This appeared in the North Clare Local in August.
Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend (although I’ve always been more partial to dogs myself) but they’re not the only gemstones that have enchanted mankind.
Historically, shiny rocks have been divided into precious (diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds) and semi-precious (everything else).
A flawless ruby can actually be rarer and more valuable than some diamonds, and it is the second-hardest gemstone. Varying from pink to a blood red, these stones have been mostly found in Asia, but in Europe deposits have been found in Macedonia and Scotland.
Due to their provenance in Asia, Asian and Middle Eastern traditions have always valued rubies. The Bible mentions them at least twice; both wisdom and a wife of good character are seen as being more precious than rubies. In some Asian countries, a ruby was lain underneath the foundation of buildings to ensure good fortune. A beautiful old Hindu belief was that all rubies got their red colour from an unquenchable internal flame, and therefore it became the symbol for eternal love. In Sanskrit it was called the “king of the stones”.
Ancient Burmese warriors believed that inserting a ruby under the skin (details of how exactly they did this are not forthcoming, thankfully) would confer invulnerability and protection on them.
Sapphires and rubies are made from the same material, the mineral corundum. Most of us think blue when we hear of sapphires, and the name itself comes from the Greek for “blue stone”. While rubies are always red, sapphires can vary between yellow and purple. Pink sapphires exist; a stone must meet a minimum amount of chromium before it can be called a ruby. However, the padparadscha is a variety of orange-pink sapphire which originated in Sri Lanka, and these rare gems are extremely valuable.
Sapphires are used to symbolise fidelity and loyalty, and are a popular choice for engagement rings; especially since Britain’s Princess Diana wore one back in 1981.
Unfortunately for the late royal, her sapphire did not do its duty- the ancient Greeks believed sapphires would protect their owners from envy, malice and harm. They are also supposed to prevent mental ill-health and ward off depression.
They’re also a symbol of wisdom; ancient Hebrew high priests wore them. Some sapphires display asterism; a star-like formation in the centre. These were believed to be especially potent stones. Sapphires were thought to be so wise that if they were worn by a wicked person, they would not shine.
The emerald finishes the quartet of precious stones. It does not have the durability of the other three and is considerably more fragile. The name comes from Latin and means “green stone”, and while the shades may vary, an emerald is always green.
These stones were famed for their beauty. One story is told of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez, who had a South American emerald engraved with a biblical quote. The 16th century French historian Brantôme considered this to be such an offence against nature he blamed all Cortez’s subsequent misfortunes (he lost a priceless pearl) and even the death of Charles IX of France on the defacement of the emerald.
The famous Madurai Minakshiamman temple in India has a statue of the goddess Minakshi carved entirely from emerald.
Emeralds were believed to have healing powers, and the ability to grant insight, hindsight and foresight.
Of course, Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle, and our lush green landscape matches the enchanting bright green of the stone. Perhaps fittingly, the emerald is believed to bring good fortune to the wearer.
Outside of the big four, there are hundreds of varieties of gemstones, most of which only gemologists and smiths are familiar with. Many of may be familiar with one particular stone; and that will be our birth stone.
The assigning of months of the year to a particular jewel may seem like something cooked up by a crafty marketing team, but this tradition actually goes all the way back to the first century. The Jewish historian Josephus saw a connection between the twelves stones on the High Priest’s breastplate, the months of the year and the signs of the zodiac. There are conflicting reports as to when jewellers started manufacturing birthstone jewellery; some say it began in 16th century Germany, and others in 18th century Poland. There was little consistency in the list, so in 1912 the American National Association of Jewellers decided on their definitive birthstones. There have been some additions since. Here’s the current list:
March: Aquamarine, bloodstone
June: Pearl, Moonstone, Alexandrite
October: Opal, Tourmaline
November: Topaz, Citrine
December: Turquoise, zircon, tanzanite
Each of these gems are spectacular in their own way, and while humankind still appreciates beauty, we will always love precious stones.