Precious Gems From Antiquity: Diamonds, Amber, Opals

Three of the oldest of all the gemstones, diamonds, amber, and opals have inspired artists and authors alike with their amazing qualities. These, above all other gems, have captured our imagination. Believed by some to be gifts from the gods, myths and lore abound about these beautiful gemstones.

To be sure, the fire and color of the diamond has dazzled since the first rough stones were polished, but it was only with the development of cutting to reveal its brilliant facets - the 'heart of the stone' - that diamonds truly came into their own.

Amber and opals have adorned crowned heads. Precious objects carved from these gems have graced the halls of the wealthy and pre-eminent in society. Besides their obvious beauty, what is it about these gems that has so dazzled and enthralled us?

Map of the world's diamond producing areas from jcrs.com
Map of the world's diamond producing areas from jcrs.com
Raw uncut diamonds from gemrockauctions.com
Raw uncut diamonds from gemrockauctions.com
Woven ring with uncut diamonds from jewelryboutique.com
Woven ring with uncut diamonds from jewelryboutique.com

Diamonds

Whether diamonds are, in fact, 'forever', they are among the most beautiful of all the gemstones. The modern symbol of love, diamonds have a long and sometimes bloody history.

The invention of this symbol, though, is a relatively recent development in the history of the diamond trade. Up until the late nineteenth century, diamonds were a genuinely rare stone, only were found only in a few river beds in India and the jungles Brazil. The entire world production of gem quality diamonds was perhaps a few pounds a year.

In 1870, however, huge deposits of diamonds were discovered near the Orange River in South Africa. Suddenly the diamond markets could be deluged with a flood of gem-quality stones

The major investors in the diamond mines realized that they had to merge their interests into a single entity that would be powerful enough to control the mines' production and maintain the illusion of the scarcity of diamonds.

Thus began the diamond cartels, and the whole industry of "the diamond syndicate". This multinational, multi-tentacled organization controls every aspect of a diamond's 'life' from the time it is mined, through its cutting, polishing, sighting, and ultimate sale in a piece of jewelry.

Canary diamond from fastcashdiamond.com
Canary diamond from fastcashdiamond.com
Chocolate diamonds from oregonstate.edu
Chocolate diamonds from oregonstate.edu
Exquisite flower monogram diamonds by Louis Vuitton - Les Ardentes Collection from stylefrizz.com
Exquisite flower monogram diamonds by Louis Vuitton - Les Ardentes Collection from stylefrizz.com
Arguably one of the world's most famous diamonds - The Hope Diamond - from bluediamondsusa.com
Arguably one of the world's most famous diamonds - The Hope Diamond - from bluediamondsusa.com

The magic and mystique of this brilliant gemstone belies its truly bloody history. As the stones were virtually untraceable, they soon became the currency of choice when discretion was desired. Payment in other currency could leave a paper trail that would eventually lead back to those who wished to remain in the shadows.

Used to buy arms, and finance wars, South African diamonds have become stained by the blood of innocents.

In the last thirty years, Canada has become one of the top three producers of gemstone quality diamonds in the world. South Africa produces the most diamonds, however many of them are for industrial and technological usage. Canada is the third, behind Botswana and Russia.

Two of the largest diamond mines in Canada are located near the city of Yellowknife, North West Territories - the Diavik and Ekati mines. The third big mine, called Jericho-3 started mining operations in 2005 in Nunavut.

The production of these diamonds is controlled by the government. As each stone engraved and registered, making it easily traceable, the provenance of each gem can be traced back through successive owners. This traceability ensures these high quality and beautiful gems will never be used to finance terrorist activities.

Regardless of clever marketing that has convinced us that diamonds are the perfect expression of romantic love, the gems are magnificent in and of themselves, and certainly deserving of our unending fascination with their myriad colors and sparkling clarity.

'Insect' Amber from witchcraft-supplies.com
'Insect' Amber from witchcraft-supplies.com
Amber chess set from amberworkshop.com
Amber chess set from amberworkshop.com

Amber

Believed by some ancient Greeks to be the fossilized tears of birds, amber is not technically a gemstone. It is not even a mineral. Rather, it is the petrified resin of the pine tree, Pinus Succinisera, which was common to the Baltic region of pre-historic Europe.

Amber will often contain insects which, stuck in the sticky sap, were petrified along with the resin. Insect resin of clear deep color is considered the most valuable.

As well as insects, wood fragments, leaves, flowers, other plant parts and ferns are also found in the gem. The more unique the fossils in the amber, the higher the gem's value.

Said to confer courage and confidence on the wearer, amber is also thought to be the stone of sympathy and understanding. Many believe it brings romantic love and balance to whoever receives it as a gift.

Perhaps we would do well to give a gift of amber for St. Valentine's Day, instead of chocolates and fine wine. Wait! ...as well as, as well as!

Baltic amber from asianarts.com
Baltic amber from asianarts.com
Rough amber nugget necklace from withoutstyle.com
Rough amber nugget necklace from withoutstyle.com
White amber jewelry box amberworkshop.com
White amber jewelry box amberworkshop.com

Used since antiquity in the manufacture of ornamental objects, an amber amulet was believed to safeguard the wearer from evil. As well, because it is warm to the touch, light in weight, produces static electricity when rubbed with a cloth, and smells sweet when it is heated, amber was believed to possess magical powers.

Amber varies in color from yellow, to dark brown, to almost black. Rarely, amber may be found in green and blue-gray. Generally, the color of this gem will indicate its area of origin. Baltic amber tends to be mostly yellow; Sicilian is usually reddish yellow; Romanian amber is mostly brown; and Burmese amber generally displays yellow to reddish-brown tones.

Amber in jewelry can be found cut into beads - a popular choice for necklaces - and cabochons, but often is polished and used in its natural, rough shape.

Large opaque gems are mostly used in carvings. Gems with inclusions (naturally occurring flaws) are mainly fashioned as irregularly shaped cabochons.

Jurassic Park , Stephen Spielberg's dinosaur epic, was responsible for returning amber to the public eye. Though his science may have been faulty, the interest in amber sparked by his film has increased the gem's recent popularity and recognition.

How To Clean Your Amber Jewelry

Mexican Fire Opals from earlham.edu
Mexican Fire Opals from earlham.edu
Exquisite carved opal earrings from evejewelry.com
Exquisite carved opal earrings from evejewelry.com
Opal pendant from zanzibartribalar.com
Opal pendant from zanzibartribalar.com
Large 5 opals in gold charm settings from rest-assuredjewelry.com
Large 5 opals in gold charm settings from rest-assuredjewelry.com

Opals

Plinii, in his "Naturalis historia," describes a gem that he refers to as an "opalus". Belonging to a Senator, Nonius, the stone was reportedly worth over 2,000,000 sesterces, about $80,000.00.

Though it is debatable whether the ancient Romans had access to opals, his description so closely mirrors a fire opal that one wonders what his gemstone might have been.

"There is in them a softer fire than in the carbuncle, there is the brilliant purple of the amethyst; there is the sea-green of the emerald--all shining together in incredible union. Some by their refulgent splendor rival the colors of the painters, others the flame of burning sulphur or of fire quickened by oil ."

Opals are considered by some to be unlucky, a claim that may be attributed to Sir Walter Scott's novel, "Anne of Geierstein," in which a young woman possess a bewitched opal. It flashes fire according to her moods - red, for anger; sparkling when she was happy. According to the story, when the bewitched stone was sprinkled with Holy Water, the spell was broken.

There is nothing in Scott's tale that shows the opal was either evil or unlucky for its wearer. In fact, in ancient times the stone was thought to have protective powers, yet a number of myths have grown up about the unlucky nature of the gem.

The most common of these is that it is unlucky to wear opals if you are not an October born. Supposedly most felicitously worn by those whose birthstone it is, the opal is, in fact, a delicate stone, and can crack or fade when exposed to extremes of cold and heat, and a triplet opal can become separated from its matrix if submerged in water. Over hundreds of years, even the most remarkably colored opals will lose some of their radiance.

Magnificent Carved Opals

Carved opal and gemstone ring by Katherine Jetter from modernjeweler.com
Carved opal and gemstone ring by Katherine Jetter from modernjeweler.com
Ingeborg Bratman 18ct brooch with carved opals and pearls from designerjewellersgroup.com
Ingeborg Bratman 18ct brooch with carved opals and pearls from designerjewellersgroup.com
Award winning carved opal from opalinformationsite.com
Award winning carved opal from opalinformationsite.com
Carved Opal from Marcus4Bowercenter4jewelrystudies.org
Carved Opal from Marcus4Bowercenter4jewelrystudies.org

The 'Lucky' Stone

There are any number of styles and varieties of opals. Generally speaking, they break down into either solid , or boulder opals, and doublet and triplet opals, which are non-solid, partially man-made layered stones where a veneer of the gem is attached to the opal matrix, the black host-stone in which the gem was formed.

With any opal, regardless of its color from white, through blue, fire, and black, the more brilliant the color, the greater the value of the stone.

Early Romans believed the opal was a combination of the beauty of all precious stones. It is well documented throughout Roman history that many Caesars gave their wives opal for good luck. Opals were ranked second only to emeralds, and many Romans carried opals as a good luck charm or talisman. It was believed that like the rainbow whose colors the opal contained, the opal would bring its owner good fortune.

Are they really a girl's best friend?

Whether lucky or unlucky, cursed or blessed talisman, diamonds, amber and opals are still considered some of the most sought-after and beloved among all the precious gems. Their beauty continues to be used to adorn us, and to add luster to our world.

© 2010 RedElf

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19 comments

Tammy Lochmann profile image

Tammy Lochmann 6 years ago

I have always been fascintated by amber and opals.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada Author

ME, too, Tammy. My mom had a beautiful triplet opal pendant that my sisters and I loved. We are all fond of amber, too ;) I have several very nice pieces.


thecelt profile image

thecelt 6 years ago

Nice hub on the history of gems. We tend to forget just how long jewelry has been around and how good they were at creating it back before the fancy tools we have today.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much, celt! I never cease to be amazed at the skill and artistry of those ancient artisans!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Very interesting. Not much of a gem owner my own self, but I love the gem display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum - they have the Hope Diamond and some ridiculously huge topaz. I did not know that they have diamond mines in Canada. Learn something new every day!


Feline Prophet profile image

Feline Prophet 6 years ago from India

That was enlightening RE! I had no idea amber was resin! I'm October born but have never been particularly fond of opals...perhaps because I've never come across an interesting specimen! :)


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada Author

Greetings Dolores! I would love to see the Smithsonian exhibits. I have only ever seen them on TV or in films. That would be too cool.

FP - nice to see you! There are a lot of very pale opals out there - pretty but not much color. The best are very rich in color (and in cost, too). My mother never met an opal she didn't like.


Tehrani 6 years ago

Quite nice, I liked the pieces and the youtube pictures.

I am a lapidarist and collect antique Amber beads of various colours and I also collect Opals in any shape as long as they show the play of different lively and firey colors, although a proper shape with good fire play commands a good price, price is immaterial when you get a good piece with good size and shape whether Oval or round good pieces dont come frequently. Good work keep it up.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks for visiting, Tehrani. I have a lovely opal broach from my mother, and some cherry amber with Indian silver. Love the natural gemstones best.


Opal Gemstones profile image

Opal Gemstones 6 years ago

wow this info is really good, I too have spent the last 40yrs involved with all aspects of the opal trade in Australia. It's good to see other excited about this unique gem.

Opal Gemstones


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada Author

I have always loved opals, and amber - they are such amazingly versatile stones to work with. Nice to meet you!


GmaGoldie profile image

GmaGoldie 6 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

I want a hearts on fire diamond! Wow! Great video - great Hub! Thank you!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada Author

I hear you - I am still dithering between the carved opals or the amber chess set.


PETER LUMETTA profile image

PETER LUMETTA 5 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

Really well done and full of information. Wonderful HUB very enjoyable.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Glad you enjoyed the hub, Peter!


newmember profile image

newmember 5 years ago

Very nice hub indeed! If you live somewhere around south east asia, the myth about "precious stones" not only cover s diamonds, opal or amber, but lots of "rare stones" believed by many people to give certain "power", entertaining and educative, I love this hub!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much for stopping by to comment, newmember. So glad you enjoyed the hub!


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 4 years ago from Canada

wow, I am glad to say I enjoyed this. It is truly one where i am kicking myself for not reading it soonner, I think teh best was about opals, and since I have a little ring with an opal I know a bit more about it, and found the history of real use-- now to wear my good luck charm.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

I'm glad you learned about opals, Rebecca E. I have always considered them lucky, too, perhaps because the opal was my mother's birthstone.

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