Romancing the Stones
Some of the world’s oldest recorded texts and longest-held beliefs are those attached to gemstones. Used throughout known history as talismans, oracles, amulets, charms, and totems (and fabulous decoration) gemstones have always ignited a love and reverence that has prompted association with the divine, and suggested otherworldly powers. Our love of gems has inspired us to delve into the rich history of precious stones.
Perhaps the world's most famous gem, the Black Prince's Ruby (front, center), is actually a large red spinel. Its history is documented back to 1366 AD. Today it is mounted on the front of Britain's Imperial State Crown, Garrard & Co., 1937, Royal Collection
It is important to note that ancient and contemporary understanding of gemstones cannot be equated for two main reasons: the first being that the chemical property of gemstones was unknowable in ancient times, so gems were identified by color rather than makeup. For this reason, gem types we now understand as distinct were often lumped together because of their shared color. For example, red garnets and rubies share near identical symbolic significance in most cultures, on account of their similar crimson hue. More than one of history’s most celebrated “rubies”, the “Black Prince’s Ruby,” which adorns the Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom, is in fact a very large spinel.
The other, related reason that the folklore surrounding gemstones is often vague or cross applicable to multiple stones is that hundreds of years of translations have only served to obscure meaning. Alternative readings of ancestral texts, particularly those originally transcribed in dead languages, like ancient Greek or Latin, often conflate the symbolic significance of stones. That being said, some traditions and traditional uses of gemstones are so pervasive and so romantic that they have survived to the present day, and can enhance our appreciation for their beauty.
Sapphire Bishop’s ring of William Wytlesey, Bishop of Rochester, 1357/1374, Canterbury, Victoria and Albert Museum
One of the more complicated gemstone histories is that of the sapphire, as it is unclear in many texts from ancient Greece, Rome and the Middle East whether the blue stone that served as an oracle to Apollo, a talisman to King Solomon and a sacred tablet to Moses was made of sapphire or lapis lazuli. We now know that the Greek word “sappheiros” from which we get the modern, English word sapphire, actually referred specifically to the flat, semi-precious lapis stone. By the Middle Ages the distinction between the stones grew clearer, with deeper significance afforded to sapphire as a gemstone, and Lapis Lazuli becoming more prized in powdered form (particularly as it was used to color the sacred robes of religious figures in Medieval art.) During this period in history the sapphire stone had a great association with sight, both literal and otherworldly. Precious sapphire was used by the noble class in Western Medieval Europe to “cure” ailments of the eye (don’t try this at home, it certainly does not work!) while upper ranks of the Catholic clergy adorned themselves with sapphires to inspire heavenly insight.
“Padparadscha” Sapphire (precise weight, 100.18 ct), Morgan Collection, American Museum of Natural History, New York
Though sapphire has a blurry history in Western culture, its specific nature is more clearly honored in many Eastern practices. For instance, in Sri Lanka, where many of the world’s most prized blue sapphires come from, there can also be found a very rare orange-pink variation of the corundum stone, called a “padparadscha” sapphire. Padparadscha translates literally from Sinhalese to English as “lotus flower” and shares sacred symbolism associated with that bloom. Both sapphire and ruby are gemologically identified as corundums, the differentiating feature being their color. While sapphires come in blue, pink, orange, yellow, green, purple, and violet (actually, any color but red!) rubies will only be red in color, the result of higher levels of chromium in the stone. The English word ruby is derived from the Latin term “ruber,” which directly translates to “red.” The most prized rubies in the world tend to have a rich red hue with an undertone of blue, adding depth to the robust color. These exceptionally colored rubies, usually from Myanmar (but denoted by the country’s colonial name “Burma,”) are known as “pigeon blood” rubies, or “ko-twe” in Burmese. It is of note that the most sought-after rubies globally are those that share the near exact hue (and name!) with the life sustaining fluid, as much of the meaning associated with the gem has to do with spiritual vibrancy and bodily protection.
No-Heat Burmese Ruby and Diamond Cluster Ring, 1890, England, Macklowe Gallery
For instance, in ancient Myanmar warriors would not just wear rubies into battle, but actually insert the stones into the flesh, often near major arteries, before confrontations to protect themselves from harm or death. Rubies are also known as the “king of gems” and held special significance to royalty and deities in Southeast Asia and the Near East. Rubies are a traditional ceremonial offering to the Hindu god Krishna, the Harita Smriti says “He who worships Krishna with rubies will be reborn as a powerful emperor. If with a small ruby, he will be born a king.” An 8th-century Arabic book on dreams by Achametis encourages kings to sleep surrounded by rubies and states that if the ruler dreams of the gem, he will have a successful rule and many heirs. Perhaps due to these protective qualities, rubies are also a traditional gift for those departing on extended journeys. This practice was robust in ancient Greece and Rome, inspired by the gift given to Persephone by Hades before she left the underworld, which was a “ruby red” pomegranate. Though this tradition hasn’t particularly extended into modern times, it did receive a wonderful nod in the film Wizard of Oz, which abounds with gem-infused symbolism. The film’s heroine, Dorothy, is given a pair of “ruby red” (and bejeweled) slippers, which are revealed not only to have protective powers but to serve as her ticket home.
Scene from Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein: “Hermione takes refuge in the chemical laboratory of Sir Herman, an Austrian alchemist.”, William Long, Wellcome Collection, London
The enchanting nature of the opal has inspired some of the most heavily charged symbolic legends around the world, as well as some of the most complicated. If you’ve heard rumors that opals are bad luck, you are not alone! Despite its widespread nature, there is no ancient source or proof for the unfortunate myth. Instead, it can be dated to a gothic novel by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1829. In the novel, Anne of Geierstein, the titular character is never seen without an ornate hair clip decorated with an opal. The opal in question is described as flashing prominently in different hues that reflect the mood of the wearer, and when the stone is subjected accidentally to a few drops of holy water, Anne collapses and dies shortly thereafter. Due to the incredible popularity of Scott’s novel and pervasive respect for the worldliness of the author, opals became associated with bad luck and largely fell out of favor in the European market in the 19th century.
Of course, not everyone was so influenced by Scott’s writings, Queen Victoria herself, among the most influential jewelry collectors of the modern world, laughed at the superstition, and gave each of her daughters an opal gift when they were married. Before it fell victim to Sir Scott’s literary arc, the opal shared a strong association with divinities around the world, and, because of its abilities to display a myriad of colors, was often thought to share the strongest symbolic properties of other gemstones. According to Arabian legend, opals fell from the heavens in flashes of lightning, while Indian lore considers the stone to be the incarnation of the Goddess of the Rainbow, who turned herself into stone to avoid the romantic advances of other gods. Australian aboriginals and ancient Greeks also believed that opal was an earthly iteration of otherworldly entities, with Australia’s native peoples considering opals to be footprints of the gods, and Greek high priests declaring that opal was formed from the tears Zeus cried after the defeat of the Titans. In 75 AD, the Roman scholar Pliny observed, “Some opali carry such a play within them that they equal the deepest and richest colors of painters. Others…simulate the flaming fire of burning sulphur and even the bright blaze of burning oil.” The phenomenal nature of the opal as well as its unusual physical property of retaining water have led many cultures to believe that the stone can hold spiritual matter, either to pass from person to person or from this world into the next.
Queen Victoria wearing an opal tiara, 'The Secret of England's Greatness' (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor), Thomas Jones Barker, 1862-1863, National Portrait Gallery, England
Though Roman scholar Pliny the Elder was certainly taken with the opal, it was the emerald that captured his heart. “No gem in existence,” he wrote, “is more perfect or more intense than [the emerald].” Of its velvety green color, he noted “…no color is more delightful in appearance. For although we enjoy looking at plants and leaves, we regard Emeralds with all the more pleasure because compared with them there is nothing that is more intensely green…. After straining our eyes by looking at another object, we can restore our vision to normal by gazing at an Emerald.” Emeralds have often been associated with feminine divinity, representing the Greek goddess Venus and the Incan goddess Umina, and used as a symbol of womanly power in ancient Egypt. The emerald was a well-recorded favorite of Cleopatra’s, with ancient scholars and international delegates to Egypt noting that the Pharaoh was always adorned in the stone, decorated her palatial homes with the gem, and frequently gave emeralds as gifts to foreign dignitaries.
Egyptian Woman wearing Emerald Beads, Encaustic (wax) painting on wood, Mummy Portrait, Er-Rubayat, Fayum Oasis, Egypt, Ca. AD 140, Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In 1817 Cleopatra’s emerald mines were rediscovered on the coast of the Red Sea, adding to the credibility of this legend and reinforcing the Empress’s connection with the stone. To celebrate Elizabeth Taylor's famed role as Cleopatra in 1963, Richard Burton gave his then-wife a remarkable emerald and diamond necklace by Bulgari. The emerald set has since fetched record-setting prices at auction and rocketed the marriage of emerald and female celebrities into the modern era. The intense color of the gemstone has long been associated with the lushest of landscapes. For example, Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle, and Seattle as the Emerald City. The association has even crossed over into works of fiction, such as the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.
"Cast pearls before swine" (from the series of "Flemish Proverbs"). Drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638), Private collection, Switzerland
Of course, there are a few precious materials that are considered gems but not gemstones, as they are formed from organic matter, and the king (or queen!) among them is the pearl. First recorded in history in 2,206 BC, pearls have been cemented in ancient parables and contemporary idioms as symbols of wealth, beauty, and prosperity. In English (and many other Germanic and Romance languages) hard-won or greatly prized knowledge is called a “pearl of wisdom,” while in the Book of Matthew in the Bible, Christ warns against casting “pearls before swine.” (Matthew, 7:6) Common mention of the Christian “Kingdom of Heaven” as “the pearly gates” makes reference to a passage in the Book of Revelations, in which the twelve gates of heaven are constructed of white pearls. Heaven as it is described in the Qur’an also promises a paradise of pearls, as those who are deigned worthy of heavenly admittance are said to be clothed in nothing but pearls.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, Nicholas Hilliard, About 1573 - About 1575, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
During the Byzantine Era and earlier Ancient Roman times, laws were enacted to forbid commoners from wearing pearls, and the right to wear pearls could even be appealed in a court of Roman law. Similarly, in 1612, the Duke of the Saxon Kingdom of Germany enacted a law declaring that only members of the royal court had the right to wear pearls. Much of the 16th Century in England is known as the Pearl Age, a celebration of the prosperity and military victories of Elizabeth I’s court, and an homage to the Virgin Queen’s favorite gem. To prove to the Roman ruler Mark Antony that she could host the most lavish and expensive dinner in history, the Pharaoh Cleopatra is said to have dissolved a pearl from her ear into a cup of vinegar, which she then drank in front of the astonished Roman leader. Contemporary “royalty” of a different type has also demonstrated a reverence for pearls, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis famously stating “pearls are always appropriate,” and Coco Channel encouraging every woman to deck themselves in “ropes and ropes of pearls.”
Double-headed serpent turquoise mosaic pectoral, 1400/1521, Aztec, British Museum
Though there is now a more recognized international consensus on the importance of certain gemstones, geographically disparate cultures in the ancient world that had little or no access to each other often placed very different monetary value on different stones. For example, when the Spanish colonists first arrived in what they called the “New World,” they sought, demanded, and plundered for gold and emeralds, they were surprised to find that desire for these coveted materials paled in comparison to the reverence the Native Americans had for turquoise. Early Spanish conquistadors and missionaries (mostly Franciscans) noted throughout the early 15th + 16th centuries that Aztec, Zuni, Apache, and Navajo peoples often prized turquoise over all other earthly material and that the stone was central to many of their most sacred rituals. Juan de Torquemada, a Franciscan missionary, wrote that the Aztecs made offerings of this stone at the temple of the goddess Matlalcueye and buried distinguished chiefs with fragments of chalchihuitl in their mouths.
When the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and Emperor Montezuma played games of chance. Alvarado received gold if he won but paid chalchihuitl if he lost. The Aztecs believed their god Quetzalcoatl taught them the art of cutting and polishing this stone. Further North, the Apache people highly prized what they called “duklij” (turquoise) for its talismanic properties. They carved amulets, beads, pendants, and fetishes from this material. If Apache shamans didn’t possess this stone, they wouldn’t receive proper recognition from their tribes. One popular belief connected turquoise and rainbows. If you could find the end of a rainbow after a storm, searching the damp earth would yield turquoise, an interesting counterpoint to the Irish myth that promises a pot of gold. The famous dream catcher of the Ojibwe tribes, later adopted by many North American artists, is considered incomplete without a turquoise spider. The Ojibwe speak of Asibikaashi (Spider-Woman) who returned the missing sun to the people, and the dreamcatcher protects the little ones from the darkness of their dreams.
Squash-Blossom Necklace, Navajo, 1910 - 1925, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Life, say the Navajo, began when the first man and woman used a stone disk, edged with turquoise, to create the sun, and according to the Navajo tradition, the stone could help connect one, in prayer, to the Creator of rain or the “Wind Spirits.” The Tribe revered Estsanatlehi, the mythical “Changing Woman,” or “Turquoise Woman,” and several points of her creation story touch upon the sacred element. Turquoise was also prized, though to a lesser extent, in Europe and the Near East, particularly in Turkey. There was such an affinity for the turquoise stone in Turkey that it was erroneously believed in Western Europe that turquoise was found or mined in Turkey, hence the French word “turquoise.” In reality, the turquoise that passed through Turkey into the European market was mined in Persia and Afghanistan, where some of the oldest recorded mines existed specifically to mine the stone. Perhaps one of the main reasons why ancient cultures have long been attracted to turquoise is because of its color-changing abilities. While turquoise is not really alive, it does change colors depending on the environment, light, dust, and one’s skin acidity, leading many cultures worldwide to believe that it can reflect the health (whether emotional or physical) of the wearer.
Though complex and sometimes contradictory, the history of the symbolic meanings we attach to gemstones has a clear takeaway; the beauty of gems, wherever they are mined, transported, worn, or worshipped, is so great as to capture the human imagination, and grant us a connection with a power greater than ourselves. Whether you are drawn to a stone for its color, its brilliance, or its history, these treasures of the earth promise to delight for centuries to come.