While fine jewelry is usually high in monetary value, what often makes it exceptional is that it’s steeped in significance. A piece of jewelry frequently has a particular aura that does not fade; it is with it that we mark the milestones of our lives—engagement, marriage, friendships, parenthood, birthdays, travels, traditions, and love.
Jewelry, some argue, emblematizes the sublime.
When we consider some of the materials jewelry is made with—metals derived from the earth’s crust and gemstones, which, like crystals, have significant metaphysical properties—it’s hard to deny the cosmic allure.
These materials have been honored, according to Maria Leach’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, “back beyond recorded history.” Ancient Roman texts note that Cupid’s arrows were tipped with magical diamonds. In Eastern narratives, dragons were often depicted with flaming, wish-granting pearls under their chins or in their claws. In early written accounts, people adorned themselves with feathers, bones, shells, and colored pebbles. We now, of course, refer to these arrangements of naturally occurring materials as jewelry—and now, the colored pebbles are known as gemstones.
Here, a look at the history of some favorite gemstones and their mythological meanings.
In Sanskrit, the word for ruby is ratnaraj, or “king of precious stones.” In ancient Hinduism, it was believed by some that those who offered fine rubies to the god Krishna could be reborn as emperors. Rubies were divided into four castes. The Brahmin, for example, granted the advantage of perfect safety. The stone is also mentioned at least four times in the Bible, usually as a representative of beauty and wisdom. Numerous early cultures believed, because of the stone’s likeness to the color of blood, that rubies held the power of life. Among European royalty and the upper classes, rubies were thought to guarantee good health, wealth, wisdom, and success in love. They’ve became some of the most sought-after gems.
Lapis lazuli has always been associated with royalty and deities, and it may be where the idea of royal blue came from. Egyptians believed that it came from the heavens and provided protection in the afterlife, so they used it in their statues of the gods, in totemic objects, in jewelry, and in burial masks. 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. Lapis is included in numerous other myths but has served practical purposes as well: Ancient Egyptians used it to create blue cosmetics, and during the Renaissance, painters ground the stone to make ultramarine pigment, often used for skies and seas. Lapis was often placed in tombs alongside the deceased in Asia, Africa, and Europe as well.
According to legend, an emerald was one of the stones given by god to King Solomon—a gift that endowed the king with power over all creation. The Incas used them in both their jewelry and religious ceremonies, but the Spanish—who generally treasured gold and silver far more than they did gems—traded the stone for precious metals. In doing so, they made European and Asian royalty privy to the stone’s majestic qualities. Some even believed that placing an emerald under the tongue could help one see the future, reveal truths, and be protected from evil spells. Wearing an emerald was believed to grant a person the ability to reveal the truth or falseness of a lover’s oath.
Though technically fossilized tree resin and not a stone, amber is still considered a gem. In Norse mythology, Freyja cried tears that turned into gold and amber when her husband was away. Amber is 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. The Chinese believed amber to be the soul of the tiger transformed after death.
In Hindu mythology, moonstones are believed to be comprised of solidified moonbeams. Other cultures associated this gem with moonlight as well; the geological structure of the stone scatters light, creating a phenomenon called adularescence, which visually resembles scattered moonlight. Similar to beliefs about emeralds, some ancients thought that placing a moonstone in the mouth during a full moon could help a person glimpse his or her future.
The symbolic properties of tourmaline vary quite a bit by region. According to Egyptian legend, the stone found its array of colors (tourmaline commonly occurs in pink, blue, yellow, green, and red) when it left the earth’s center and passed through a rainbow. Some African and Australian shamans believed that they were teller stones that could locate sources of trouble, provide insight, and suggest direction towards good. In numerous cultures, black tourmaline was believed to protect against dark magic, and Native Americans gave certain shades of the stone as funeral gifts.
Diamonds are the only gemstones comprised of one pure element, carbon—the molecules of which bond in perfect symmetry and make the hardest naturally occurring substance on the planet. Due to these physical properties, they’ve long symbolized power, strength, innocence, incorruptibility, longevity, constancy, and good fortune. There is a Buddhist teaching, one of the most important Mahayana sutras, called the Diamond sutra.
Early gem cutters cited topaz as a stone capable of protecting against disease and untimely deaths, strengthening the intellect, lessening anger and sadness, and eliminating cowardice. Topaz was said to be able to cool boiling water, become invisible in the presence of poison, and create its own light. The mystic and Roman Catholic saint Hildegard of Bingen claimed that she read prayers in a darkened chapel by the light that emanated from a topaz.
Labradorite has the capacity (called labradorescence) to change in color when stricken with light. Native Canadians believed that the gemstone could increase energy, reduce stress and anxiety, protect its wearer from danger, and aid in communication with supernatural forces.
Garnet was another of the stones thought to be given by god to King Solomon. Hades gave pomegranate seeds, which are often associated with the stone, to Persephone before she left him as a token of safety, so garnets are often given as gifts 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. Garnets also have ties to light and to work: Plato is said to have had his portrait engraved on a garnet by a Roman engraver, and it’s said that Noah used a finely cut, glowing garnet to illuminate the ark. For their color, garnets can symbolize the blood of Christ, and in the Koran, garnets are said to illuminate the Fourth Heaven of the Moslems.
Cat’s eye was believed to protect soldiers from death by making enemies believe that their targets were already dead. In Hindu lore, the placing of a cat’s eye on one’s “third eye” was believed to increase psychic abilities and drive evil spirits away. Each of these beliefs stems from the fact that the stone’s dark bands appear to transform into bright ones, and vice versa, as it is turned. This phenomenon demonstrates that opposites are not mutually exclusive: Dualistic doctrines—light as a symbol for goodness and dark as a symbol for bad, for example—are artificial and subjective and can be dissolved.
Agate is believed to endow those who wear it the favor of god and a bold heart. It is also said to increase fidelity in marriage and love. Roman farmers once carried talismanic agates in the hope that the heavens would grant them bountiful harvests. The ancient Persians, relatedly, believed that agate could divert storms.
Opals are made when bits of silica gel get deposited into the crevices of rocks. They’ve long been regarded as one of the luckiest and most magical of all gems because of their ability to show many colors. According to Arabian legend, opals fell from the heavens in flashes of lightning. In Greek mythology, Gyges found an opal ring that made him invisible. He then killed the king of Lydia and married the queen. Despite the implications of this myth, opals are affiliated with hope, purity, and truth.