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Get Bedazzled: Profiles of Semi Precious Stones
Lapis lazuli is deep blue, with golden flecks that shimmer like little stars, ethereal moonstone has a quality that makes light float across its surface, and the fascinating iolite changes colour when it’s held in different light.
Semiprecious gemstones can be extremely rare, remarkably beautiful and enormously expensive, which is why the label “semiprecious” is an unfair one. It suggests that the stones in this category have less value than precious gemstones, traditionally regarded as diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
The distinction between different kinds of gemstones was made in the mid-19th century, when it was decided that high quality, rare stones carried more value, and so they were called precious, or cardinal, gemstones. All others were categorised as semiprecious, regardless of their value, scarcity or quality. While the gem trade no longer strictly divides all stones into these two categories, the labels – undeservedly - persist. We’re going to look at the profiles of three popular semiprecious gems: amethyst, opal and turquoise.
One of the most fascinating aspects of gemstones are the unique myths associated with each stone. According to Greek lore, Dionysus – the god of wine – was angered by an insult and he swore revenge on the next mortal to cross his path. This happened to be the maiden Amethyst. When she cried out for help, Artemis – the goddess of the moon – saved her by turning her into a statue of white stone. A remorseful Dionysus cried into his goblet of wine, which then overturned and spilled onto the white rock, turning it a unique shade of purple, and this is how amethyst gemstones got their colour.
Amethyst is the most precious and recognised stone in the quartz family, and ancient civilisations valued it more highly than most of today’s expensive gemstones. In fact, it was considered a precious gemstone until large deposits were found in Brazil, and then it was effectively “downgraded” to semiprecious.
Fine amethyst has long been a favourite stone of royalty, both for its colour and as it’s believed to aid in prophecy. Cleopatra owned an amethyst ring, Egyptian pharaohs used the gem to decorate their tombs, it was loved by Catherine the Great and it’s found in the British Crown Jewels. For centuries this violet gem has been associated with religion, because it’s believed to symbolise devotion and celibacy. It’s featured in the bible, bishops today still wear amethyst rings, and in Tibet it’s crafted into rosaries.
This marvel of violet is also the official birthstone for the month of February.
The origin of its name comes from “amethystos”, a Greek word that roughly translates to “not drunken”. In these ancient times an amethyst amulet was worn to protect the wearer against intoxication, and many wine goblets were carved from this stone.
COLOUR, CUT AND CLARITY
The recognisable violet-purple colour comes from impurities of iron and aluminium. The shades range from rich purple to pale lavender, and the deeper the colour, the more expensive the stone. The stones are usually untreated, as heating can reduce the colour. It’s also best to view the stone in natural light. It has an unusual structure, which makes the colour appear in dark and light zones, called banding. To maximise their colour they’re often cut as brilliant rounds or ovals. Clarity is important and high quality amethyst is transparent and free of visible inclusions.
CARING FOR YOUR GEM
Amethyst is a 7 on the Moh’s scale, which makes it resistant to wear and tear, and very suitable for jewellery. It’s best to clean your gem with warm water and mild soap, and it’s important not to store it with harder gems as it will get scratched. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat will permanently damage the gem.
Even today it’s considered a symbol of sobriety, and if you believe in its alleged healing properties, it will help you control your addictions. It’s said to keep the mind calm, stimulate thinking and make you shrewd in business. Wear amethyst to find balance, protect you against evil and to prevent you from going bald! According to Leonardo Da Vinci, it dissipates evil thoughts and increases your intelligence.
According to Greek mythology opals were Zeus’ tears, and in early Arab cultures it was said that opals had fallen from the sky, and that the colours trapped inside were lighting. But if you believe ancient Aborigines, the world’s creator wanted to spread a message of peace and love, and travelled the earth on a rainbow road. With each step, the stones under foot became little rainbows.
If there is one stone in the world that has been unfairly portrayed, it’s the opal. This (innocent!) stone has been said to be evil and to bring bad luck to its owner, but this unfortunate reputation can be pegged on one man: Sir Walter Scott. In his novel Anne of Geuerstein, written in 1829, Lady Hermione wore an opal in her hair, and when holy water dropped on it, it destroyed the gem’s fire. She fell ill and was taken to bed, and the next day all that was left of her was a pile of ashes. When Scott penned his popular book, he had no idea it would destroy the European opal market for half a century.
Queen Victoria loved opals and laughed off the superstitions, giving them to her daughters as wedding presents. This helped to shed their bad reputation and increase their popularity, as did discoveries of black opals in Australia at the end of the 19th century. Opals were first mined in Ethiopia about 4000 years ago, but today 95% of the world’s supply comes from Australia.
This brilliant gem is the official birthstone for October and it’s Australia’s national gemstone.
The origin of the name opal is believed to come from the Sanskrit word upala, which means “valuable stone”. This is said to form the root word for the Greek opallios, which is translated into “to see a change of colour”, and the Latin opalus – “precious stone”.
COLOUR, CUT AND CLARITY
Most people think of opal as milky, but unlike any other gemstone, the opal can display any colour you can imagine. The most common and affordable variety is light opal, and the most expensive and rare is black opal. The captivating feature about these stones is the iridescent light that moves in something known as the “play of colour”. In the same way that a prism produces a rainbow effect, white light enters the opal it refracts and bounces around, and when it leaves it creates a rainbow of hues. Not all opals display all the colours, with blue being the most common fire and red being the rarest.
The stone’s clarity is important in determining its value, as is the consistency of colour, but the major factor is its fire or brilliance. The brighter the fire, the more valuable the gem. Most stones are cut en cabochon to accentuate their colour play, but also to make them more durable.
CARING FOR YOUR GEM
Opals are between 5.5 – 6.5 on the Moh’s scale of mineral hardness, which means that they’re soft and can chip easily, so they need to be worn with care. They contain water, which makes them sensitive to heat, and they can eventually dry out and crack. Opals love to be worn as they need the humidity from the air and your skin to stop them becoming brittle. To clean them wipe with a soft cloth, or use soap and warm water.
To match the turbulent history of opals, they have both negative and positive attributes. In medieval times it was claimed that you could become invisible if you wrapped an opal in a fresh bay leaf, and this is why it’s also known as the Patronus Forum – patron of thieves.
Many early civilizations believed it enhanced amplified feelings and clarified emotions. Greeks said it possessed the quality of prophecy, according to the Romans is stood for fidelity and purity, and if you were a Scandinavian woman you wore opal in your hair to prevent it going grey. Opal is often given as a token of hope and luck.
According to legend, there was once a Native American Indian chief who had skin the colour of turquoise. One day he was running away from his enemies, but because it was so hot, he started to sweat. Every time he stopped to rest, his beads of sweat fell to the ground and became turquoise stones.
Turquoise is easily one of the most recognisable and popular semiprecious gemstone in the world today, a remarkable feat considering that it’s also one of the first gemstones ever mined. Deposits of the stone were unearthed in Egypt and present-day Iran, from about 3000 BC.
Ancient Egyptians were prolific users of turquoise, and it most famously appears in Tutankhamen’s funeral mask. It was made into jewellery, as they believed that it symbolised regeneration, and it was carved into figurines, to replicate their gods, and to protect the wearer from evil.
The Persians wore it to prevent unnatural death and accidents, and the Aztecs would decorate their ceremonial masks with it because they considered it holy. To the Native Americans turquoise had healing powers, and they crafted it into works of art and jewellery. It was even used in Tibet, because they believed that it had healing properties.
If your birthday falls in December, your official gemstone is glorious turquoise.
The striking blue shade of turquoise is synonymous with this stone, but the colour was named after the gem, and not the other way around. The stones were transported to Europe along the Turkish trade route, and so it’s believed that the French phrase pierre turquoise – stones from Turkey – is the origin of the name.
COLOUR, CUT AND CLARITY
Turquoise is known for its distinct shade of blue, but it can vary from sky blue to light grey-green. It’s an opaque stone, with a waxy lustre, that’s formed when volcanic rock reacts with copper deposits. Most stone have brown, black or grey veins, which are known as a matrix, but the most valuable gems today come from Arizona, and they’re dark blue without any inclusions. Most turquoise is cut en cabochon or shaped into beads and it’s used to make jewellery – particularly tribal and ethnic designs. It’s a soft stone so it’s also carved into ornaments.
You can also get reconstituted turquoise, which is where the stone is ground to a powder, mixed with a liquid, plastic resin, thenshaped and baked. Imitation turquoise is made from glass, porcelain or plastic and is completely fake.
CARING FOR YOUR GEM
This gem comes in at 5 – 6 on the Moh’s scale, which makes it softer than many other gemstones. It’s sensitive to high heat and bright light, and prolonged exposure will dull its colour. Turquoise is porous, so it must be protected with a wax or resin coating which hardens the surface but also enhances the colour. To clean your stone you should wipe it with a soft cloth, or use lukewarm water and a mild soap.
For millennia this striking gemstone has been considered a healing stone, and one that could prevent you from getting a disease. It was commonly claimed that it would change colour to warn of impending danger, it could improve vision, clear the mind, and dispel negative energy. Another claim is that it will bring happiness and good fortune if it’s given as a present, and it has a protective energy. If you’re a believer in the power of gemstones then you’ll wear turquoise when you travel, as it will protect you and keep you safe.
Semiprecious stones are often underappreciated, but this is based on an outdated classification system. Many of these stones have unique characteristics, intense colours and – what we consider a huge bonus – they can be affordable. Don’t be led by marketing campaigns of what is valuable; if you can’t tear your eyes away from a particular gem, and you know your life will be better when you wear it, then it certainly will be precious to you.