Amethyst: The Ancient Gem of Royalty
Today you can see amethyst in every jeweller’s shop window in all kinds of jewellery pieces, from affordable silver perfect for every day to elaborate gold designs for special occasions. It is now a gem accessible to all, but this was not always the case: for centuries amethyst was enjoyed exclusively by royalty and the most privileged in society. Across many cultures it has long been associated with wealth and power.
Amethyst has been treasured since at least as far back as the civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome. The stone acquired a reputation for being able to prevent intoxication; the name comes from the Ancient Greek meaning ‘not drunk’. Goblets were carved from amethyst and people would wear the gemstone to avoid the effects of too much wine. How effective this was we can only guess, but we do now know that amethysts do not possess these magical powers! It has been suggested that clever nobles would drink water from an amethyst goblet, the purple crystal giving water the appearance of wine.
A myth associated with the creation of amethyst features the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (or Bacchus in the Roman version) and his furious temper. In a fit of rage, he threatened to kill the first human who crossed his path and sent tigers to lie in wait for his victim. A young girl named Amethystos happened to be the unfortunate human, passing by on her way to pay homage to Artemis, the goddess of chastity (Diana in the Roman civilisation). Seeing the danger Artemis acted quickly and turned the innocent girl into a colourless quartz statue. Dionysus saw the beautiful figure and realised his mistake. Upset, he spilt his wine and gave the crystal a purple colour. This was said to be the source of all amethyst.
Of course, we now understand the geological origins of amethyst and can explain how the crystal forms and how it receives its rich purple colour. Interestingly it is now also believed that the story was written by the French poet Remy Belleau in the 16th century and is not an ancient Greek myth at all, but it is fun and gives us a good starting point for the history of amethyst and its associations.
Across a range of cultures and traditions the gem is repeatedly said to represent calmness of mind and purity of spirit. Whether that means a clear head even after a few goblets of wine, a calm mind in the face of battle or the calmness associated with prayer, the same ideas crop up again and again.
As is the case with many gemstones, the first mention of amethyst in writing is in the Bible. It is one of the gemstones present in the High Priest Aaron’s breastplate in the Book of Exodus, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Amethyst has maintained a close connection to Christianity, featuring in the Episcopal rings of Bishops where it represents abstinence from alcohol at Pentecost. Christianity is not the only faith to place importance on the gem; Buddhist prayer beads are often carved from amethyst too.
Amethyst’s famous purple colour was important in forming a connection with wealth and power. Purple was the most expensive colour for clothing until the development of synthetic dyes; the colour being produced until then from a species of marine snail. Its use was very restricted and the amount of purple on a person’s toga was used as an indication of rank. Cleopatra famously wore an amethyst ring throughout her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony which created a fashion for the gem amongst Roman noblewomen.
With a somewhat similar story to the purple dye, amethyst itself was considered rare until vast deposits of the gem were discovered in Brazil in the 18th century. Before that it was one of the most valuable of gemstones alongside diamonds, rubies and sapphires. It is present in many royal collections around the world: a large cabochon amethyst sits above the Cullinan I diamond (the second largest cut diamond in the world) in the Imperial Sceptre of the British Crown Jewels. Both the British and Swedish royal families have stunning amethyst suites in their jewellery collections: the British pieces originally owned by Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent; and the Swedish pieces being the ‘Napoleonic amethysts’, originally gifted by Empress Josephine to her daughter-in-law Augusta of Bavaria whose own daughter then took them with her when she married into the Swedish royal family.
From Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs through to present-day Queens amethyst has throughout history been a favourite with royals; as an owner of the gem you will be in illustrious company alongside Cleopatra, Catherine the Great and Queen Elizabeth II. The fact that its availability means it is accessible on a modest budget means we can all afford to add a bit of regal luxury into our jewellery collections.
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