Tales of gemstones are scattered throughout recorded history – they’re even mentioned in the Bible. What is it about stones that holds so much fascination for us? Let’s take a look at a few key stones in history (see the first part of this series here):
Zircon was a gemstone long known to mankind. One of the philosopher Aristotle’s pupils, Theophrastus, described zircon in the fourth century B.C. Zircon is the gemstone favored by the Roman goddess Diana. Healing properties attributed to zircon include the remedy for insomnia, plus a prevention to use against the plague. The Catholic tradition saw zircon as a stone of humility.
Amethyst, a most gorgeous gemstone, is reputed to induce balance. In ancient Greece and Rome, the belief was so strong that during orgies, people would drink from amethyst vessels, in an effort to eliminate morning after symptoms. Because of this belief, amethyst was typically etched in ecclesiastical rings for bishops. The intention was to keep the enormous power of the bishop’s station from going to his head. During the 1600s, amethysts were believed to have the same value as diamonds. In 1660, Tsar Alexis of Russia received a throne set with 1,223 amethysts and 876 diamonds. The stone was most popular during the Renaissance era.
Topaz was first discovered thousands of years ago on the island Topazion, which in Greek means “to seek.” Topazion was frequently surrounded by fog. Sailors wasted much time trying to navigate around it. Topazion, now renamed Saint John, is located approximately thirty-five miles off the Egyptian coast. Topaz has been so misrepresented that quartz stones found in Brazil have been named topaz. Yellow quartz stones are called Palmyra topaz, while browner shades are called Madeira topaz. Yellow sapphire is called oriental topaz. And in a complete twist, colorless topaz is called water sapphire. Blue-green topaz is sometimes called aquamarine. Merchants and gemstone lovers call genuine topaz “precious topaz” to distinguish it from the many misrepresentations that surround this lovely stone. Another case of mistaken identity is the 1,680 carat Braganza found in the Portuguese crown jewels. This stone was always considered to be the world’ largest diamond until it was identified as a colorless topaz. It is not unusual for topazes to have single crystals weighing over one hundred pounds.
Turquoise was well desired in ancient Egypt and was consequently set in many household ornaments including mirrors, amulets, hair ornaments, and even chariots. A gorgeous neck ornament shaped like a vulture, from the tomb of Tutankhamen, boasted sixty-seven pieces of turquoise. Turquoise is generally found in extremely dry climates, such as in Egypt. The oldest known turquoise mines were located on the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Egypt and Palestine. The discovery of these mines took place when Haroeris, a soldier in the service of Amenemhet II, Pharaoh of Egypt, led his soldiers on an expedition for turquoise. After months of searching in desert heat, he finally located the mines, two thousand feet above sea level in the mountains. He called them “turquoise for eternity.” For centuries before Christ, these same mines yielded the precious gemstones for use in jewelry, amulets, palace furnishings and funerary jewelry. Turquoise has been popular for centuries from the Aztecs, the Incas, to the Tsars of Russia. The Native American Indian tribes of the southwest (Navajo, Hopi, Zuni) also used turquoise in their beautifully crafted jewelry. The Zuni boast of high craftsmanship and use turquoise for amulets in many of their age-old designs.
What are your favorite gemstones – and historical lore about gemstones?