opals.

Not only are they very flashy,
but they're also very different

from most of the other

Instead of irregular
little crystals,

they are these perfect
little spheres.

An opal is made up
of tiny spheres of silica,

a mixture of silicon and oxygen

found in sand
and even ordinary window glass.

The spheres are so small
that when packed together,

they can scatter
wavelengths of light,

creating flashes
of different colors.

And so depending on the size
of the spheres,

you will get
different colors appearing.

Certain opals will flash
mostly green or mostly red

or maybe a mixture
of these colors.

Opal is not a crystal
like most other gems;

it is a collection
of billions of glassy spheres

packed together and surrounded
by a small amount of water.

(thunder rumbling)

Just how opals form
is not completely understood.

One interpretation is that
under rare conditions,

water percolated
through the ground

and dissolved silica from rock.

That viscous mineral mix
filled in cracks in the Earth

and slowly solidified,
like Jell-O in a mold.

Opal can form in any gap

or even fill in fossils
left by ancient life.

These rare fossils are
a colorful record

of a prehistoric world...

(hawk screeching)

...preserved in part
by a unique geology

in Australia,
where very little happened,

all evidence
of an exquisite connection

between geology, life,
and precious gems.

The beauty of every gem

comes from a unique recipe
inside Earth.

But can they tell us
something more?

Are there clues held
by these gems

that can solve some
of the most enduring mysteries

in the field of geology?

One of those mysteries

is when the important process
of plate tectonics began.

Giant tectonic plates
pushed and pulled

by the need to release heat
deep within Earth

have shaped the map
of the continents

into what we know today

and made Earth
more geologically active

than all other known planets.

But when did this
critical process begin?

When plate tectonics begins

is a huge question.

Some people think it is more
than four billion years ago.

Some people think
it didn't really get started

until less than a billion years.

That's a huge discrepancy.

So any insight we have
on how plate tectonics began

is incredibly valuable

to understanding
our dynamic planet.

Steven Shirey at the Carnegie
Institution for Science

thinks these diamonds
may hold the answer, literally.

So we're looking
at three rough diamonds.

Rough diamonds means uncut.

Shirey, a geochemist,

is investigating what others
consider bad diamonds:

ones with flaws--
tiny bits of earth

trapped inside,
called inclusions.

Here's one, here's another one.

These black specs
would make this diamond

not good for the jewelry market,

so Tiffany's would not
this particular specimen.

Tiffany's may not want them,

but for Shirey,
these diamonds are, in effect,

an ancient safety deposit box

preserving the chemistry
of early Earth.

Diamonds are the best container
you could have for anything.

When they enclose a mineral,

they become the best
time capsules we have.

The first step is getting
to the flaw.

After all,
this container is made

of the hardest material
on Earth.

What we have here is
a diamond-cutting laser.

It's going to cut
from top to bottom,

and that part of the diamond
will be actually vaporized.

All right, Joe, let's go ahead
and cut this baby, all right?

Here we go, ready?

When I see a diamond,
like anybody, I love its beauty.

But I really love a diamond
that has a lot of flaws.

Then the diamonds are polished

to clearly reveal
the inclusions.

Then we can get a really good
look at the inclusions,

and you can see
one, two, three, four.

By breaking through the diamond

and analyzing the chemistry
of the minerals,

Shirey has found
something startling:

minerals billions of years old

that could only have formed
on the surface.

But given that diamonds form
deep within the Earth,

how did that happen?

Shirey believes that
the motion of plate tectonics

carried the minerals
deep into Earth,

where the material was
encapsulated by a diamond.

So that's a dead ringer
for the idea that

they're from the surface
of the Earth.

But Shirey has never found
surface minerals

in a diamond older than
3.2 billion years.

And that suggests that plate
tectonics or a related process

could have begun at
about that time.

We can take very tiny grains

and scale up
to very large questions.

And these are the biggest
questions you can answer

about geology on the earth,
and we're doing it

with almost the smallest
specimens that humans can study.

You know, it's amazing

the role that diamonds
have played

in understanding Earth
as a whole.

Diamonds give us hints
about how Earth works

and how it was made.

The journey of gemstones
both flawed and flawless

reveal forces of Earth's
unimaginable power

as well as the heights
of artistic

and scientific endeavor.

Around the world,
that process continues today

as scientists
are finding new uses

for these ancient treasures:

lasers that employ
the clear optics of rubies,

and diamond's
thermal conductivity

used in the next generation
of quantum computing.

So whether under museum guard,
for sale at Tiffany,

or in laboratories
around the world,

these treasures prove
that their value,

both aesthetic and scientific,
can indeed last forever.

This NOVA program is
available on DVD.

NOVA is also available
for download on iTunes.