On wineless gem, I, toper Bacchus, reign; Learn, stone, to drink, or teach me to abstain.
— Marbodeus Gallus, Bishop of Rennes, 12th c.
Born in February? Drink up: Amethyst has you covered. Myth has it that this purple variety of quartz will keep you sober and clear headed. Coming from the Greek amethystos, meaning ‘not intoxicated’, the ancients would drink wine from cups studded with amethyst.
As the story goes, a beautiful maiden, on her way to pay homage at the Temple of Diana, crossed paths with an ill-humoured Bacchus jonesing to take out his bad mood on someone. Poor little maiden. Wrong place, wrong time. But as the bully’s two tigers were unleashed on her, Diana intervened and crystallized the lass. Remorseful, Bacchus poured his wine over the stone turning it purple. Et voila, amethyst.
Amethyst jewellery as old as 2000 BC has been unearthed. Ancient Egyptians carved it into amulets. In the mid 17th century it was valued as much as diamond and continued to be as prized as ruby and emerald until the 19th. Because of its sobering effects, and the belief it ensured chastity and piety, it was a favourite of Catholic clergy, from prelates' crosses to the Papal Ring.
Royalty coveted it for its beauty and rarity. Russia was the major source, which was convenient for Catherine the Great who bedecked herself in amethyst. However, when large deposits were discovered in Brazil in the 19th century, prices dropped. Even commoners could afford it. Queen Charlotte of England’s famous amethyst bracelet, estimated to be worth £2000 in the early 1700s, nosedived to £100 two centuries later.
But fashions come and go. Apparently, it wasn’t the first time amethyst fell out of favour. It was passé in the past and then rebounded. G.F. Kunz, famous gemologist and gem historian wrote that it lost its appeal in the pre-Hellenistic period but rebounded around 330-100 BC carved for signet rings. And in 1953 Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, wore a lavish gold bib to a Versailles gala studded with 29 faceted amethysts and a honking heart-shaped one, accented by turquoise and diamonds.
Quartz is common: come in from the beach, shake that towel, and you’ve let fly particles of quartz. It’s as common as, well, sand. But there’s quartz and then there’s quartz. Gemmologists divide the species into three broad categories: large crystals (here’s your amethyst); microcrystalline aggregates (e.g. tiger’s eye); and crypto – ‘hidden’ – crystalline aggregates only visible under high magnification (including carnelian and onyx).
Brazil is still a major supplier, as is the famous Anahi mine in Bolivia. Given in the 1600s as dowry to a Spanish conquistador upon his marriage to princess Anahi, then forgotten for three centuries, it was re-discovered in the 1960s. Anahi is home to bicoloured ametrine: half amethyst, half is yellow sibling citrine. Some of the finest amethyst now comes from Africa, particularly Zambia.
And it’s so prevalent in Ontario that we adopted it in 1975 as the province’s official stone. Most significantly found around Thunder Bay, it was formed in cavities over one billion years ago. Lace up your boots, grab your pick: you can mine it there yourself.
Heat treatment is common to improve colour and can also convert some amethyst to citrine. Don’t wear it to the beach, it can fade with extended exposure to the sun. Hard enough for jewellery purposes, but care and discretion are needed. Even your diamonds should be left at home when you bike the Gatineaus.
A perfect gem for February: St Valentine apparently had a ring of amethyst carved with the image of Cupid. Drunk on love. Leonard da Vinci wrote that it’ll quicken intelligence and get rid of evil thoughts. There’s that sobriety thing again.
The Hebrew word for amethyst is ahlamah, meaning ‘dream’, and it’s purported to cause lovely dreams and visions. So, if you’re in search of de bon rêves, or if your visions include pink elephants, this is the month to get yourself an amethyst.
Pamela Coulston is a certified gemologist and owner of Disegno Fine Jewellery
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