GO 340 Gemstones & Gemology
ES 567 Gemstones of the World
Dr. Susan Ward Aber, Geologist & Gemologist
Emporia State University
Emporia, Kansas USA


Chalcedony in a concentric pattern is
believed to ward off the evil eye! Photo by
S.W. Aber 2008; Tucson Gem Shows.

The Mystic of Gems

Rough Lapis Lazuli. Photo by S.W. Aber 2008; Tucson Gems Shows.
Most gems are minerals and thus, the history of gems is tied closely to history of minerals. Minerals and rocks are the foundation that all present day civilization is based upon. Early humankind created tools from quartz and flint or chert. As the Stone Age progressed into the Bronze Age, metallic minerals were sought after for a variety of uses from weapons to hinges. Gemstones, or material without a utilitarian value, were luxury items and appreciated for their beauty, much the same as today.

In addition to personal adornment, gems have always been regarded as somewhat mysterious. They have been used as primitive medicines and have been quite important as amulets and talismans. Paintings in Egyptian tombs some 5,000 years ago depict the smelting of ores from metals, weighing gems, and fashioning lapis and malachite. Crushed malachite was used as a pigment for painting, as well as eye make-up for ancient Egyptians, which is created by mixing ground malachite with ants! More than 4,000 years ago, Egyptians created jewelry by stringing cylindrical beads together into a wide fan-shaped necklace called bead collars. The beads were blue faience (pron. fay aunts), a turquoise-colored glazed clay bead as well as the minerals and rocks turquoise, gold, carnelian, and lapis lazuli. The beads would eventually be polished and inscribed with symbolic markings, used to ward off evil spirits. Carving gems developed over the years and beetle images, called scarabs, were common in the 9th Egyptian dynasty, around 2050 B.C.

To understand more about gemstone lure, read Chapter 2: Preciousness Redefined: The Modern Concept of a Gem, http://www.secretsofthegemtrade.com/chapter_2.htm, from a book by Richard Wise (Secrets of the Gem Trade, http://www.secretsofthegemtrade.com/).

Even earlier Greek and Roman civilizations were using minerals as gems and the art of carving rocks and minerals was perfected. The early gems were used for personal adornment, the same as today; but, usually the importance to the wearer was greater than today because ancients believed the gems held magical powers, lucky talisman, amulet, or fetish.

Virtues were assigned to gems. Reddish brown carnelian was one of the luckiest jewels to wear. "No man who wore a carnelian was ever found in a collapsed house or beneath a fallen wall" and thus it was a talisman of good luck and joy for ancient Babylonians and Greeks (Kunz, 1971, p. 65).

Early Christian theologians believed gazing at blue sapphire would elevate one's thoughts from earthly to heavenly matters and in the 6th century it became a ruling that every cardinal wear a sapphire ring on his right hand. Sapphire is a variety of the mineral corundum. The red version of corundum, ruby, according to Burmese legend was hatched from eggs laid deep in Earth, and has always been prized for it's red color which could shine through the thickest of layers of clothing (Harvey, 1981, p. 9). Ruby was believed to protect your house and land from storms and lightning and a woman wishing to prove her virtue should wear the ruby on her left hand as there it would control amorous desire (Harvey, 1981, p. 9).

Image right: Shiva Lingam stones are egg-shaped cryptocrystalline quartz hand polished and found in the Narmada River, one of seven holy sites in India. It is a symbol of Shiva, the Hindu god, and represents the cosmic egg from which all creation emerged. Photo by S.W. Aber, 2008; Tucson Gem Shows.

Orbicular chalcedony, about 1 meter
high. There will be no evil eye in this
area! Photo by S.W. Aber, 2008;
Tucson Gem Shows.
Garnets endow the wearer the ability to make deep and lasting friendships. They were used as bullets by some tribes, some 400 years ago, because ..."the blood-red stones would inflict a far more grievous wound on their enemies than the common lead bullet" (Harvey, 1981, p. 11).

The green emerald was often associated with Venus, the earth-goddess, and was thought to be a sacred symbol of fertility and growth. Although some believed it to be a symbol of fertility, it may have been one of the earliest forms of birth control as it was also said a woman should not wear an emerald until she was fifty!

Chrysolite, or better known today as peridot or olivine, was first mined by Egyptians on the island of Zeberged in the Red Sea area. A favorite of the Pharaohs, peridot had the power to dispel dark forces.

Ancient Babylonians carved symbols in bloodstone, or heliotrope (turn to the sun), which allowed the future to be foretold. Later it would become a Christian symbol, the red spots representing the blood of Christ diffusing in the green stone. In the sixteenth century it had the ability to cure nosebleeds or when placed on any wound, stop the bleeding.

Agates, a gem frequently formed in the vugs of volcanic rocks, sometimes have a circular, wavy or zigzag pattern that can resemble the shape of an eye; when in this shape, it was used as a amulet to guard against the evil eye or as an eye of an idol (Harvey, 1981, p. 19).

From ancient times, purple has always been a color associated with nobility. At times, amethyst, the purple variety of quartz, has been held in the same value as diamond. It can be found among crown jewels and in the rings of religious leaders. Amethyst actually means "not drunken" and of course, would protect the wearer from drunkenness.

Beryl was the gem connected to the biblical tribe of Gad, the tribe of good fortune. It was associated with fortune telling and many women in ancient times gazed into a bluish-green beryl sphere to foretell the future.

Image right: Amethyst and rock quartz geode; over a meter in length. Photo by S.W. Aber, 2008; Tucson Gem Shows.

Not all gems were lucky though. Onyx, the stone of sadness, was dreaded by ancient Chinese. It was believed that even entering a mine where it could be found would lead to terrifying dreams, doubts, and disputes (Harvey, 1981, p. 7).

Topaz is believed to be influenced by the Moon and therefore it shines most brightly at night. Topaz has special powers transmitted to the wearer such as long life, beauty and intelligence. However, these powers will wax and wane with the phases of the Moon.

Even gem dreams had great significance. Carnelian dreams could bring misfortune and moonstone dreams could mean danger. Dreaming of jet, a black gemstone, predicted sorrow. For friendship, safety, hope and prosperity, one should dream of pearls (a symbol of purity), amethysts, emeralds, and turquoise. Now that is something to think about before bed tonite!

The Hope Diamond

One of the more well-known gem legends is associated with the Hope Diamond. This deep blue, naturally colored diamond is surrounded in mystery and could even be recovered from diamond mining as early as 800 BC (www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/hope_nav/hnav_level_1/timeline_hopfrm.html).

The image to the right is the Hope Diamond, 45.52 carats, from India. Recut from the French Blue, formerly in the French Crown Jewels. Photo by S.W. Aber, 4/2009, taken at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Legends suggest a deep blue stone was stolen from the eye of an idol and as such, any who possessed it would be cursed (http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/hope_nav/hnav_level_1/2_pitch_hopfrm.html). Recorded history states that a 112 3/16-carat violet-blue diamond was purchased by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a French gem dealer, in the 17th century (mineralsciences.si.edu/hope.htm). It was likely mined in India; Tavernier sold many gems to King Louis XIV of France and in 1668 a dark blue diamond was placed among the French Crown Jewels. After five years of study, the gem had been recut to a 67 carat stone and was then referred to as the French Blue. It was set and used as ceremonial jewelry by King Louis XV, but stolen during the chaos of the French Revolution in 1792. The French Blue was never officially documented again (www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/hope_nav/hnav_level_1/1_past_hopfrm.html).

Early in the 1800s a deep blue diamond came onto the market; while it was smaller than the French Blue, this diamond had a stunning likeness to the French Blue in every way except size. The gem changed hands several times and was eventually cataloged among the possessions of Henry Phillip Hope. Hope stipulated in his will that his name be forever associated with his gem collection, including the blue diamond.

The Hope Diamond is simply a gemstone with an extraordinary color. While diamonds cannot be held responsible for human acts of greed and violence, the mystery associated with the Hope diamond's origin and historical ownership had inspired a heightened sense of hopelessness. Untimely deaths and debt were the fate of many of the owners. Evalyn Walsh McLean, one of the final individual owners, purchased the Hope diamond necklace in 1911 for $180,000.00. She had married Edward McLean against family wishes and they had four children. Eight years after the Hope purchase, their nine year old son was struck by a car and killed in front of their house. In subsequent years their 19 year old daughter married a 57 year old Senator Reynolds from North Carolina. In less than 5 years of marriage, she died from an overdose of pills. The remaining daughter and son of the McLean's family, married and divorced numerous spouses, multiple times. Evalyn's husband left her and within 2 years, his erratic behavior resulted in a legal declaration of insanity. While some accounts suggested he died of heart failure, others state death was the result of brain atrophy due to alcohol abuse; he died confined to a psychiatric hospital (http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/hope_nav/hnav_level_1/timeline_hopfrm.html).

There is no evidence to prove a cause and effect relationship between the purchase of the Hope Diamond and a proclivity for mental illness or untimely death, yet these unfortunate happenings in people's lives are often the anecdotal lore of gem legends. The secrets, legends, and curses associated with the Hope Diamond persisted since it was mined around 800 B.C., but this changed in 1948 with Evalyn McLean's death (http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/hope_nav/hnav_level_1/timeline_hopfrm.html. Shortly after she died, Harry Winston purchased her estate jewelry and in 1958 he donated the Hope Diamond necklace to the Smithsonian Institution (http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/site/sn/show.do?show=136360). The gem has been the crowning jewel for the museum and inspires more than 7 million visitors to see it each year (http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/smithsonian-unveils-hope-diamond-new-setting-designed-harry-winston-inc).

Gemological Institute of America provided a diamond grading report in 1997 (mineralsciences.si.edu/collections/hope/HopeGIAreport.pdf) and recently, the Hope Diamond thoroughly described and documented by Smithsonian researchers (mineralsciences.si.edu/research/gems/hope_diamond/blue_diamond_research.html). The diamond was removed from the classic Cartier-designed setting, scientifically tested, and re-placed in a temporary setting by master gem crafters at Harry Winston Inc.; the setting and stone was referred to as Embracing Hope (http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/smithsonian-unveils-hope-diamond-new-setting-designed-harry-winston-inc). The new platinium setting had 340 bagutette-cut, colorless diamonds, that totaled 66 carats. Read details of the story of this uniquely colored diamond with a long and colorful history at www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/ a_nav/hope_nav/main_hopfrm.html and the story and recent scientific research at mineralsciences.si.edu/hope.htm.

The material for this section came primarily from:

  • Department of Mineral Sciences (2010). The story of the Hope Diamond. Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. mineralsciences.si.edu/hope.htm Retrieved January 8, 2010.
  • Harvey, Anne (1981). Jewels. London: Bellew & Higton Publishers Limited.
  • Kunz, G. F. (1971). The curious lore of precious stones. NY: Dover.
  • Stoner, B., Producer. The notorious Hope Diamond. Treasures of the World Series. PBS: www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/hope_nav/main_hopfrm.html Retrieved January 8, 2010.

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This page originates from the Earth Science department for the use and benefit of students enrolled at Emporia State University. For more information contact the course instructor, S. W. Aber, e-mail: esu.abersusie@gmail.com Thanks for visiting! Webpage created: 1999; last update: August 22, 2012.

Copyright 1999-2012 Susan Ward Aber. All rights reserved.