People have treasured gems for many reasons throughout history. Some of these reasons include the use of gems as beautiful decorative ornaments, religious symbols, and amulets and good-luck charms. Gems have also been used for barter and medicinal purposes. Gems have even been used as investments by some people. For others, gems have been used to display wealth, status, and power.
In centuries past, royalty often owned the finest gems. Some of these gems still exist, and their histories are a fascinating mix of fact and legend. Take, for example, the Black Prince’s Ruby and the Timur Ruby. Both are set in the Imperial Crown of the British crown jewels.
In 1367, England’s Prince Edward, who was known as the Black Prince, helped a Spanish king win a battle. The grateful king gave him a dark red, irregular gemstone. Legend says King Henry V wore the gem in his helmet crown, and that it saved his life by deflecting a blow in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
The 361-carat Timur Ruby is another striking dark red gem. It was among the treasures brought from India to England in 1850. In the 1300’s, the gem belonged to Timur Lenk and took his name. He is better known in history as Tamerlane, the Islamic conqueror of much of central Asia and eastern Europe. Names and dates carved on the gem show that it later belonged to five Indian rulers. One of them was Shah Jehan, builder of the Taj Mahal.
Gem lore is full of stories of gemstones with magic and symbolic properties. Ancient peoples believed that certain gems would protect them from misfortune, illness, and unhappiness. The list of gem-related superstitions is long and sometimes contradictory. Opal, for instance, was thought by some to bring bad luck, while others cherished it as a symbol of hope.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, and even more recently in India, pharmacists sold powdered gems as medicine. They were typically to be taken with water or herbal tea. The most expensive gemstones were thought to have the greatest curative powers. Red gems were supposed to help stop bleeding. Green ones were supposed to help the eyes, because green is a restful colour. Yellow stones were believed to cure jaundice.
The number twelve is common in gem lore. Twelve gems that represented the twelve tribes of Israel were set in the breastplate of Aaron, the first high priest of the Hebrews. Among Christians, symbolic gems represented the twelve apostles.
The Twelve Tribes The Twelve Apostles
Levi, garnet Peter, jasper
Zebulon, diamond Andrew, sapphire
Gad, amethyst James, chalcedony
Benjamin, jasper John, emerald
Simeon, chrysolite Philip, sardonyx
Issachar, sapphire Bartholomew, sard
Naphtali, agate Matthew, chrysolite
Joseph, onyx Thomas, beryl
Reuben, sard James the Less, topaz
Judah, emerald Judy, chrysolprase
Dan, topaz Simon, hyacinth
Asher, beryl Judas, amethyst
Gems have also inspired many myths. One such example is the legendary creation of the gemstone amethyst. Bacchus, the god of wine and conviviality, was angry because of some slight against him and swore revenge. He announced that the first mortal to come across his path would be eaten by tigers. Just at that moment along came the lovely maiden Amethyst, on her way to worship at the shrine of the goddess Diana. Diana saw what was happening and transformed Amethyst into stone to rescue her from a violent death. When Bacchus viewed the miracle, he repented and poured wine over the stone, staining it purple. In addition, gems have long been associated with the signs of the zodiac and with the sun, moon, and planets.
Signs of the Zodiac
Aries the ram, bloodstone
Taurus the bull, sapphire
Gemini the twins, agate
Cancer the crab, emerald
Leo the lion, onyx
Virgo the virgin, carnelian
Libra the scales, chrysolite
Scorpio the scorpion, aquamarine
Sagittarius the archer, topaz
Capricorn the goat, ruby
Aquarius the water bearer, garnet
Pisces the fishes, amethyst
Lastly, legend has it that the devil created coloured gems. He saw how much people loved coloured flowers, so he coloured gems to gain power and control over mankind. The facts, however, are less fanciful.
Most gemstones are minerals or rocks and occur in favored sites in the earth’s crust or in the gravels that result from the weathering of rocks. Of the beautifully gemstonelized minerals that seem useful for gems, only a very few actually meet the standards, that is, are sufficiently beautiful, durable, rare, and large enough to be cut into salable stones. As a class of natural objects, gemstones are exceedingly rare.
About one hundred chemical elements make up the earth. Oxygen and silicon are by far the most plentiful elements in the earth’s crust, and they occur in most minerals. In gemstones, they are major ingredients in amethyst, aquamarine, emerald, garnet, peridot, topaz, tourmaline, and zircon. Oxygen is a major ingredient in ruby, sapphire, chrysoberyl, and spinel.
As a mineral forms, certain atoms attract each other and arrange themselves in an orderly geometric pattern called the gemstone structure. All mineral gemstones have their atoms arranged in some combination of fourteen basic patterns.
Minerals usually occur as gemstoneline grains in rocks. Because the grains compete with neighbouring ones for very limited space, there usually isn’t room for complete gemstone shapes to form. Time is another important factor in gemstone growth. When molten rock cools quickly, natural glass or tiny gemstones form. Slower cooling time gives larger gemstones time to grow.
Large gemstones may form whenever conditions are right. They may grow slowly into open spaces in cracks or hollows in the rocks. Occasionally, nearly perfect gemstones are found. A mineral’s internal atomic structure determines its distinctive exterior gemstone shape. Gemstone shape often helps identify and distinguish gem minerals from one another.
Today, many gems can be creates in laboratories. Synthetic gems have the same chemical composition and physical properties as naturally formed gemstones. A simulated gem may look like a natural gem, but there the similarity ends.