If you want to understand the history of gemstones, this guide will explain all the key points you need to know. Red rubies, priceless diamonds, huge emeralds and other gemstones have long inspired myths, legends, and even curses. They have been coveted by royalty, rich collectors and movie stars alike.
In fact, the reverence that humans have for precious stones is almost as captivating as the gemstones themselves. But why is it that certain stones and crystals have been so coveted and highly prized throughout history?
In this guide, we will answer this question and more. We’ll delve into the history of these natural wonders, including:
- What is a gemstone?
- Colour and shape of gemstones
- How many gemstones are there?
- Precious stones VS semi-precious stones
- How long ago were gemstones formed?
- Which is the oldest gemstone?
- When did man first discover gemstones?
- How gemstones were used by ancient civilizations
- Gemstone lore
- Birthstone history
- Anniversary gemstones
- 5 Famous gemstones in history
- Gemstones in popular culture today
- Why humans are so attracted to gemstones
What is a gemstone?
A gemstone is a valuable piece of mineral crystal, usually mined from the ground. Gemstones are often used as decorative elements in jewellery and other adornments.
Are gemstones only used in jewellery?
No. Throughout history, they have also been used to decorate a variety of other items like plates, combs, religious or ceremonial objects, and weapons.
Are all gemstones mined?
No. While most gemstones are minerals and rocks that come from underground (such as emeralds and opals), some valuable organic materials like pearls and amber are used in jewellery and therefore also called gemstones.
The colour of gemstones
Gemstones appear naturally in all the colours of the rainbow, including colourless, white and black – with all shades of blues, greens, reds, yellows, browns, pinks and oranges in between.
Where does the colour of gemstones come from?
The difference in gemstone colours is based on the trace elements they contain, physical differences in the crystals, and the way they refract light. For instance, a physical process called “charge transfer”, as well as the presence of titanium and iron, are what produce the blue colour in sapphires.
The shape of gemstones
Gemstones naturally occur as “rough” stones. These are irregular in shape and in some cases, not all that sparkly or beautiful. After mining, however, they are carved and polished into specific shapes, called cuts, by expert lapidaries (gem cutters). This enhances and brings out their shine and colour.
How many gemstones are there?
There are around 200 different natural gemstones that we know about today. As there are so many, we cannot cover them all in this article. That’s why we’ll focus on only some of the best-known ones here:
Precious stones are particularly rare and beautiful gemstones. In fact, there are only four gemstones that are called precious stones: diamond, sapphire, emerald and ruby.
All other gemstones that are not classified as precious stones (above) are called semi-precious stones. This does not mean that they are not valuable. On the contrary, many semi-precious stones can fetch sky-high prices if they are of good quality and colour.
How long ago were gemstones formed?
The age of gemstones, from the time they were formed within the Earth, ranges from millions to billions of years. (With the exception of organic gemstones like pearls which are formed constantly.)
As carbon-, gas- and other scientific mineral dating techniques improve, scientists are able to determine the age of gemstones more exactly.
“The age of gemstones, from the time they were formed within the Earth, ranges from millions to billions of years.”
For instance, experts currently estimate that diamonds formed deep within the Earth’s mantle more than 3 billion years ago. On the other hand, sapphire is a much younger gem as it formed “only” around 150 million years ago.
Which is the oldest gemstone?
The oldest gemstone formed on Earth is zircon. In 2001, researchers found a piece of natural zircon in Jack Hills, Western Australia and dated it back to around 4.4 billion years. (Zircon is a natural gemstone and should not be confused with cubic zirconia which is a synthetic imitation.)
The oldest extraterrestrial gemstone is peridot. While the gem is also mined on Earth, peridot crystals have been found on meteorite landing sites and in mineral samples collected from space. This “stardust peridot” is a remnant of our solar system’s birth from 4.6 billion years ago.
When did man first discover gemstones?
Based on current archaeological evidence and recorded history, here are some key dates we know of about the first uses of gems by different civilisations.
Hindy Kush region (modern Afghanistan) – Archeological evidence suggests that the oldest gemstone mined by man is lapis lazuli, a stone with rich, blue colour. It was used by people dwelling in the Hindu Kush region during the Neolithic period.
Egypt – We know from archeological evidence that already around 4000 BC, the Egyptians were making gemstone jewellery using lapis lazuli and amethyst.
China – Jade is the earliest gemstone mentioned in Chinese historical texts around 3600 BC.
India – Indians were the first people to mine and use diamonds around 300 BC.
Ancient Greece and Rome – History dates the use of several gemstones in Greece and the Roman Empire to between 1600 BC and 500 BC. Both civilizations used sapphires, garnets and pearls as amulets.
How gemstones were used by ancient civilizations
From Viking amber to the turquoise treasure of indigenous Americans, gemstone history is so vast that we cannot cover it all in one article. However, we have listed some of the most influential ancient civilisations below, with a look at how they used gemstones in art, jewellery, and religious or ceremonial objects through the ages.
1. Gemstones in Ancient China
The most prominent gemstone in Chinese history was, without a doubt, jade. Its importance in Chinese history cannot be understated.
This gemstone, with white, yellow or green colour, is synonymous with wealth and power in Chinese history. It is no coincidence that the symbol in Chinese writing for “emperor” looks almost identical to the one that means “jade”.
Jade has been mined in China since the stone age. At prehistoric sites, archaeologists have found jade beads, tools and weapons.
Later, around 3000 BC, jade became known as “yu” or the “royal gem”. Beautiful jade carvings were used for ceremonial dishes, vases, furnishings and jewellery for the Chinese imperial families. The most influential Chinese people were buried in jade suits. These were extremely costly, taking a long time to make.
2. Gemstones in Ancient Egypt
If we think of archaeological gemstone treasure, most of us instantly think of the Egyptian pharaohs’ tombs.
For example, Tutankhamun’s tomb dating back to 1324 BC, was discovered in 1922. In the hieroglyphics on the walls of the tomb were painted figures wearing jewellery elaborately decorated necklaces, earrings and bangles with blue, red, green and yellow gemstones.
Around King Tutankhamun’s mummy’s neck, there were many gold amulets and drapings made with carnelian, red jasper and lapis lazuli.
His famous burial mask is fashioned from gold inlaid with gemstones including lapis lazuli around the eyes and eyebrows, quartz for the irises, obsidian in the pupils, as well as carnelian, feldspar, turquoise, amazonite, faience and other stones on the collar.
The Egyptians generally preferred to use soft, semi-precious stones like carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, malachite, quartz and turquoise. This is because religious symbolism, such as the scarab, was important in Egyptian jewellery, and the softness of these gemstones allowed the Egyptian lapidaries to carve these images into jewellery.
The colour of gemstones was also extremely important to the Egyptians because they had deep religious and superstitious symbolism. The colour blue symbolised royalty in ancient Egypt (like it still does in many places around the world today). This made lapis lazuli one of the most coveted gemstones in Egypt.
3. Gemstones in Ancient GREECE
The Greeks started using gemstones in jewellery around 1600 BC. Precious stones like emeralds, rubies and sapphires were imported via the Silk Road from India, Sri Lanka and the Far East.
By 300 BC, the Greeks were making jewellery with semi-precious gemstones like amethysts and pearls. Greek lapidaries invented new stone carving techniques which enabled them to engrave gems like agate with intricate patterns and pictures.
Due to Alexander the Great’s influence and power, the Greek jewellery designs were influenced by many other cultures, like Asia. This led to the use of beautiful and lavish jewellery pieces inlaid with a multitude of coloured stones like pearls, emeralds, garnet, carnelian, agate and peridot, as well as rock crystals.
The ancient Greeks believed that gemstones held many powers. For example, they believed that wearing amethyst while drinking wine would protect them from drunkenness. In fact, the word “amethyst” comes from the Greek amethystos meaning sober. Sapphires, on the other hand, are named after the Greek word sapphirus which means blue. The Greek considered sapphires symbolic of wisdom and purity.
4. Gemstones in the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was powerful, rich and far-reaching. Therefore, starting from 700 BC for a period of 1000 years, the Roman people had unprecedented access to precious resources like gemstones.
This led to Roman jewellers crafting ostentatious jewellery with both precious and semi-precious stones like emeralds, diamonds, rubies and sapphires, garnets, topaz, pearls and amber from many different areas of the Empire.
Pearls found by pearl divers in the Persian Gulf were a particularly popular gemstone in Rome. They were often set in jewellery alongside emerald and peridot from Egypt, and lapis lazuli and onyx from Persia.
Men’s rings set with gemstones were particularly popular during the Roman era. Roman men, in the early first and second centuries, often wore rings on all ten fingers. The gemstones used were usually smooth, round cabochons of garnet, amethyst or orange carnelian, a coloured form of quartz.
5. Gemstones in Aztec gemstones
The Aztec Empire (in what is now modern day Mexico) ruled between the 14th and 16th century. This highly sophisticated civilization produced breathtaking gemstone items, such as sculptures, musical instruments, masks and sacrificial knives, using semi-precious stones like turquoise, jade, obsidian, quartz and opal.
One of the best-known examples of Aztec gemstone art is the mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, believed to depict the face of a god. It is made from turquoise pieces glued onto wood. The eyes are made from mother-of-pearl and the inside is coated with hematite.
6. Gemstones in Middle Age Europe
The Church in the Middle Ages, from the 5th century to the 16th century AD was the biggest and richest collector of valuable gemstones in Europe. These were a powerful display of wealth in a time marked by human disasters like the plague, as well as widespread superstition, fear and despair.
During this time, the belief in the healing and protective powers of gemstones grew. Those who could afford them, wore gemstones as talismans on necklaces and rings to ward off illness, evil, and bad luck. At the height of the Dark Ages, the Church commissioned the goldsmiths of the time to make ornate gemstone-decorated religious objects using stones like garnets, jasper, ivory, sapphires and emeralds.
A very important development in gemstone history occurred in the 16th century when tools were invented for cutting facets into diamonds. Initial diamond cutting had only begun in the 14th century, but it was only a very superficial type of polishing to give the stone some shine. It was at the end of the 1700s that early faceting and polishing of diamonds began to be widely used by European cutters.
7. Gemstones in modern history
During modern history, the Victorian era is particularly interesting in terms of gemstone jewellery because it blended almost all previous stylistic influences like Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance into one. (Read our article Know Your Vintage Jewellery Styles for more information about antique jewellery design.)
“Victorian jewellery blended almost all previous stylistic influences like Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance into one”
The Victorians enjoyed a life of growing wealth and technological innovation. Society was opening up to new ideas and, reflective of this, gemstone jewellery became less of a religious symbol and more of a fashion trend.
A typical Victorian jewellery item was the cameo brooch made of carved shell, agate, carnelian or sardonyx, often depicting mythological Greek or Roman imagery. After Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1860, the mourning period that followed brought in darker gems like black onyx, symbolic of the monarch’s mood.
In terms of precious stones (diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires) the modern history period is particularly exciting due to the invention of the steam-driven bruting machine which revolutionised diamond cutting. The machine enabled cutters to shape rounder and more faceted diamonds and gems, giving rise to the modern brilliant cuts with multitudinous facets that we know today.
Finally, the 19th century also saw the diamond rush begin in South Africa, bringing along with it the modern concept of gemmology. After that, from the 20th century onwards, followed the contemporary jewellery retail industry as we know it today.
A brief history of gemmology
When examining the history of gemstones, we must not forget about gemmology. On 6th July 1908, Samuel Barnett, a British jeweller from Peterborough, attended a meeting of the National Association of Goldsmiths.
In the meeting, he stood up and proposed the idea of offering lessons in gemmology, in order to support the jewellery industry of the time. The idea received wide support and, as a result, an official committee for gemmological education was created.
This marked the start of what is today known as the study of gemmology. As a result, Gem-A, the gemmological association of Britain, was born. Later in 1931 the Gemological Institute of America, known as GIA, was founded.
Afterwards, many renowned international gemmological laboratories have sprung up around the world, such as the European Gemological Laboratory (EGL) and the International Gemological Institute (IGI).
The early 20th century was an exciting time in the world of gemmology. Just before the founding of Gem-A, the Steward Refractometer was invented in 1905 for evaluating faceted gemstones.
In 1912, famous mineralogist, Dr George F. Herbert Smith, published a ground-breaking book called Gemstones. It was the first book that contained instructions on how to use specialist equipment to look inside gemstones – a book so relevant that it is still studied by gemmology students today and can be bought on Amazon.
These early advances led to what are considered the best gemmological practices today. Such as the diamond certificate you get when you buy an engagement ring, detailing The Four C’s and other quality characteristics of your valuable purchase.
The idea that gemstones possess special powers of healing or luck is ancient. In Europe throughout the Middle Ages, medicine men sold powdered gems for medicinal purposes. This practice is still known in some parts of Asia today.
The number twelve is a mystical number that often comes up in gemstone lore and in the history of gemstones. For example, the twelve gems that represented the twelve tribes of Israel were set in the breastplate of Aaron, the first high priest of the Hebrews. Among Christians, on the other hand, twelve symbolic gems represented the twelve apostles.
In some cases, gem-related superstitions are contradictory. Opal, for example, was thought by some people to bring bad luck, while others regard it as a gemstone of hope.
The idea that each person should wear a gemstone corresponding to their month of birth is a relatively modern idea within the history of gemstones. It was first noted among Jewish gem traders in 18th century Poland. The modern list of birthstones we know today was finally defined in 1912 by the National Association of Jewelers of America. Find your birthstone here.
Another common use of gemstones is for celebrating anniversaries. Many gems are associated with important wedding anniversaries. For example, the 40th wedding anniversary is called the Ruby Anniversary and rubies are the “official” gift for that special occasion. See a list of anniversary gift gems here.
5 Famous gemstones in history
There are many famous gemstones, but the best ones have a fascinating story. Here are our five favourites.
1. The Black Prince’s Ruby
The Black Prince of England, Prince Edward, helped a Spanish king win a battle in 1367. To thank him, the king gave him a dark red, irregularly shaped ruby. King Henry V later had the gem set into his helmet-crown. In 1415, during the Battle of Agincourt, the ruby apparently deflected a deadly enemy blow to Henry’s head, earning it legendary status. The ruby is now set in the Imperial State Crown of the British crown jewels.
2. The Hope Diamond
The Hope Diamond is a blue diamond named after Thomas Hope, a wealthy London banker. It weighs more than 45.5 carats and is worth around £200 million. It was mined in India in the late 1600s and sold to France’s King Louis XIV. Since then, many royals and collectors have owned the Hope Diamond. Strangely, so many have met with bad luck, though, that some people believe the Hope Diamond to be cursed. Maybe that is why its last owner, the famous diamond merchant, Harry Winston, donated it to the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, DC where it can be admired today.
3. The Star of India
About the size of a golf ball and weighing more than 563 carats, the Star of India is one of the most famous star sapphires in the world. The stone creates a beautiful star effect with an unusual milky glow. Mined in Sri Lanka, the gem was bought by a mineralogist, George Kunz, on behalf of J.P. Morgan for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Morgan later donated the Star of India to New York’s American Museum of Natural History, from where it was stolen in 1964. Thankfully, the thieves were caught, and the Star of India can again be seen in the Museum’s Hall of Gems.
4. The Cambridge Emeralds
In 1818, Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, married a German princess, Augusta of Hesse-Kassel – the great-great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. On a trip visiting her native region of Hesse, Augusta bought raffle tickets for a charity lottery. She won a box containing forty emeralds of various sizes. The stones were named the Cambridge Emeralds and eventually, the Queen inherited them. They are often seen in the Vladimir tiara which allows different gemstones to be displayed within the diamond swirls.
5. La Peregrina Pearl
The history of La Peregrina Pearl spans more than 500 years. After being owned by seven Spanish kings, the huge tear-drop shaped pearl ended up in the jewel collection of the French royal family. Later, Queen Bloody Mary owned it. Eventually, in 1969, Richard Burton bought the pearl for Elizabeth Taylor at an auction. The story goes that he had to outbid a prince to get it.
At one point, Taylor lost La Peregrina in a Las Vegas hotel room, only to find her pet dog chewing on it. Luckily, the pearl was not damaged, and she later had it mounted on a diamond Cartier necklace. In December 2011, the necklace sold for a record price of around £10 million at a Christie’s auction.
Gemstones in popular culture today
Even today, gemstone lore exists in popular culture. For example, the enormous emerald called El Corazón (“The Heart”) in the 1984 movie Romancing the Stone and the ceremonial stone in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In the Marvel superhero comic books and the Marvel Universe films, the six Infinity Gems each have their own colour, meaning and powers, and are used to their advantage (or peril) by various superheroes and supervillains.
Why are we so attracted to gemstones?
When you think about it, gemstones don’t have a practical use. They are merely decorative. So it’s sometimes quite astounding how attached people are to their jewellery – and the astronomical prices that gemstones can fetch at auctions.
Some claim that our obsession with gems is all down to clever advertising, like the famous slogan “A diamond is forever”, that marketing copywriter, Mary Frances Gerety, created for De Beers in 1947. But, in fact, humankind’s fascination with gemstones started way before modern jewellery retailers and gemmology were ever established.
According to psychologists, the value we attach to gemstones is manyfold:
Colour – Humans are attracted by different colours for different reasons. For example, it is a proven fact that gazing at the colour green releases relaxing chemicals in the brain. So there may be some truth in ancient Roman philosopher, Pliny’s, claim: “After straining our eyes… we can restore our vision to normal by gazing at an Emerald”.
Rarity and scarcity – The rarer the gem, the more valued it is. Scarcity triggers an emotional response in most humans. When something is only available in limited quantities, like is the case with gemstones as opposed to other materials, like for example, wood, we assume it is more valuable. If we know we can’t have something, we want it even more.
Sparkle and shine – A psychological research paper published in 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, called Taking a shine to it: How the preference for glossy stems from an innate need for water, suggests that the glistening radiance of gemstones reminds us of water and our love of gems is simply part of our survival instinct.
Culture – From Chinese jade burial suits to the royal jewels, gems reflect the culture, values, status and technological advances of our civilizations.
Sentimental value – When it comes to heirloom jewellery items, like grandmother’s pearls or your mother’s diamond engagement ring, a gem often tells the stories of its previous owners. Some of the world’s most prized stones are valued for their pasts.
Financial value – Today, the established science of gemmology offers ways to assess the value of precious and semi-precious stones. For instance, in addition to their rarity, the market value of diamonds is determined by “The Four Cs” – cut, color, clarity and carat weight. Even small, inexpensive gemstones, can cost in the hundreds today, making them aspirational purchases for many people.
Durability and longevity – Flowers wilt, chocolates get eaten, and you cannot wear clothes or drive sports cars forever. Perhaps that’s why gems, which have been around millions of years and will last well beyond our lifetimes, hold such a fascination to us.
The History of Gemstones – Closing
Gemstones have always had a hold on mankind. Before even the spoken word, humans wore jewellery. As British archaeologist, Archibald Campbell, once said, “the first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration.” But perhaps gemstones are more than just ornaments to us. The value that we place on them lies not just in their financial value, scarcity and longevity, but what their stories mean to us individually, historically and culturally. In short, gemstones symbolise our very humanity.