Tourmaline is both the modern alternative birthstone for October and the stone of the 8th wedding anniversary. It was only recognised by scientists in the 1800’s, after being confused for other gemstones for centuries. This is because Tourmaline has one of the widest colour ranges of any gemstone; from delicate pinks, through rich greens to deep blues. In fact, the name tourmaline comes from the word ‘toramalli’, which means ‘mixed gems’ in the Sri-Lankan language Sinhalese.
Different colours of tourmaline are known by different names. Red/dark pink tourmaline is known as rubelite, greenish blue as indicolite, black tourmaline as schorl, brown tourmaline as dravite and the bi-coloured tourmaline with pink in the centre and green outer as watermelon. The rarest colour to find is pink tourmaline.
As tourmaline was discovered fairly recently (in geology terms anyway) it doesn’t have the rich ancient history of other birthstones. The Russian Romanov royal dynasty was particularly fond of tourmaline. Catherine the Great owned several, including this fruity brooch known as ‘Caesars Ruby’.
Tourmaline has a rather strange property; it can produce an electric charge! When heated it produces a pyroelectric charge and when pressure is applied it produces piezoelectricity. Because of this, tourmaline was used as an electrical component in sonar, especially during WW2, when demand for the mineral increased. Benjamin Franklin is also believed to have used tourmaline in his studies of electricity.
Septembers modern birthstone Lapis Lazuli is a rich, opaque royal blue with speckles of gold. So it might surprise you to hear that technically, it isn’t a gemstone, but a mineral. Gemmologists consider a stone to be semi-precious or gem quality when it consists of a single type stone; but Lapis is made up of several, mainly lazurite, calcite and pyrite.That it is still considered a gemstone, says something about not only how rare it is, but how beautiful and coveted it is.
Many famous paintings use Lapis Lazuli as a pigment in the oil paint, where artists would crush lapis lazuli into a powder and mix with oil to produce the colour ultramarine. In the early 19th century a synthetic version became available, largely ending the use of Lapis as a pigment. One of the most recognisable paintings to use Lapis is ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Vermeer. The amazing blue colour on the turban comes from Lapis! You might have seen the 2003 film staring Scarlett Johansson as the ‘girl’ which tells a fictional tale about the creation of the painting.
The Sar-e-Sang mine in Badakhstan, Afghanistan has been producing Lapis for the past 6000 years, making it the longest working mine in the gem world. Just getting to the mine is dangerous. In 1862 an earthquake destroyed the road to the Sar-e-Sang mine and hasn’t been properly repaired. The mine itself is in the steep sided and often narrow Kotcha Valley, surrounded by high jagged peaks. The mine can only be worked between December and May because of the cold temperatures and lying snow.
I love opaque gemstones and have a thing for pyrite, so its no surprise I love lapis, and use in my own jewellery. In this bracelet, I’ve teamed 4mm lapis beads with haematite and carnelian.
The birthstone for August is peridot – the name for high quality examples of the mineral olivine. It generally has a pale, yellowy, spring green colour.
People have been mining peridot for over 5000 years. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was a Roman naturalist who wrote one of the first encyclopedias. He wrote that Egyptians had been mining peridot for thousands of years on the island of Zagbargad, (now known as Zebirget or St Johns Island) in Egypt. There is a story that the island was once infested with pit vipers and soldiers were brought in to eradicated the snakes so that the mining of peridot could continue safely.
The crusaders brought peridot to Europe, calling it the emerald of the crusades. But two centuries later, the Spaniards began mining high quality emeralds from South America. This reduced the popularity of the paler green peridot.
Peridot makes an excellent stone for faceting into fine gemstones because it has an unusually high refractive index, which basically means it reflects light well and is very sparkly! I love using peridot because its a really subtle shade of green, not too overbearing or vibrant. And it works so well with both gold and silver and goes beautifully with other materials such as freshwater pearls.
The traditional birthstone for July is ruby and yes, you can get lower grade ruby at a more affordable price, but its still a precious gem. The modern alternative is carnelian (often spelt cornelian), a gem that is often over looked in shop bought jewellery, which is a shame as its has a lovely translucent quality. It is a form of chalcedony that varies from crystal to yellow through to fiery oranges and reddish brown, the colour coming from the presence of iron oxides.
Carnelian is an ancient stone. An amazing haul of gold jewellery with carnelian and lapis lazuli beads dated from 2500 BC was found at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur (modern day Iraq), at the tomb of Queen Pu-abi. She was found covered in an elaborate beaded cape and wore an even more elaborate headdress, that quite frankly looks like something out of Star Wars. She was buried with 52 attendants and a oxen and cart. It is thought that some of the attendants may have been poisoned and may not even have been dead when buried, but merely unconscious. Others were subjected to serious head trauma. Blimey.
Other facts about carnelian include-
*Hot wax doesn’t stick to carnelian, so it has often been used in signet rings http://www.trauma-pages.com/ford98.htm and seals especially by the Minoans and Romans.
*It was believed that carnelian brought luck by the ancient Babylonians and Greeks
*The Ancient Egyptians belived it aided the journey into the afterlife
*And Napoleon wore carnelian as a symbol of victory and courage.
Do you use carnelian in your jewellery or have a favourite piece that uses it? Let me know!
Pearl is the Birthstone for the month of June and the traditional gift for a 30th wedding anniversary. Pearls are one of only four gemstones (Amber, Coral and Jet being the others) that are organic, rather than mineral. Most pearls on the market today are cultured, freshwater pearls. This because naturally formed pearls are very rare (about 1 in 2000 shells might contain a pearl) making them rather expensive! They are both made of the same substance and take the same amount of time to create, but process that begins the initial life of a pearl is artificial, with a piece of shell being placed into an oyster.
Most people think that natural pearls are formed when a grain of sand gets inside an oyster or mollusc and as a defence mechanism, the shellfish forms a protective layer of calcium carbonate around the irritant. This layer of calcium carbonate or nacre continues to form over a period of up to seven years before becoming what we would recognise as a pearl. Most of this is scientifically accurate, except for that it often isn’t a grain of sand, but a tapeworm larvae excreted by other creatures such as sharks that is the initial irritant! Not quite as romantic sounding… The V&A (one of my favourite places in the whole world) had an exhibition all about pearls a few months ago and along with having some fabulous examples, debunked this particular myth. The V&A also made a fabulous film for the exhibition, which you can see at the bottom of this post.
I love using pearls in my jewellery; taking something so classic and universally recognised and incorporating it into contemporary pieces is a joy.
Pearls have been used in jewellery making for thousands of years and have always been a sign of wealth and status. A Roman general is once said to have paid for a military campaign by selling his mothers pearl earrings, Charles I wore a pearl drop earring when he was beheaded and one of the few items of jewellery Marilyn Monroe wore was a pearl necklace given to her by her then husband, Joe DiMaggio. But my favourite tale involves Cleopatra. She bet Marc Anthony that she could put on the most expensive dinner in history. Cleopatra proceeded to crush one of her pearl earrings into her drink and drank it. She offered to crush the other for Anthony. He declined.
Doesn’t hearing the word Emerald instantly make you think of The Wizard of Oz and the Emerald City? If it makes you think of Ireland (known as the ‘Emerald Isle’ due to its lush green countryside) or even Seattle in Washington State USA (also known as the Emerald City, not sure why?) that’s ok too. Emerald is also the traditional birthstone for the month of May, as well as the stone for 20th and 55th wedding anniversaries.
Emerald is a precious gem, and sits alongside diamond, ruby and sapphire in rarity and cost. Weight for weight, Emeralds are some of the most expensive of the precious gems, sometimes even beating diamonds on price. It is also of the few stones that isn’t expected to be completely clear and inclusion free. In fact, specks and cloudiness are considered part of its charm and do not affect the value negatively.
The word Emerald comes from a variety of sources; the Old French ‘Esmeraude’; Middle English ‘Emeraude’; from the Vulgar Latin; ‘Esmaralda/Esmaraldus’ and a variant of the Greek word ‘Smaragdos’ which means ‘green stone’.
In Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra was apparently fanatical about emeralds and claimed one of the earliest known emerald mines for her own. The Incas hoarded vast quantities of emeralds, as they were the stone of the goddess Esmeralda. The Romans thought it to be soothing for the eyes to look at an emerald and Emperor Nero is recorded as having an eye glass made of emerald for watching gladiatorial contests.
Using emerald in jewellery has continued to be popular, through the middle ages to Art Deco to modern day. Royalty such as Queen Elizabeth II has many emerald pieces including the Cambridge Emerald Choker.
The official gemstone for the month of April is diamond; a girls best friends according to Marilyn Monroe in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes! And its no wonder as in skilled hands, rough diamonds can be transformed into the most beautiful gems. The name ‘diamond’ comes from the Greek adamas, which means something unbreakable and invincible. They are made from carbon, the most abundant mineral on earth, and are formed over millions of years of pressure a mile below the surface of the earth. Diamonds have some truly amazing properties. They have the densest atomical structure, will not react to acid or chemicals, a high level of thermal conductivity (meaning they always feel cold), the highest refractive ability and are the hardest natural material on earth. No one wonder they are so highly prized!
Pretty much every culture on earth has diamonds as part of their folklore and myths. The first known record comes from a Sanskrit text around 322 BC – 185 BC, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed they were tears of the Gods and King Louis IX passed a law stating only kings could wear diamonds. One of the most famous diamonds is the Koh-i-Nur, presented to Queen Victoria in 1850, and was reset into a platinum crown for The Queen Mother in 1937.
Not everyone can afford diamonds, and clear quartz or rock crystal is an affordable alternative. Its is one of the most abundant minerals on earth and comes in many different varieties such as citrine, amethyst and rose quartz. Herkimer diamonds are a particularly sought after variety from Herkimer County, New York. They are prized for their clarity and unique double pointed terminations.
In Europe and the Middle East quartz has been commonly used for jewellery, and up until the 19th century for figure carving, engraved cameos and even vessels like jugs and vases.
Aquamarine, the traditional birthstone for March, is a member of the beryl family and whilst generally pale blue in colour, ranges to almost green and even bright blue.
Unsurprisingly, it has long been associated with the sea. Sailors as a far back as the 5th century believed it was a mermaids treasure and that it would keep them safe whilst at sea. Its name even derives from the Latin aqua marina, meaning “water of the sea”.
By the late middle ages it was also believed to be a powerful antidote to poison and jewellery was set with the stone and worn as protection. Aquamarine was also believed to hold mystical powers of divination and was often used in fortune telling. There is even suggestion that the date of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 1st was decided by her astrologer Dr John Dee using a crystal ball made of aquamarine to aid him in reading her horoscope.
But the weirdest fact I have found is that the Romans thought that if you carved a frog onto aquamarine, it would make friends out of enemies. If anyone knows why the image of a frog was significant, please let me know!
The month of February has Amethyst, a beautiful purple variety of quartz as its birthstone.
The word amethyst can be translated from the Greek “amethystos” which roughly translates as “not drunken”! In fact for centuries amethyst was considered a potent cure for intoxication and wine goblets were made out of the stone.
Prehistoric man used amethyst as a decorative stone as far as 25,000 years ago in France and it is said that Cleopatra owned an engraved signet ring made from amethyst too.
The stones link with the month of February comes from its association with Saint Valentine, the third-century Roman saint who died on February 14th. According to legend, he wore an amethyst engraved with the figure of Cupid.
To this day, the regal purple of amethyst is associated with royalty and religion, with clothing, jewellery and ceremonial objects incorporating both the colour and the stone itself.
The deep almost blood-red of the garnet has been used in jewellery since prehistoric times, although garnets are actually a group of stones and naturally occur in all colours except blue! The word garnet derives from the Latin for ‘seed-like’, referring to the stones similar appearance to the seeds of pomegranates. As well as being the birthstone for January, it is one of the modern themes for 2nd wedding anniversary gifts. Garnet is commonly found in many countries and so has been used in jewellery by many cultures throughout history including the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks.
The Anglo-Saxons used garnet a great deal, especially in detailed cloisonné work, where stones or glass is inlaid between gold wires. The hoard found at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, UK, held some of the finest examples, many of which can now be found in the British Museum.
Garnet was long believed to be protection from nightmares, poison and even vampires! Cultural references to a ‘carbuncle stone’ although meaning any red cabochon stone (not the medical variety of carbuncle which is a large red boil or abscess!) was generally referring to a garnet. Such references occur in The Bible (Ezekiel 28:13 refers to the carbuncle’s presence in the Garden of Eden), Shakespeare’s Hamlet (in act 2 scene 2 line 401: “With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus…”), in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis the phrase “precious as carbuncles” is used several times and even today, Carbuncle is a creature in the Final Fantasy computer game.