The Concept of Precious Gems

The clumsy modern category of “precious” stones has little relevance when applied to the ancient world. – Jack Ogden, 1982

Preciousness: Ancient Concept or Modern Prejudice?

The idea that a given material is, by nature, precious, is a relatively recent one. The idea that one material was precious while another was merely semi-precious simply did not exist in ancient times. The idea of dividing gemstones into the categories of precious and semi-precious is a relatively modern idea. The word semiprecious itself entered the English lexicon only in the nineteenth century.

© 2001 Christie’s Images
Ancient fake! Egyptian engraved faience (glass) bead from the reign of Amenhotep III, 1391-1353 BC, dyed to resemble lapis lazuli. Faience beads have been found in many fine pieces of ancient jewelry, often with natural gemstones such as turquoise and coral.

For example, in ancient Egypt, color, not type of material, was evidently the primary criterion of value. Egyptian taste in jewelry favored solid bars of vivid color, particularly blue and orange. Opaque and semi-translucent gems such as lapis lazuli, coral, turquoise, carnelian, and sard were highly valued. Masterpieces of ancient jewelry, such as those made for the boy king Tutankhamen, were beautifully worked in gold by skilled craftsmen. These pieces included gems such as turquoise and carnelian alternated with stones of faience (a ceramic glass of melted feldspar) dyed to resemble a specific gemstone; in short, a fake! Was this due to a rarity of materials? It was obviously not a question of price. Were the Egyptian craftsmen misled by clever forgeries? Doubtful! The Egyptians simply placed a higher value on visual beauty than on the pedigree of the materials themselves.

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This seems odd to us today with our preconceived notions of what is precious and what is not. Would Cartier or Tiffany consider offering gold jewelry set with glass, plastic, or synthetic gems? Yet the glassmakers of ancient Egypt enjoyed royal patronage. The point is that preciousness was not an idea tied to the use of gemstones that today are called precious. The popularity of gem materials has waxed and waned over the millennia. The truth of this becomes clear when we consider that much of the gem wealth found buried with the pharaohs of Egypt, at Babylon, and in the royal tombs of ancient Sumer is what many today still label as semi-precious.

Descriptions in the Bible also clearly demonstrate that the ideas of the ancients concerning the hierarchy of precious materials differed markedly from our modern view. In Revelation (21: 9-21) an angel describes the heavenly city of Jerusalem as “having the glory of God; and her light was like a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone clear as crystal. . . . And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the fourth, emerald; the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, crysolite (topaz); the eighth, beryl. . . .” Of the twelve gems named, only emerald and sapphire figure as precious today, and although emerald was known to the ancient world, we know that sapphire was almost certainly the ancient name for lapis lazuli.

Christie’s Images
Roman carnelian cameo circa the second century AD. One of the most coveted gems of antiquity, today carnelian is consigned to the semi-precious backwaters.

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It is important to keep in mind that beauty was not the sole reason gems were valued in the ancient world. From earliest times gems have been esteemed as religious symbols, as talismans, as symbols of rank and status, and for their purported medicinal value.

In the Egypt of the pharaohs, carnelian symbolized blood. In ancient Sumer lapis lazuli represented the heavens. In classical Greece a man supposedly could drink his fill and remain sober if he drank his wine from a cup made of amethyst. To avoid eyestrain, the Roman emperor Nero reputedly viewed gladiatorial contests through a lens made of emerald. In ancient China, badges made of gem materials were used to denote rank. Mandarins of the first rank wore red stones such as ruby and red or pink tourmaline; coral and garnet were reserved for bureaucrats of the second rank. Blue stones such as lapis lazuli and aquamarine symbolized the third rank. Mandarins of the fourth rank wore rock crystal. Other white stones indicated the fifth rank. Here again, color, not gemstone type, seems to have been the defining criterion.

Gems were also valued as much for their talismanic or medicinal value as for their beauty. These arcane beliefs and associations persist today, but they no longer have any effect on value or preciousness of gemstones, particularly as judged in the marketplace.

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Seal Stone Engraving: Value Added

The carving of gems became an important art in ancient times with the introduction (circa 3500 BC) of seal stone engraving by the Babylonians. Gemstones were engraved intaglio with mythical scenes which appeared in relief when the stone was impressed in clay tablets. These engraved gems became the official signatures of kings, nobles, and high-ranking officials of the court. In ancient Mycenae, seal engraving reached a high degree of sophistication by the late Bronze Age. A group of seals recovered from Mycenaean shaft graves at Dendra (on the Greek mainland) shows a mastery of technique as well as a lyric sensibility equaled only by the Greek masters of the classical period and never since.

© 1999 Christie’s Images
Minoan/Mycenaean carnelian seal stone (1450-1300 BC) shows a cow suckling her calf. In early times, the use of seals was limited to the aristocracy. This masterwork of the engraver’s art demonstrates that exceptional craftsmanship was often applied to mediocre gem material (carnelian).

Seals were first made of relatively soft stones such as serpentine and steatite; these stones could be carved using bronze tools. However, by the twelfth century BC, hard stones such as agate became the gems of choice. Engraving these stones (over six on the Mohs scale of hardness) required a more sophisticated technique: even iron, the hardest metal then known, was too soft to carve hard stones such as carnelian.

Carnelian, the eighth stone of the breastplate of the Tabernacle’s high priest described in the Biblical book of Exodus, was the gem of choice for engravers from the Bronze Age until late Roman times. Fully fifty percent of Greek seals and more than ninety percent of Roman intaglios were carved of carnelian. Today the stone barely makes the semi-precious list, but carnelian was unquestionably one of the precious stones of antiquity.

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By classical times seals were in use throughout the lands bordering the Inland Sea. Experts in this craft enjoyed high status. Some of the best quality gem material is found in Mycenaean gems unearthed at Aidonia on the Greek mainland. These are carved in the finest translucent layered carnelian. They are the exception: by Roman times, some of the finest masterworks of the engraver’s art were executed in relatively mundane pieces of carnelian and sard, demonstrating that the beauty of the material itself was at best of secondary importance. The real preciousness of the gem lay in the artistry and the quality of execution.

The Middle Ages: Shifting Values

In medieval Europe, superstitions about the religious, talismanic, and medicinal properties of gemstones were accepted without question. Many of these beliefs had been passed down from ancient times in the writings of the Roman scholar Pliny and repeated in the works of the seventh century bishop Isidore of Seville. The medieval mind, obsessed as it was with questions of life and death, proved fertile ground for the growth and dissemination of such beliefs.

In those times, each gem was valued for its ability to protect its wearer from evils both physical and spiritual. “Coral, which for twenty centuries or more was classed among the precious stones,”cured madness and assured wisdom. Emerald was considered to protect the wearer against all manner of enchantments. Carnelian drove out evil and protected the wearer from envy. Lapis lazuli was a sure cure for quartan fever. Sapphire also offered protection from envy and was thought to attract divine favor. Chrysoprase protected the thief from hanging.

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So universal was the belief in the magical and medicinal qualities of gem materials in the Middle Ages, that it is impossible to discuss the value of gemstones without reference to them. Was the emerald sought after for its beauty, or for its supposed value as a treatment for diseases of the eye?

Diamond: The Invincible

Diamond’s fluctuating popularity on the gemstone hit parade further illustrates the point. Diamond was unquestionably the preeminent gemstone in India from as early as the fifth century BC. India in those far-off times was the only source of diamond, and had a flourishing gemtrading industry. The Romans, too, placed diamond at the very pinnacle of preciousness. By early medieval times in the West, however, diamond had fallen to number seventeen on the bestseller list. As late as the sixteenth century, the celebrated Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini placed diamond third after ruby and emerald, with a price of only one eighth of what a ruby would bring. Writing in 1565, Garcia ab Horto, an early European traveler who described his trip to the gem fields of India, placed diamond at number three, but considered emerald, not ruby, to be the most precious gem of all.

One prominent scholar, Godeherd Lenzen, maintains that diamond’s early popularity in the western world was based not on its beauty, but on its durability and hardness. The characteristics that make diamond so desirable today — brilliance, dispersion, and transparency — are qualities that occur naturally only in perfectly formed diamond crystals.

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In Roman times, the technology did not exist to fashion or polish diamonds. Transparent wellformed crystals either were retained and sold in India (where they were highly valued) or bought up along the trade route before they reached Rome. Thus, due to the rarity and desirability of fine crystals and the length of the trade route between India and Rome, the uncut rough stones that made their way to the ancient Mediterranean were of inferior quality; the attributes of beauty which make the diamond so avidly sought after today were necessarily unknown to the ancient Romans. Therefore, Lenzen argues, diamonds could not have been valued for beauty at all, but must have had some other attraction. The Greeks named diamond adamas, a word that means invincible. This obviously relates to the gem’s legendary hardness, a virtue much admired in imperial times. Was it diamond’s “invincibility” that made it so attractive and valuable to the Romans?

Natural bipyrasmidal diamond crystals.
In earliest times before the technology existed to cut and polish diamonds these natural six-pointed crystals were highly sought after for their perfect form, transparency and brilliance.

To be fair, diamond regained its preeminent position in the gem world by the close of the seventeenth century. The Portuguese subjugation of Goa in west-central India opened up more direct trade routes, increasing the flow of finer diamond rough to the West. The necessary technology for revealing the diamond’s unique beauty — polishing, cutting, and cleaving — was in place in Europe by the middle part of the century. Diamond’s return to preeminence is also a direct result of the development in the late seventeenth century of the Peruzzi cut, the precursor of the modern brilliant cut. This important technological advance in gem cutting unleashed, for the first time, diamond’s full potential — the astonishing brilliance and fire for which the gem is justly revered.

By Richard W. Wise - © Secrets of the Gem Trade
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