Aquamarines shines as the birthstone for March
Lucky March baby, you have two gems to choose from: Aquamarine and Bloodstone.
Taking a cruise for your birthday? [Editor: maybe not]. Take your aquamarine. Ancient sailors travelled with aquamarine crystals, believing it would ensure a safe passage and, bonus, induce a good night’s sleep while they were at it [Editor: aquamarine is unproven as a virus preventative]. Maybe it was because the mermaid’s lower fish-half was thought to be made of aquamarine. Hence the name sea water, or the French aigue marine.
Searching the literature for ancient references is a touch fruitless. The gem, while known, was not yet ‘aquamarine’, it was simply sea green beryl. Pliny and his contemporaries were astute enough to note that beryl had similar properties to emerald, his smaragdus. You were on to something Pliny, it’s the same species. In its basic state, beryl is colourless. Add chromium (sometimes vanadium) you’ll get emerald; manganese makes morganite (named after JP Morgan, btw), a pastel pink; more manganese will make it red bixbite; one state of iron creates yellow heliodor, but two states of iron and, finally, there’s your aquamarine.
Beryls, it is thought, are of the same nature as the smaragdus, or at least closely analogous. India produces them, and they are rarely to be found elsewhere. The lapidaries cut all beryls of an hexagonal form; because the colour, which is deadened by a dull uniformity of surface, is heightened by the reflection resulting from the angles. If they are cut in any other way, these stones have no brilliancy whatever. The most esteemed beryls are those which in colour resemble the pure green of the sea… — Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock, 1855
It appears only to have gained its aquatic name in 1609 in Anselmus de Boodt’s Gemmarum and Lapidum Historia. But before then it was certainly recognized for its beauty, religious importance, and curative properties. G.F. Kunz argues that, in Revelation, the two engraved shoham stones set on the shoulders of the high-priest’s breastplate of the Second Temple were aquamarines. The 12 gemstones on the front of the breastplate are believed to be the origin of birthstones.
The 13th century Hindu alchemical treatise Rasaratna Samuccaya had the ashes of aquamarine down as your cure for fever, lung diseases and anemia. William Langland’s “The Vision Concerning Piers and the Plowman,” from 1377, mentions the aquamarine as an antidote for poison. And in the Middle Ages it was used as an oracle crystal. Hang it from a thread over a bowl of water engraved with letters on the side and the gem would rotate to spell out a message. I’ve used the technique with clients; it usually spells ‘buy more jewellery’.
Brazil is the world’s most important source of gem-quality aquamarine since 1811 when a miner found a large gem in a riverbed in Teofilo Otoni. German lapidaries from the famed gem-cutting centre of Idar Oberstein began immigrating to Brazil in the mid-1800s. There they discovered that they could dig almost anywhere and turn up the beautiful blue gem, not to mention a host of others.
Not only plentiful, but large. In 1910, the largest ever aquamarine was found there. It weighed in at 243 pounds and when cut into smaller stones, it yielded over 200,000 carats. In 1953, Brazil gifted an exceptional suite of aquamarine earrings and pendant as a coronation gift to Queen Elizabeth. They’ve since been re-set in a tiara. But the largest one ever to be cut was found there in the late 1980s. It started out as a metre long, was dropped (oops), but the largest piece, the Dom Pedro, still weighs in at 26 kgs.
Nowadays, the preference is for more blue, less green. This is achieved with heat, a treatment you can assume was done on yours. Aquamarine is coloured by two states of iron, heat removes green-inducing ferric iron and leaves the gem a more desirable blue.
But if you’re thinking instead of becoming a martyr for your birthday, bloodstone is your choice. Bloodstone is opaque green jasper (a variety of chalcedony) dotted with bright red spots of iron oxide, hematite. Perfectly symbolic as the gem on which Christ’s blood was let at the foot of the cross.
Lots of properties have been attributed to the stone: increasing strength (handy), giving invisibility (really handy), and preserving health and youth (it is your birthday after all). In India, it’s still considered an aphrodisiac (can’t go wrong with that).
March martyr or March mermaid, you’ve got your choice of gems.
Pamela Coulston is a certified gemologist and owner of Disegno Fine Jewellery
Visit Disegno Fine Jewellery in Ottawa's ByWard Market or shop online