Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A (very) short and concise history of gemstones

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I wrote this piece for and hope you will enjoy reading it. Thank you to Handmade in Wester Ross for including the wonderful photographs with this piece.

Over 100,000 years ago, a young woman or man living in the area of Mount Carmel is what is now Israel, pierced small holes int seashells and created the first known necklace or bracelet. Jewellery - the adornment of one's body with jewels or shells - was born. It had no value beyond that of beauty. What captured the eyes of that person when they saw the shells? Did they like the pattern? The colour? The size and shape? Jewellery is completely subjective. We love what we love and sometimes we are at a loss of words to explain why we love a particular piece of jewellery. Over the millennia, our love affair with the process of adorning our bodies with stones and shells has not abated. It anything, we have fallen in love more and more with the beautiful gifts of the Earth. And while early man and woman often believed their jewellery have significance relating to their gods or powers, and while specific pieces were worn on specific festival days, modern jewellery is more about the desire to own something beautiful and, often, expensive. Yet, we still follow traditions, like wearing birthstones, pearls for a bride, an engagement ring set with a stone that has some significance. And at the heart of the jewellery is the gemstone.

Ancient archeological shell beads of Nassarius kraussianus from Blombos Cave, along with a hypothetical reconstruction of the shell necklace that they were strung on. 
Photo credit: Blombos Cave
Some gemstones, like lapis lazuli, have been around forever. Other gemstones, like tanzanite or larimar, are relative newcomers. Some of our favourite stones of the past are no longer favourited due to over-mining or a decrease in popularity. Diamonds used to captivate us with their crystal clear sparkling facets, for their reputation as the hardest, naturally occurring substance on Earth, and valued for their relative rarity. But today, diamonds are no longer our gemstones darlings. The socio-economic implications involved in procuring diamonds have tarnished their reputation. But, in their descent from on high, diamonds have made room for other stones that are now as adored a diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires - those stones classified as precious stones.
 Lapis lazuli gemstones dangle beneath a spiral and accented by more lapis lazuli and vesuvianite.  
Lapis was the favoured gemstone of Cleopatra.

Gemstones come from geological "families" or species. There are over 130 distinct species of gemstones. Some stones stand alone, such as andalusite, peridot, and tourmaline, while others belong to a family that contains many known gemstones. For example, rubies and sapphires are both of the corundum family. Emerals, aquamarine, and morganite are members of the beryl family. For some common semi-precious stones, you have feldspar (amazonite, labradorite, moonstone, and sunstone - some of which have a chatoyant, or "tiger's eye" effect) and quartz (amethyst, citrine, smoky quartz, chalcedony), amongst many others. Some "gemstones" aren't even listed as gemstones, as they are considered minerals or organic substances such as amber, jet, lapis lazuli, or pearl.
  Inspired by the artwork of French Illustrator George Barbier,
olive quartz topped with a trio of London blue topaz - Deco Divine pendant.  
Pendant: Ailleas Designs  Photo credit:  Mark Appleton Photography

In fact, it was the mineral lapis lazuli that was one of the first favourites. It was mined for use in adornments as early as the Neolithic period. Not only was this mineral carved and faceted, like a gemstone, for use in jewellery, it was crushed into a powder that was used in cosmetics and in creating the pigment ultramarine - the most desired and expensive of the blue pigments. There is even a reference to lapis in the book of Exodus. And we know that ground lapis was a favourite eye shadow of the famous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. Lapis remains a very desirable and treasured "gemstone." An organic "gemstone", amber, is petrified sap and often contains bits of insect and plants, and is another non-gemstone that has great value and is highly desirable for everything from teething necklaces to gold jewellery (but sadly not for extracting dinosaur DNA). Jet isn't even considered a mineral, but a mineraloid and a precursor to coal, but that doesn't detract from its beauty when used in jewellery.
Lapis lazuli with pyrite. Afghanistan. Photo credit: Dr H Grobe
Perhaps the most well-known and most highly desirable organic "gemstone" is the pearl. Pearls are the result of an oyster (or other living mollusk) coating an irritant with nacre; the more coats of nacre, the higher the lustre of the pearl. Pearls come from living organisms, giving them a singular place on the hierarchy of "gemstones." Even the word "pearl" has come to mean something extremely rare, beautiful, and desired. This is because a natural pearl that occurs spontaneously in nature is so rare. The value of a highly graded pearl can go head to head with the value of the most precious gemstone. A black Tahitian pearl of the highest quality can command a price equal to that of a rare diamond.

Tahitian pearls in bulk.  Photo credit: RĂ©mi Jouan
Mother Nature has provided us with a huge jewellery box of sparkling stones with which to adorn ourselves. Not to be outdone by the Earth, mankind has taken some of those stones and copied them in laboratories and factories. Some synthetic stones are very lovely – cubic zirconia and some of the lab-created diamonds are fabulous – but the buyer has to decide whether they want natural or manmade. It is a veritable minefield when buying loose gemstones or gemstone jewellery. It’s important for buyers to do their homework. There is nothing worse than discovering that that gorgeous emerald ring Great-Aunt Agnes left you is actually green-coloured glass or dyed quartz!

Our millennia-long love affair with sparkling stones is unlikely ever to end. But, unfortunately, the Earth's supply is limited. Buying a piece of gemstone jewellery or a loose gemstone should be seen as an investment. But an investment made with the heart.