Anyone trying to match paint knows that creating exactly the right color can be a very tricky process.

Now imagine trying to match the color of the world’s most famous diamond for a replica slated for display in the most prominent U.S. museum.

The carefully created replica of the Hope Diamond will eventually be displayed at the Smithsonian Museum. The blue sparkle created to exactly match the original is the work of a colorful Rochester company started by several former IBM engineers.

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Gem expert John Hatleberg, who is creating the replica “French Blue” version of the Hope Diamond, recently told the New York Times that he has made several trips to Azotic in Rochester in the past few years to zero in on exactly the right blue color.

Tucked away in a commercial building along US 14, a team of 33 employees at Azotic quietly coat crates of man-made and natural gemstones, crystals and more with its thousands of patented colors using a high-tech process. They can process tens of thousands of “surface enhanced designer gemstones” a month.

Distributors, many international, turn those colored stones into jewelry and decorations that are then sold by major retailers, like Costco, Walmart and Amazon.

Azotic was one of the first companies to permanently adhere specific colors to cubic zirconia, quartz, topaz and, most recently, moissanite.

However, that wasn’t the original plan when the company was founded in 1994 by six Rochester men, five former IBMers. Each invested $10,000 to start the business.

A crystal with rainbow coloring at Azotic LLC Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
A crystal with rainbow coloring at Azotic LLC Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Azotic President Steve Starcke explained that he and his friends were losing their jobs at IBM and they decided to buy some specialized equipment with plans to start a company to coat silicone wafers and machine cutting tools.

Azotic means “containing nitrogen,” which the coating process used.

“We thought, kind of naively, after we build it, they will come,” he said, but the early silicon wafer business quickly dried up. That left the team thinking about ways to profitably use their expensive machines.

Starcke happened to be a “rockhound” hobbyist who had a large collection of quartz and crystals on his desk. Out of desperation, Azotic started to sell some coated stones as decoration.

A distributor in Brazil spotted their work and asked them to color topaz stones.

Eng Tat Ng, with Azotic LLC, shows a crystal with coloring on it to make it more vibrant Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, at the Rochester business. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Eng Tat Ng, with Azotic LLC, shows a crystal with coloring on it to make it more vibrant Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, at the Rochester business. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“All of the sudden, we had a new business,” Starcke said. The popularity of the New Age movement touting the healing power of crystals propelled the company for a time.

They started creating many, many new colors to adhere to stones … “Not because anyone wanted them, but because we could. We were engineers. We thought we’re smart. We can do marketing. It turned out that we couldn’t do marketing, but we bumbled along for a while,” remembered Starcke with a chuckle.

However, a co-founder’s wife, Deb Kearnes, was creative and pretty good at coming up with catchy names for the colors. The most popular line of patented colors is Azotic’s Mystic Fire. It was launched in 1998.

Eng Tat Ng, Azotic’s Asia-Pacific marketing and sales director, said that Kearnes came to be nicknamed the “Mystic Fire Queen” for her work.

A quick search on Amazon for Mystic Fire jewelry will turn up more than 1,000 results for pendants, earrings and rings, all with stones colored at Azotic’s Rochester facility.

The color names within each Mystic line, became more and more unique. Azotic brochures include trademarked Mystic quartz color names like “Fast Casual” for a pink shade, “Election Paradox” for a green shade and “Best To Be Bored” for a fiery red-orange.

As the gemstone business grew, Azotic started working with various artists, such as the creators of colorful art glassware, as sort of a patron. That eventually connected Azotic with diamond artist Hatleberg, who liked the precision of the colors they could make.

Ironically, Azotic doesn’t coat real diamonds. Starcke remembers an experiment with diamonds that went awry.

“You leave a diamond in a kiln overnight and the kiln will be empty in the morning. We learned the hard way that it turns out that diamonds can burn up, when exposed to high temperatures for long enough,” he said. “It’s funny now.”

Hatleberg has made seven trips to Rochester to work on the Hope Diamond color with Azotic’s color engineer, Josh Worisek. Worisek, in turn, traveled to the Smithsonian to examine and even hold the genuine Hope Diamond.

Ng said the process to calibrate the exact color takes a lot of time.

“He (Hatleberg) is very precise. He’ll stare into a stone for a half hour without moving,” Ng said.

While Azotic’s work will have a large audience when the replica goes on display and will add to the company’s “street cred” in the industry, it’s not really a lucrative project.

Right now, the former tech coating firm is looking at the growth in popularity of moissanite, which is almost as hard as diamonds and considered to be more “sparkly."

As the last of the founders, Starcke looks back with fondness and amazement at the twist and turns in Azotic’s path over the years.

“We’ve had a good run … It’s been a wild ride, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he said. “I would never have imagined this is where it would go when we started.”