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.
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.
Take at look at my sparkling amethyst bracelet, hand –knotted with sterling silver findings; a perfect gift for a Valentines gift and February birthdays!
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.
Turquoise is one of the birthstones for December, the other being the more costly Tanzanite.
One the earliest known stones to be used in jewellery, Turquoise has been found in tombs of Pharaohs dated to 5500BC and in a huge variety of items from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iran) including daggers, bowls and decorative ornaments. It also has a strong association with the south west states of America.
Native American culture calls the stone as Chal-cui-hui-tal, meaning the ‘highest and most valued thing in the world’. I first remember coming across Turquoise at school when studying the Aztecs. They were famous for using the stone, particularly to decorate mosaic masks. They considered the stone sacred and the finest examples were referred to as teoxihuitl; ‘the property, the lot, of the god’.
The name Turquoise derives from is arrival in Europe from Turkey during the crusades, giving it the name ‘Turkish Stone’.
Turquoise is a relatively soft stone, and can vary in colour from bright blue green. Turquoise with more blue contains more copper and green Turquoise more iron.
I love gemstones and semi-precious stones and collected them as a little kid. Its not just their beauty, but that they have been formed over thousands of years. Its no wonder that before the mass production of glass beads, semi-precious stones we not only used for decoration and in jewellery but were also attributed meaning and stories.
I have been using semi-precious beads in my jewellery for a while, just because I liked them, but decided to start using beads to make birthstone jewellery. The tradition of having a single birthstone for each month of the year has been around for a few centuries (historians differ on the exact date- anywhere between the 15th and 17th century!) but the idea of having a stone related to the month of the year can be traced back to the 1st century AD. If you are interested in the history of gemstones, the book ‘The Curious Lore Of Precious Stones’ by George Kunz is available to read online. Its not exactly bedtime reading, but interesting to skim through!
I thought I would share the information I was finding by writing a series of posts about the birthstone for each month.
A lot of people also attribute healing qualities to certain stones, which sometimes I will refer to, but generally I am interested in the folklore and historical mentions of the stones.
For the month of November the modern birthstone is citrine!
Citrine is a yellow form of Quartz. It was known to the ancient Greeks and the Romans called it the stone of Mercury. It was once considered to be a talisman against snake venom, but it has also been referred to as the merchants stone as it was considered to bring success and fortune. Some biblical scholars also believe it may have been the golden yellow 10th stone on Aaron’s breastplate mentioned in the book of Exodus.
Queen Victoria was great lover of citrine, partly due to the stone being found in the Scottish Cairngorms, near the house she loved; Balmoral. So she started wearing jewellery with citrine stones and what the Queen wore, so did the public. Traditionally, citrine had also been used to adorn the hilts of daggers used by Scottish warriors in the 17th century.