For a great many people, a single gemstone alone is enough to provide the highest and most perfect aesthetic experience of the wonders of nature.
—Pliny the Elder, Natural History, pre-79 AD
Formed beneath the earth’s surface, imbued with natural wonder, gemstones have long been revered across cultures and the ages. It is impossible to deny the allure of these rare stones, particularly once they are carved and shaped to brilliant perfection.
The history of the reverence they have inspired is nearly as captivating as the gemstones themselves. Even before recorded history, certain rocks and minerals have held a place of distinction. Some, it was thought, were imbued with metaphysical powers, while others cursed any person who possessed them. All, however, have been considered objects of both beauty and veneration.
Here, delve into the fascinating history of the some of the world’s most captivating natural wonders.
Diamonds have truly reached legendary heights in the realm of precious gemstones. From stunning white diamonds, to precious and rare colored stones in every hue from pink diamonds, to blue, to green and every color in between, their beauty and rarity truly set them apart. Some of the world’s most important and well-known stones are diamonds: the Hope Diamond, Koh-i-Noor, Cullinan Diamond, and Regent Diamond, among others. Ancient Roman literature described the arrows of Cupid, the god of love, as being tipped by diamonds – an appropriate beginning, considering they are now the most popular stone for engagement rings and wedding bands. Yet, diamonds have been associated with courtship for only a small part of their rich history.
The earliest known diamond mining dates to approximately 800 BC in India, which was the primary source of the stone for nearly two millennia. Initially gathered from the country’s rivers and streams, diamonds were extremely limited in quantity in the early centuries of the diamond trade, and were thus limited to only the country’s most wealthy classes.
Over time, mining practices became far more sophisticated and, with trade routes opening to the West, the diamond craze spread from the Indian elites to European royal courts. By the 1400s, they were the fashionable stone for Europe’s reigning elite. The Indian city of Golconda emerged as the center of the world’s diamond trade. Situated near the famed Kollur Mine, many of the world’s most magnificent diamonds hailed from Golconda, including the Koh-i-Noor, or “Mountain of Light,” which is now part of the British Crown Jewels. The name Golconda quickly became synonymous with wealth.
Perhaps more intriguing from a gemological standpoint is that many diamonds formed in the Golconda region tend to be Type IIa diamonds – the purest of all diamonds with no trace of nitrogen or boron. Only 2% of all diamonds mined possess this rare attribute. Combined with the legendary history of the Golconda region itself, those stones that boast the designation “Golconda” are still considered the crème-de-la-crème of the diamond world.
By the 18th century, the mines in India were nearly depleted, and new diamond mines were discovered first in Brazil, and later in South Africa. The diamond market as we know it today began, arguably, in 1888, when entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes established the famed De Beers diamond mining company. Just twelve years later, it is estimated that De Beers controlled roughly 90% of the world’s rough diamonds through its mines in South Africa. The company’s widely successful advertising campaign, which asserted “A diamond is forever,” cemented its place as the stone of choice for the modern engagement ring.
Did you know? Diamonds are the hardest natural substance found on Earth. The gems are formed from carbon atoms under extremely high pressure, hundreds of miles underground.
Ad slogans aside, what truly sets a diamond apart from other stones is that it is the only gemstone comprised of just one element – carbon. Perfectly bonded in symmetry, these pure carbon molecules make diamond the hardest natural substance in the world. Because of this, the stone has endured throughout the ages as a symbol of power, strength, and eternal love. In fact, the name diamond is derived from the Greek word adamas, which translates to “unconquerable.”
While the diamond may be “unconquerable,” ruby is king. Its name derives from the Sanskrit ratnaraj, meaning “king of precious stones,” and for centuries it was the talisman of power and royalty.
Historically, it is in Asia that the ruby has been most prized and was one of the rarest gemstones back in the day. Some texts suggest that the stones were traded as early as 200 BC along China’s North Silk Road, when ancients believed the gemstones would offer protection. Chinese warriors adorned their armor with the gems, while Burmese warriors even implanted them beneath their skin. The gem’s blood-red color also associated it with power over life, and ancient Asian cultures believed each ruby was formed from a drop of the “heart’s blood of Mother Earth.”
Did you know? Rubies have long symbolized power and protection. A modern allusion to this legend is Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, which were thought to protect her.
Fittingly, the color that is most prized in these legendary gemstones is known as “pigeon’s blood” red – an intense, fiery luminescent crimson hue. 95% of the rubies possessing this perfect color description hail from Mogok’s mines at Burma (modern day Myanmar), which have largely been considered the premier source of the world’s finest rubies since 600 AD. The most famous of these stones, the 23.10-carat Carmen Lúcia Ruby, is currently housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
Controlled by the Shan dynasty for centuries, Mogok’s mines were traded to the King of Burma in 1597. He subsequently decreed that any ruby mined of a certain size and weight must be given over to the crown. Rather than surrender their finest stones to the king, many miners broke large rubies into smaller gems that could be sold. This practice continued until 1885, when Upper Burma was annexed by Great Britain and control of the ruby mines was taken over by the British. For nearly three centuries, Burma’s largest treasures were broken into pieces, which accounts for the remarkable scarcity of large rubies possessing the coveted “pigeon’s blood” hue.
The sapphire is the famous sister of the ruby – both belong to the corundums family of gemstones. Both rubies and sapphires score a 9 out of 10 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness, making them second only to the diamond in durability. Unlike a ruby, however, a sapphire can be found in a rainbow of colors, though traditionally they are most prized for their blue and violet hues. In fact, the stone’s name is derived from the Latin saphirus and the Greek sapheiros, both of which mean “blue.”
Did you know? Because of its natural hardness, sapphires also have more practical uses. They have been used in place of glass in some applications, such as luxury watches and even Apple phones.
For centuries, the sapphire has been a symbol of faithfulness, truth, sincerity, and nobility. In ancient Greece and Rome, wealthy citizens wore sapphires as protection against harm, and to foster peace with one’s enemies. Thanks to their sky-blue hue, they have also long been associated with the heavens – in fact, ancient lore holds that the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written were made of sapphire. In the modern era, the sapphire encapsulates notions of both royalty and romance, a perception epitomized by Princess Diana’s legendary Ceylon sapphire engagement ring.
The modern-day obsession with the sapphire reached its peak in the mid-19th century, during the heyday of sapphire mining. The stones are sourced from around the world, with mines in Burma, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Australia and Montana, among other places. The best of the stones undoubtedly come from the Kashmir region of India and Pakistan, though few of these highly coveted sapphires can be found today.
The term “Kashmir” is synonymous with the ultimate sapphire, as these gems possess a unique cornflower velvety blue color with exceptional luster. Discovered in 1882 in the city of Kashmir located in the northwest corner of India, the historic Kashmir mines are located in a remote region of the Himalayas. When the Maharaja heard tales of the bright blue sapphires found deep in the mountainous region, he posted guards all around the mines for protection. From 1882 until 1887, the mines were worked day and night, until they were depleted. No significant deposits have been found since, meaning the scant few Kashmir sapphires that are available today were mined over 100 years ago.
As with the above gemstones, the emerald has been associated with royalty since antiquity. Yet, no other stone claims so legendary a royal supporter as Cleopatra. The first known emerald mines in Egypt date to 330 BC, and Cleopatra was known to have a particular passion for the stone, adorning both herself and her palace with the glistening green gems. At the time, emeralds were the most valuable stones known throughout the Roman and Ptolemaic world, making Cleopatra’s obsession an early lesson in royals using luxury to exhibit power.
To this day, this colored gemstone remains a symbol of power. According to legend, it was one of the four stones divinely gifted to King Solomon, which gave him absolute power over all creation. Aristotle wrote that the emerald would protect its wearer against illness – particularly epilepsy and poor eyesight. Thus, the ancient Roman emperor Nero is said to have watched the infamous gladiator games through an early pair of eyeglasses fashioned from flat emerald crystals.
Did you know? The word "emerald" comes from Latin the smaragdus and the Greek smaragdos, meaning "green gem."
An ocean away, emeralds were also highly prized by the Incas and Aztecs when they were first discovered in Colombia. For centuries, Colombia has been the prime location for the mining of the finest quality emeralds in the world. These verdant gemstones are set apart from emeralds from any other origin due to their incomparable, brilliant green that is free of any bluish tinge.
Emeralds had been mined for over 500 years in Colombia before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. Transported back to Spain as part of the treasures of the New World, Colombian emeralds soon earned a reputation among European royalty as the finest of these green gems to be found. Other important mines can be found in Brazil and Zambia.
In the early centuries of its known history, the tourmaline was often mistaken for any of the above gemstones. This colored gem is of little surprise, as these popular gemstones are found in a staggering variety of colors, from reds and greens to oranges and yellows. While today it is prized for its unique beauty and rainbow of hues, it was not until the 1880s that the tourmaline was officially recognized as a distinct mineral in all of its colorful forms.
Did you know? This colored gemstone is both pyroelectric and piezoelectric, meaning it will produce an electrical charge if it is placed under a pressure or experiences a temperature change.
The name tourmaline comes from the Sinhalese word tormalli, meaning “mixed gems.” It is a term Dutch traders applied to the multicolored stones found on the island of Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). Due to their remarkable range of color, the symbolism of the stones varies greatly. The ancient Egyptians believed these valuable gemstones passed through a rainbow when it traveled upwards through the earth, resulting in its range of hues.
From this variety, four types have emerged as the most popular of all tourmaline colors: the red Rubellite, the neon-blue Paraiba, the intense green Chrome, and the pink and green Watermelon. The most valuable of these is the rare neon-blue Paraiba, which is named for the Brazilian state of Paraiba where it was discovered in 1989. Due to the specific mineral composition of the mines, including manganese and copper, nature has created a precious gemstone that stands out with its remarkable vibrancy and brilliance. Researchers believe that its crystals form only under very unusual and very specific conditions, making paraibas even rarer than diamonds. Remarkably scarce, these valuable gemstones are seldom found exceeding one carat in size.
While the tourmaline can be found in any color of the rainbow, the opal is the only known gem that can contain all of the rainbow’s hues in a single stone. Australian aborigines called the opal the “Rainbow Serpent,” and believed that they formed when all the colors of the rainbow came together as one. Thanks to their kaleidoscopic colors and unmatched luster, they have been compared to fireworks, volcanoes, and even galaxies.
Did you know? Opals are the product of silica deposits left behind after heavy seasonal rains. The diffraction of light off of silica spheres gives opal its flashing play-of-color.
The first known opal artifact dates back to Ethiopia in 4000 BC, though its modern name derives from the Greek opallios and Latin opalus, both of which mean “to perceive a color change.” Through the centuries, they have found their way into royal collections throughout Europe. Legends tell that Mark Antony offered to trade one-third of his kingdom for a single opal, which he coveted as a gift for Cleopatra. Napoléon famously gifted his Empress Josephine a magnificent red opal aptly named “The Burning of Troy,” while the British Queen Victoria wore opals throughout her long reign.
Though the opal’s brilliant play of color is what it is best known for, not every opal displays a rainbow of hues. The Mexican fire opal, for instance, is a stunning iridescent stone that shows an array of oranges, reds and yellows in a truly “fiery” display. Excavated from mines in Queretaro, Mexico, the fire opal was highly prized by the Mayans and Aztecs during the Pre-Columbian era, who incorporated it into their most prized artworks and figurines.
Today, the most coveted form of opal is the Lighting Ridge black opal. In spite of their “black” moniker, Lightning Ridge's opals are among the most colorful and brilliant to be found. Only first discovered in this region of New South Wales in the 1880s, large-scale mining of the Lightning Ridge opal did not begin until the 20th century; today, it is the world’s largest producers of these stones. As some of the rarest gems available, these opals are highly prized among jewelry enthusiasts and antique collectors alike.