history, mankind has valued gemstones and minerals for practical, mythical, and
aesthetic reasons. The practical uses of minerals probably dominated in the
past, just as they do today. Archeological evidence from Olduvai Gorge,
Tanzania suggests that man's tool-making ability may date back more than 2
million years, starting with primitively chipped pebble tools. Chalcedony
arrow and spear heads (dating back as much as forty thousand years) have been
found at later sites all over North America, as well as in France, Egypt, and
other north African countries.
These tools allowed our ancient ancestors to hunt and kill much larger mammals,
such as the mastodon. Today, minerals rich in silica and rare earth
elements are mined to make silicon chips and superconducting materials that
enable man to explore space and surf web sites half-way around the world.
Mankind may be more sophisticated in the use of minerals, but the desire to
improve life through minerals and earth materials remains the same.
and rocks have been used to produce artwork from early times. The pigments
used to draw animals in the caves of Lacroux in southern France were made of
powdered iron and manganese oxide minerals and mineraloids. Ancient stone
and mineral carvings dating to more than 20,000 years before present were
fashioned by primitive men the world over. The minerals that were
ground for paints through the Middle Ages continued to be used until the
introduction of acrylic paints in the latter half of the 1900's.
The use of minerals as gemstones
also dates back to ancient times. The ancient Egyptians mined emeralds
(beryl) more than 3000 years ago. Other minerals found in their jewelry
and the walls of their tombs and pyramids include native copper, gold and
silver, several varieties of quartz and chalcedony, turquoise, gem quality
olivine (peridot), feldspar, jade, fluorite, and malachite. Many of these
same minerals have been found in the ruins of Sumerian and Babylonian cities and
Diamonds were mined from
alluvial sands in India and traded to the Romans, who also valued precious opals
above all other gemstones. Diamonds are still mined for use in jewelry,
and for a variety of industrial uses. The first recorded diamond
engagement ring was given by the Hapsburg Emperor Maximillian I to Mary of
Burgundy in 1477. Louis IX of France (1214-1270) had previously issued an
edict limiting the wearing of diamonds to kings, and forbidding all women
(including queens and princesses) to wear them!
The quality of the Columbian
beryl that became available in the 1500's far exceeded the beryl available to
the ancient Egyptians, and a large emerald, ruby or sapphire with precisely the
right color and few flaws is worth far more than a comparably-sized
diamond. Jade has been treasured and finely worked in South America and
China long before Columbus landed in the West Indies.
longstanding use for minerals has been as coloring agents in cosmetics; for
example, the ancient Egyptians used powdered malachite or lazurite as eye paint
(similar to today's eye shadow). The sparkle in some Cover GirlT eye
shadows is light reflected from tiny flakes of the mineral muscovite, and until
recently blusher contained ground hematite, the same mineral that was used to
impart a reddish tint to skin tones in past millennia. Talcum powder and
most face powders are still primarily composed of ground talc.
The tombs, temples, and palaces
of the Egyptians and other ancient cultures were carved into cliff or mountain
faces (most often limestone), or constructed from large dressed stones.
The military might of the Romans was enhanced by their well constructed roads,
which were composed of bricks and rocks over a substratum of smaller pieces of
broken rock, and their aqueducts. The beauty of Stonehenge, the Egyptian
and South American pyramids, the Parthenon, Cambodian temples, Hagia Sophia, the
Taj Mahal, and the Great Cathedrals of Europe have captivated people from all
cultures and backgrounds.
The mythical importance of
minerals has waned since ancient times. Although some "New Agers"
attribute healing and energy channeling powers to gemstones, minerals, and even
faceted glass, most people do not attribute any more power or energy to a
well-formed quartz crystal than to the rounded quartz pebbles contained in
concrete or on a beach. However, this was not the case in earlier
times. Numerous treatises were written between the eleventh and
seventeenth centuries on the mystical and supernatural powers of minerals.
These include five volumes of the Natural History of Albertus Magnus's dedicated
to the "valuable" stones and minerals that imparted supernatural
powers to their owners. The only factual analysis of minerals written
during this period was De Re Metallica, written by Georgius
Agricola, a physician working in a German mining district .
The minerals with the most
interesting pasts are those that were easily identifiable from ancient times,
including emerald, topaz, ruby and sapphire corundum, and opal. Although
diamond was probably known in India from 800 B.C., only the most wealthy Romans
could afford the few poor quality brownish diamonds exported from India starting
around 100 B.C.. These diamonds were valued for their extreme hardness,
and were not cut or faceted. The Roman philosopher Theophrastus believed
that dark colored diamonds were male and light colored diamonds were
female. Indeed most mineral were believed to have gender at one
time. For instance, arsenic, the native element composed of the toxic
element arsenic (As), is derived from the Greek word for male.
Emerald (green gemstone-quality
beryl) has the longest history of the precious gemstones. The Romans
associated emerald with sexual passion and reproduction, and dedicated emeralds
to Venus. In thirteenth century Europe, emeralds were considered to
deplete or destroy sexual passion. Marbode, an 11 century writer, suggested that
emerald improved memory and eliminated depression. Abselmus de Boot, an
early 17 century philosopher, recommended the wearing of emerald to prevent
epilepsy, bleeding, and panic.
Topaz was thought to be able to prevent sudden death, cure madness, and improve
vision. Rubies were thought to lend invulnerability when inserted into the
owner's flesh. Sapphire protects kings from harm and envy, prevents terror
and poverty in all men, makes stupid men wise and irritable men good-tempered.
Few gemstones have had as diverse a reputation as opal. The Romans considered
opal to be the gemstone of love and hope. According to Marbode, opal made
its wearer invisible. The Australian aborigines believed that opal was a
devil waiting to lure men to their destruction through magic. Shakespeare
called opal "the queen of gems" in Twelfth Night.
According to Dr. George Harlow, opal got a reputation for being unlucky after
Sir Walter Scott wrote about an evil character dying after a drop of holy water
came into contact with her enchanted opal.
The beautifully illustrated book, Gems and Crystals, by Anna Sofianides and
Dr. George Harlow of the American Museum of Natural History, is an excellent
resource for those interested in the beauty, mythology and geology of gemstones.
The Romans and other ancient cultures believed that certain
minerals had the power to protect when worn as talismans. Each mineral was
considered to have maximum power during one of the twelve months of the
year. Individuals who could not afford twelve minerals, one for each month
of the year, economized by purchasing only the mineral that provided protection
for the month of their birth. This is the origin of the
The gemstones now associated with each month have only slight relationship to
the ancient beliefs. When it came to the ability to heal, protect or bring
good luck, the actual gemstone and similar minerals were regarded as being
equally effective even if they could be distinguished. Since ancient
peoples identified minerals primarily by color, little distinction was made
between similar looking pairs of minerals, such as emerald and chrysoprase
(green), ruby and garnet (red), or citrine and topaz (yellow), and gemstone
names typically were applied to several different minerals of similar
color. The sapphire of the Bible is much more likely to have been lapis
lazuli than blue corundum, and adamas (diamond) was probably white sapphire or
white topaz. The gemstones in the contemporary birthstone table shown
below are approximations of the twelve gemstones that decorated the breastplate
of Aaron, brother of Moses and high priest
of Israel. Each of the twelve gemstones was engraved with the name of one
of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Garnet or Rose
Quartz) or Onyx (banded black and white Chalcedony)
Aquamarine (Beryl) or
Bloodstone (red Chalcedony due to included Hematite)
Diamond or Rock Crystal
(colorless, transparent Quartz)
Emerald (green Beryl)
or Chrysoprase (translucent apple-green Chalcedony due to inclusion
of Serpentine Group Minerals)
(Chrysoberyl), Moonstone (iridescent Alkali Feldspar), or Pearl
Carnelian (translucent red brown to brick red Chalcedony due to
Peridot (Olivine) or
Sardonyx (banded brown to ochre and white Chalcedony)
Corundum) or Lazurite (lapis lazuli)
Topaz or Citrine