Historical Importance of Precious Gem Stones

History of precious stones, including the ideas and attitudes of the ancients and the medieval age concerning the nature and properties of gems in places such as Egypt, Rome, India and the Bible

Historical Survey of Precious Stones. Ideas entertained by the Ancients, and in the mediaeval age, concerning the Nature and Properties of Precious Stones. Their Classification based upon the analysis of Modern Chemistry.

"Though the same sun with all-diffusive rays

Blush in the rose, and in the diamond blaze,

We prize the effort of His stronger power,

And justly set the gem above the flower."

Brilliant objects have from time immemorial proved wonderfully fascinating to men. No wonder then that precious stones, those sparkling "blossoms of the rock," to whose rare beauty nature has added the crowning gift of durability, should have kindled a passion for possession and inspired ardent search.

In our own day the exceptional value of gems depends simply upon their use as ornaments, and their service in certain important optical and other instruments. With the ancients their importance rested on very different grounds. They attributed to these peerless little objects the most extraordinary gifts; they ascribed to them a spiritual as well as material potency--a power alike to cure diseases, to avert calamity, and to drive away the demons of the air.

The belief indeed came to prevail, that the presiding genius of a man's fate might be carried about with him in the shape of a precious stone. This superstition, though to us it appears so absurd, was quite in accordance with the general views which then prevailed regarding the moral and physical worlds.

"A fact that governs all ancient history," says Hoefer, in his Histoire de la Chimie, "is the close alliance of religion with science. This alliance is one of the distinguishing characteristics of antiquity: in it is found the solution of many of the problems that have disturbed the human mind."

It is this dominating fact that offers a key to the special history of precious stones.

Among the grand false or mistaken ideas held by the ancients, there are two that deserve all the attention of the historian and the philosopher. The first led them to consider man as a microcosm--a reduction in miniature of the entire universe, a `little world' in exact counterpart of the `great world.' Accordingly every part of man's body was believed to have a corresponding part in the vast universe.

The second was the conception of the soul of the world, according to which the souls of animated beings were but parts of the universal soul. At the moment of the dissolution of the body, said the philosophers of India, the soul, atma, very different from the merely vital principle, will unite itself, if it is pure, with the great universal soul, paramatma, from which it emanated. If it is impure it will be condemned to submit to a certain number of transmigrations, that is to say, to animate successively plants or animals, or even to be incarcerated in some mineral body until, purified of all imperfections, it is considered worthy of absorption, mukti, into the Divinity.

Thus minerals as well as animals and plants were to these philosophers living beings.

They maintained also, that the world was an animal reuniting the two principles, active and passive; an idea that entered fundamentally into nearly all the systems of ancient philosophy.

From India these theories passed into Egypt, whence they were transported to Greece by Plato, Pythagoras, and other philosophers. Confined for centuries to the European orient, they reappeared with some brilliancy at the commencement of the present era in the writings of philosophers of the school of Alexandria. In the mediaeval age, when the alchemists transported them into the mineral kingdom, they reigned supreme.

If we examine, in connection with these ideas, the rank that was ascribed to precious stones, we shall find that they necessarily acquired a great importance. The beauty of their forms and the splendour of their colours could not fail to make them to be considered productions of an incomparable purity, and an epitome of all that nature held most perfect. To endow these marvellous products with properties in conformity with the prevailing idea of their nature and origin was but a step farther, and accordingly we find attributed to them talismanic virtues and agencies of the utmost potency.

"It would not be without interest," writes Babinet, "to follow the history of gems through that of humanity, from the ephod of Aaron to the pastoral cross of the Archbishop of Paris; from the offerings of rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds, topazes, sardony, amethysts, carbuncles, and loadstones in the temples of Jupiter and other pagan divinities, to the riches of the same nature which by the sixteenth century had accumulated in what was called the `treasury' of Christian churches. There is still preserved at Rome an emerald of Peru, sent in homage to the pope after the conquest of that country. It should be remarked, however, that these precious stores, originating in the piety of the faithful, have not always been faithfully respected. When the reformation of Luther and Calvin in German countries, and later, the French revolution in countries remaining Catholic, transferred these votive riches to the possession of the civil authorities, it is well known that many fraudulent substitutions had been made, and that paste had frequently replaced the primitive gem."

"Precious stones," continues Babinet, "have in all times been highly esteemed, and without doubt will continue to be so in all ages to come. Comparing our modern luxury with the splendours of oriental courts and of Roman citizens enriched with the spoils of the world, we find ourselves inferior in many points, but not so far as diamonds are concerned. If in one of the brilliant reunions of the Tuileries, we calculate the value of the diamonds, even allowing deduction for false jewelry, we conclude that our French riches, although more widely spread, do not fall a whit behind the much-vaunted riches of Rome." And this remark applies with equal justice to the brilliant assemblies of other modern capitals.

The mythology of India refers to precious stones in terms that prove their general estimation in the most ancient ages: the songs and ballads of that country frequently mention these beautiful productions.

In Egypt a number of gems finely cut and engraved with consummate skill have been found beside mummies in tombs attributable to an extremely remote era. Their workmanship leads to the belief that the means employed by the ancient Egyptians in engraving hard stones did not differ sensibly from those used at the present day.

Types of these ancient jewels, copied from specimens in the museum of the Louvre, are represented by Figs. 19 to 25. Fig. 22 is particularly interesting; it is a red cornelian bearing hieroglyphic characters, exquisitely engraved.

The conquerors of Mexico found in the hands of the Incas a multitude of gems, cut and engraved with various images, which, according to Mexican traditions, had descended from a very remote period.

In the Bible there are several passages that refer with technical distinctions to precious stones. The most remarkable occurs in the description of the vesture of the high-priest, which was made, as the Scripture reads, "for glory and for beauty," and was adorned with symbolic gems. The ephod of Aaron was ornamented with two onyx stones, engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The breast-plate consisted of twelve precious stones, set in the form of a double square, and of a size that allowed each stone, with its setting, to occupy a space of 2 3/4 ins. by 2 ins.

Translators differ in their rendering of the Hebrew names applied to these sacred stones--a fact which need not surprise us when we consider how few particulars are given--but the following order, although differing somewhat from the arrangement of Calmet, is in accordance with the opinion of the most celebrated rabbis.

Order of the Stones in Aaron's Breast-plate.

Primus Ordo. 1 2 3

Oden. Phideth. Barcketh.

Cornelian. Topaz. Emerald.


Secundus Ordo. 4 5 6

Nophecth. Saphir. Jaolam.

Ruby. Sapphire. Diamond.


Tertius Ordo. 7 8 9

Leschem. Schebo. Achlamah.

Hyacinth. Agate. Amethyst.


Quarius Ordo. 10 11 12

Tarschisch. Schoham. Jaspeh.

Chrysolite. Sardonyx. Jasper.


In the book of Job there are facts mentioned that have led some to attribute to the author a profound knowledge of metallurgy; and he mentions by name the precious stones, sapphire, onyx, ruby, and topaz; crystal also, and coral and pearls. Mention is also made of geological phenomena similar to those which have played a part in bringing these mineral treasures to light, and which are so familiar to the geologists of the present day.

"He putteth forth his hand upon the rock; he overturneth the mountains by the roots; he cutteth out rivers among the rocks, and his eye seeth every precious thing. He bindeth the floods from over-flowing, and the thing that is hid bringeth he forth to light."

In the New Testament the most remarkable passage in which precious stones are mentioned is that in the Apocalypse describing the New Jerusalem. "And the building of the wall of it was of jasper," we are told, "and the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones." The precious stones were twelve in number, and they were arranged in order as below, where each has its colour placed opposite to it.

Order of Precious Stones in the Wall of the New Jerusalem

(Vision of St. John).

Jasper Dark opaque green.

Sapphire (lapis lazuli) Opaque blue.

Chalcedony Greenish blue.

Emerald Bright transparent green.

Sardonyx White and red.

Sardius Bright red.

Chrysolite Bright yellow.

Beryl Bluish green.

Topaz (or Peridot) Yellowish green.

Chrysoprasus Darker shade of same.

Hyacinthus (Sapphire) Dark shade of azure.

Amethyst Violet.

In the Iliad and Odyssey there are occasional metallurgic descriptions of much interest; and especially to be noted in regard to precious stones are the passages descriptive of the jewels of Juno.

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