ROMANCING THE STONE
Some past and present meanings and uses of precious and semi-precious stones
'Precious stones in all ages have been signalised by myriad forms of imaginative, poetic superstition.'
Joseph Rupert Paxton 1856
One of the most valued properties of stones in Renaissance times and before was their reputed ability to protect the owner from poison. It has to be remembered that in these days only certain members of society were able to wear jewels. Many countries actually had laws to prevent non-worthy people from wearing jewels. For example Edward III of England made a statute declaring what each class might aspire to - only nobles or merchants of a specific income were allowed to own precious stones. The higher classes, including royalty would have been most worried about poisoning.
All cultures have assigned their own meanings to different stones and some stones have become closely associated with certain cultures - for example turquoise always brings to mind native Americans.
Following are some past and current 'superstitions'.
Amethyst, a vitreous quartz, that can be purple, violet or red-purple is said to have many properties. The birthstone for February, according to mythology it inspires fairness and a sense of duty. Leanardo da Vinci said that 'amethyst dissipates evil thoughts and quickens the intelligence'. In India it is associated with the Crown Chakra, the energy centre of the body and can promote mystical union with the universal consciousness.
Aquamarine, the blue variety of Beryl, was used in ancient times in amulets to protect sailors. It is the birthstone for March.
Carnelian, which is a reddish-orange form of chalcedony was thought to still the blood and calm the temper - but also said to give courage in battle and help public speakers.
Chrysoprase, an apple-green form of chalcedony, was said to strengthen the eyesight and relieve internal pain.
Diamonds, birthstone for April, are the hardest mineral on Earth The word diamond comes from the Greek 'adamas' meaning unconquerable or invincible. The ancient Greeks believed that diamonds were splinters of stars that had fallen to earth, they were also said to be the tears of the Gods. Pliny The Younger said of them that they destroyed the effects of poison and cured insanity. The Diamond Wedding celebrates 60 years of marriage.
Emerald, the green variety of Beryl, the Eygptians believed to be symbolic of fertility and life. When held in the mouth, emerald was said to cure dysentery and was also worn to prevent epilepsy. It was said to assist women in childbirth, drive away evil spirits and protect the chastity of the wearer. It was supposedly good for the eyesight if taken internally. In the 17th Century Anselmus de Boot, the Holy Roman Emperor's physician, recommended an amulet of emerald to prevent panic, cure fever and stop bleeding. The Emerald Wedding Anniversary celebrates 55 years of marriage and emerald is also the birthstone for May.
Jadeite, also commonly known as Jade along with nephrite, was highly valued amongst some ancient cultures. For Mexican, Central and South American Indians it was a symbol of water and life and was used in sacred items such as depictions of Gods. A piece of jadeite placed in the mouth of a dead nobleman became their heart in the next world. Jadeite was also used medicinally along with herbs to treat fevers.
Jasper is a chalcedony which often includes other materials that give it opacity and colour. It is a cryptocrystalline quartz and was believed to be a female stone helping women in childbirth - according to Marbodius, the 11th Century Bishop of Rouen, jasper 'placed on the belly of a woman in childbirth relieves her pangs'. It is said now to reduce insecurities, fears and guilt.
Lapis Lazuli is a mixture of the minerals lazurite, pyrite and calcite and often sodalite and hauyne. The Greek physician, Dioscorides, around AD55, recorded that it was an antidote to snake venom. It was also believed in ancient Greece and Rome that it could cure eye diseases. Assyrians believed it to be a cure for melancholy.
Malachite, which is possibly the earliest ore of copper, was worn in Italy as protection against the evil eye and in Ancient Greece was used in amulets for children. It was also used in Eygpt from 3000BC as a pigment and eye paint, interestingly it is now known that the green eye paint had medicinal properties and could actually have warded off eye infections.
Moonstone, an opalescent variety of orthoclase, is blue or white. It was believed in 11th Century Europe to bring about the reconciliation of lovers. In India too it has an association with lovers in that it was said if lovers placed it in their mouths during a full moon their destinies, would be revealed.
Nephrite was important to Chinese culture, believed to embody cosmic energy or yang. Burial customs included the use of jade and as it was attributed life-giving properties it was taken internally by the living to regenerate the body. In Europe it was used to treat kidney disease - the name nephrite comes from the Latin nephrus, meaning kidney.
Peridot, the gemstone variety of olivine, was considered a symbol of the sun from ancient times. An early Greek manuscript says that it confers royal dignity on the bearer. It is the birthstone for August.
Rock crystal, a variety of quartz, is associated with Native Americans. The Navajo believed rock crystal caused the Sun to cast its light upon the world. The Prairie Indians, as well as the Australian Aborigines used rock crystal as a talisman and to produce visions. This is the material used to make crystal balls, apparently it helps focus the mind and improve energy flow which might be good for clairvoyants!
Rose quartz, a pink variety of crystalline quartz, when placed next to the skin is said to give the wearer the properties of unconditional love and emotional healing.
Ruby, the red variety of corundum, (corundum is the second hardest mineral on Earth, diamond being the first) in ancient times was said to banish sorrow, restrain lust and also protect the wearer from poison. Andrea Baccius says in his book De Natura Gemmarum, that if danger approaches the wearer of a ruby, it will turn black and then when the danger has passed return once again to its normal colour. It is associated with 40th wedding anniversaries and is the birthstone for July.
The term Sapphire was applied to blue corundum before the 19th Century. In ancient Greece and later in the Middle Ages it was believed that sapphires cured eye diseases and they were also believed to be an antidote to poison. Paxton said that it was thought to be the emblem of heaven, the firmament, truth, constance and fidelity. It represents the 45th Wedding Anniversary and is the September birthstone.
Sunstone as its name suggests, is associated with the Sun. It is a variety of oligoclase or labradorite. It is said to represent health, physical energy, passion and courage.
Turquoise, the birthstone for December, is closely associated with native Americans who used and continue to use turquoise extensively in their jewellery. Some native Americans regard blue turquoise as male - associated with Father Sky and green turquoise as female - associated with Mother Earth. Pueblo Indians believe that a piece of turquoise attached to a gun or bow assures the firer a perfect aim. Thought to warn the wearer of illness by changing colour, it is a stone that may have actual health-related properties - as turquoise is porous it can absorb body oils when worn next to the skin and so can change colour.