Ask anyone on the street what the most desirable gemstone of all is, and almost without exception they will tell you ‘Diamond’. Since Frances Geraty coined the slogan ‘A Diamond is Forever’ in 1948, we’ve been more than a little obsessed with them. Before then, Diamonds were just one ‘precious stone’ that was highly valued, along with Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald. But the regard these stones are held in has not always been universal.
People have been wearing jewellery since the human race began. If you’ve ever visited a Neolithic burial site, you will have seen that there were objects placed in the tomb alongside the body, almost always including jewellery. The oldest burials would have stone, bone, shell or wood bangles and beads. Jewellery found in the UK dates as far back as 11,000 BC. Over time, more precious items were found (usually locally) and treasured, and were more durable and more colourful – the natural minerals we call gemstones. Those that are the most valued have changed dramatically through time, culture and trade. These are snapshots of the most treasured gemstones of these diverse cultures.
JADE IN ANCIENT CHINA
If there was an award for the most desired gem through history, Jade would almost certainly win. Treasured in China from Neolithic times right through to the present day, what people call ‘Jade’ is actually two different stones – Nephrite and Jadeite. In China, there is a broader cultural concept of Jade with other stones such as Quartzite and Dolomite commonly being called ‘Jade’ too.
Jade is usually opaque to translucent and often has a luscious glass-like quality. The colour varies from pastel blue to lavender, white, yellow, black, orange and pink, with the most sought-after colour being a bewitching apple green, also known as Imperial Jade. The green colouration is caused by chromium impurities within the gem.
Jade has been mined in China since at least 6000 BC, being used for carvings, ceremonial weapons and ritual objects as well as jewellery. Jade was used for the finest objects and cult figures, and for grave furnishings for high-ranking members of the Imperial family. It was believed that Jade conferred immortality and could ward off evil spirits. It was even thought that Jade prevented the body from decaying after death. For this reason, it was used to make burial suits for the royal family of the Han dynasty. These suits used thousands of Jade plaques, usually sewn together with gold thread as can be seen above.
The extraordinary thing about Jade is that its value has scarcely changed over the years. Alongside the rarest Diamond colours, Jade is the world’s most expensive gem. The Hutton-Mdivani Jadeite necklace sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2014 for a world record price. It was purchased by Cartier, following a 20-minute bidding frenzy between seven bidders, for over $27 million – more than double the reserve price.
LAPIS LAZULI IN ANCIENT EGYPT
It is widely believed that Cleopatra (69 – 30 BC) used powdered down Lapis Lazuli as an eye adornment, much like modern-day eye shadow. Perhaps the most famous use for Lapis Lazuli in the Ancient Egyptian civilisation, though, is in the death mask of Tutankhamun where it is used for the eye surrounds and eyebrows. The stone was also found in many of the pieces of jewellery discovered in his tomb, along with Turquoise, Carnelian and other gems.
The stone was so highly prized by the Ancient Egyptians that they even afforded it godly importance. Dead kings in Ancient Egypt were believed to be reanimated as the sun god Ra, who is often described and depicted as having gold flesh, silver bones and Lapis Lazuli hair.
The stone features golden flecks (normally Pyrite) on a dark blue base, so it became associated with the night sky. In time, it came to symbolize life, the heavens, and the gods. Lapis Lazuli was long used for sacred amulets across Ancient Egypt, quite often taking the form of a scarab beetle, itself a symbol of protection, renewal, and resurrection.
Lapis Lazuli was often demanded by the Ancient Egyptians from the nations they conquered and could be sourced within the borders of its lands. However, it’s believed many of their gems came from further afield, brought in on trade routes. One of the sources found in Tutankhamun’s Mask is the Sar-i-Sang Lapis Lazuli mine, in the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan. It is one of the oldest mines in the world and has been continually producing the gem for over 7,000 years. It is still producing, and you can buy Sar-i-Sang Lapis Lazuli from Bijaar.
TURQUOISE IN ANCIENT EGYPT
Turquoise is the only gem to have lent its name to the colour. Although this name only dates back to the seventeenth century, the gem has been mined since at least 6,000 BC in Egypt, possibly even predating the similarly sought after Persian Turquoise. Along with Lapis Lazuli, it is one of the gems most treasured by the Ancient Egyptians.
It is astonishing that the mines the Egyptians sourced their Turquoise from are still in use today. These famous mines in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt produced gems which adorned the necks of ancient Pharaohs. Like Lapis Lazuli, it was often carved into the shape of a scarab beetle and used as a protective talisman. Egyptian Turquoise is famed and prized for being more of a translucent azure colour than many other famed deposits.
In 1914, the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE) were excavating the Tomb of Sithathoryunet when they came across a hoard of jewellery. Sithathoryunet was believed to be a king’s daughter during the 12th Dynasty (1991 – 1802 BC) and her pieces were staggering in their beauty and craftsmanship. Among them was a necklace featuring gold, Carnelian, Lapis Lazuli, Turquoise, Garnet and Feldspar.
As well as Lapis Lazuli and Turquoise, the Ancient Egyptians also used many more ‘common’ stones across not only their jewellery pieces but also powdered down as medicinal remedies. These included Amethyst, Chalcedony, Feldspar, Garnet, Jasper, Obsidian, Olivine and Quartz. The greenstone Malachite was also used by the Ancient Egyptians, but never in jewellery. Instead, it was powered down and used as a type of eye makeup.
Many other stones were used too, including Green Jasper, which was found in a gold ring and dates from nearer 332 BC, which many scholars note as the end of this era. It depicts Ptah, the god of architects and, appropriately enough, craftsmanship.