CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Agate: The Versatile Gemstone

One of the most beloved ornamental stones in the world is agate. Vast in the possibilities of color and pattern composition, it has been used for thousands of years in decorative arts and jewelry. It has even been hallowed since antiquity for its apparent metaphysical and spiritual properties! Join us as we explore agate and why artisans and royalty alike have prized it for generations.

 

 

 

 

 

This impressive 19th-century Viennese covered urn is hand-carved from agate. The urn's silver mounts feature enameling of exceptional quality, with a pair of figural handles in the form of sensuous maidens and a bouquet of flowers forming the final. Combining hardstone workmanship, enameling and silversmithing, this objet d'art is a rare and desirable example of Viennese artistry.

 

 

Formation and Structure

 

This hardstone is typically formed inside the crevices of metamorphic and volcanic rocks, where layers and layers of chalcedony and quartz form as microcrystals into bands of varying color and texture. Changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature and mineral content create agate’s dynamic look and structure during the formation process. This means that no piece of agate will look exactly like another, even if it is cut from the same area or slab.

 

Agate is so beloved because of its beauty, ease and durability. It is a stone that can retain a highly polished surface while also being notably resistant to chemical wear. Agate is commonly used for chalices and bowls because of both its durability and regal look when finished. Additionally, agate is typically within the range of 7-9 on the Mohs hardness scale. This makes agate particularly suited for carving and shaping.

 

 

 

 

 

This rare pair of antique candlesticks, comprised of polished agate stone mounted in gilded silver is exemplary of the Rocco revival style. Agate was highly valued as a talisman or amulet in ancient times and has been collected by royalty since antiquity. Many museums in Europe, including the Louvre, have spectacular examples. To find candlesticks of such outstanding quality and artistry on the market is quite rare.

 

 

History and Lore

 

Agate received its name from the Ancient Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus, who found the gemstone on the banks of the Acate River in modern-day Sicily. But the decorative uses of this hardstone have origins as far back as the Bronze Age. Remnants of agate have been found in Knossos, Crete, signifying a role in the Minoan culture. Agate was also found along the Nahe River in modern-day Germany during the reign of Julius Caesar. Using running water-powered facilities, the Romans cut these agate stones into various shapes for various uses until the resources depleted in the 1800s. Renaissance artisans found many applications for agate, too; collecting bowls made of agate were especially popular.

 

Metaphysical properties have been attributed to agate for thousands of years. Some believe agate has the ability to dispel dysfunctional or problematic energies and dreams, while others believe it balances one’s physical, emotional and spiritual auras. Grey agates were worn by ancient Egyptians to prevent and remedy stiff necks. In Persia and parts of Asia, the gemstone was believed to reduce fevers.

 

Agate has long been beloved by royalty, as well. In particular, Queen Victoria made Scottish agate a staple in her wardrobe. This fashion choice led to an explosion in the popularity of agate jewelry during her reign. In fact, Victorian era jewelry with agate is highly sought after with today’s collectors and connoisseurs.

 

 

 

 

 

The dynamic patterning of the agate distinguishes this polished English agate snuff box. The vessel also features finely chiseled 10K gold foliage, which provides a beautiful contrast. Symbols of luxury and social status, snuff boxes were created using only the finest materials, including gold, silver, tortoiseshell, and as is the case in the present example, exquisite agate, which has a long and distinguished history for its use in the decorative arts.
 

Agate is also an incredibly diverse stone. Onyx agate predictably shows enchanting blacks, grays and white in alternating bands. Moss agate is the result of silicone dioxide, which creates smaller, organic patterns of greens and milky-whites. Paraiba, Brazil is home to Polyhedroid agate, which has geometric and angular layers of color. Agate from Lake Superior is exposed to iron, and these stones typically exhibit rust-colored bands mixed with whites and browns. The possibilities in design and color are nearly endless!

 

 

 

At M.S. Rau, we are always discovering the rarest antiques and other precious items, including beautiful agate objet d’art.

 

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