The History and Mythology of Gemstones in Ancient Jewellery

Jewellery has been worn by ancient cultures around the world for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt both men and women were great lovers of jewellery and adorned themselves with a profusion of charms and amulets. Jewellery also showed wealth and status and offered protection from evil. Although the Egyptians had access to many precious gemstones, they preferred to use softer, semi-precious stones such carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, quartz and turquoise.

Gems were imported into Greece from every location along the ancient Silk Road, from Asia Minor to the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, and the Far East. These jewels included such exotic materials as emerald, ruby and sapphire, as well as semi-precious gems from the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa. The Roman Empire was the seat of power and wealth in the Western world for hundreds of years. Because of their impressive span, they were able to trade with cultures throughout the world, not only in Europe, but also in northern Africa. This gave them access to numerous gemstones, which they could use to craft their jewellery.

In ancient times gems and precious stones had often a symbolic and deeper meaning. Find below a list of the most popular precious and semi-precious stones in antiquity.

Greek gold carnelian bead necklace
egyptian lapis lazuli crocodile amulet 1
Greek Gold Amethyst Pendant
egyptian miniature obsidian head rest 1

Amethyst

The word amethyst comes from the Greek word amethystos, meaning sober. In ancient Greek and Roman culture, the amethyst gemstone was associated with the god of wine, Dionysus, and it was common practice to serve this beverage from amethyst goblets in the belief that this would prevent overindulgence. Romans and Greeks would also stud their drinking vessels with amethyst and wear the stones on their bodies.

Sapphire

Traditionally, sapphire symbolises nobility, truth, sincerity, and faithfulness. It has decorated the robes of royalty and clergy members for centuries. Sapphires were named after the Greek word sapphiros, meaning blue, and were considered to be symbolic of wisdom and purity. In ancient Greece and Rome, members of the aristocracy were convinced that blue sapphires protected their owners from envy and harm.

Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli has always been associated with royalty and with the cult of the deities. Egyptians believed that the precious stone came from the heavens providing protection in the afterlife. For this reason Lapis Lazuli was used to create beautiful statuettes of deities and amuletic jewellery. Ancient Egyptians also used the precious stone to create blue cosmetics. In the epic poem Gilgamesh, Sumerians spent years traveling from one end of Asia to the other in order to mine and obtain the stone. During the Renaissance, painters ground the stone to make ultramarine pigment, often used for skies and seas.

Garnet

Garnet was one of the stones thought to be given by God to King Solomon. In Greek and Roman mythology Hades gave pomegranate seeds to Persephone as a token of safety. Pomegranate seeds were often associated with the garnet stone, becoming typical gifts given upon departure for travel. When given in this context, they’re believed to grant quick, safe returns and eradicate the emotional distance between separated lovers.

Greek Gold Earrings with Garnet

Amber

Amber formed from tree resin that has hardened over millions of years. In ancient cultures amber was affiliated with electricity and light: we derive the word electricity from the Greek name for amber, elektron, and the stone, once believed to be made of congealed sunlight, was sacred to the Greek god Apollo. Amber was a popular gemstone in ancient Rome too. Amber, which the Romans prized, was mined in the Baltic region, and was considered one of the most valuable substances in the Empire.

Egyptian Carnelian Scarab

Carnelian

The name Carnelian derives from the Latin word carneus, which means fleshy, a reference to the colour of the semi precious stone. Over 4500 years ago, Sumerian and Egyptian craftsmen were making jewellery set with carnelian stones. Ancient Romans and Greeks also valued the stone, which they used for intaglios and as a part of signet rings.

 

Obsidian

The Natural History written by the Roman author, Pliny the Elder, contains a few sentences on the subject of a volcanic glass called obsidian, lapis obsidianus, discovered in Ethiopia by Obsidius, a Roman explorer. Ancient Egyptians used obsidian imported from the eastern Mediterranean and southern Red Sea regions. Obsidian was also used in ritual circumcisions because of its deftness and sharpness: egyptologists believe that Egyptian embalmers might have used knife and scalpel blades made of obsidian.

Jasper

Jaspers have been revered by ancient peoples and civilisations throughout the world as sacred and powerful stones of protection, for both the physical and spiritual realm. They were known as the “rain bringers” and nurturers, healers of the spirit and stones of courage and wisdom. The name can be traced back in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Assyrian, Greek and Latin. In ancient Egypt, Red Jasper was linked to fertility, as it was named the fertilising blood of Mother Isis. Legend states it was used to drive away evil spirits and protect against snake and spider bites. Many amulets made from jasper were found in Egypt with inscriptions to protect the wearer from death. It was sometimes placed around the neck of the deceased in the form of an amulet carved with a scene of the 156th Chapter from the Book of the Dead. The Ancient Greeks and Romans valued jasper, believing it would ease the pain of childbirth if tied to the woman’s thigh.

Egyptian Eye of Horus Amulet

Ancient Jewellery

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By Anastasia,

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