The five gemstones which were once labelled the “Cardinal Gems” were the most precious stones from hallowed antiquity. Although the term is seldom used in the modern age many antique pieces draw upon the ancient world’s appreciation of these stones in their forms and designs.
These five stones; Diamond, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire and Amethyst, were each considered to be the most beautiful of their colour. Whilst their value and desirability was often dictated initially by religious or ceremonial use they were also all, at one time, incredibly rare.
As humankind explored the surface of the earth more thoroughly, and developed new techniques for the extraction of valuable resources, the supply of many gemstones changed. New mines meant a greater number of higher quality stones could be offered at lower cost. They also meant that more people would be able to see the stones, which created greater demand that had to be satisfied by finding new sources.
Our appreciation of each of the cardinal gems, their uses and overall desirability has changed markedly over the years. Read on to learn more about each of these five precious stones.
Diamonds are formed when carbon is exposed to extreme heat and pressure hundreds of miles beneath the surface of the earth. During this process the carbon molecules bond to one another into a regimented microscopic lattice which makes diamond one of the strongest materials on earth. The word “diamond” derives originally from the Greek word “adamantos” meaning “unbreakable”.
When light shines upon the surface of a diamond it is dispersed throughout the gems structure, creating the characteristic “fire” which makes the stones shine so beautifully in jewellery.
In the modern world diamonds are synonymous with the idea of a precious stone, representing the pinnacle of wealth and a potent manifestation of physical beauty. In ages past this was not always the case. In fact for much of human history stones such as emerald and rubies have been more valuable.
Lapidaries who worked with diamond in ages past had a difficult and time consuming task. Without the aid of modern technology to measure, cut and shape the stones a great deal of effort had to be expended to achieve the desired effect. For this reason the other cardinal stones were often more favourable to the craftsmen of previous eras.
Interestingly diamonds were not valued for their aesthetic appeal in China. The cultural value of jade was far higher, and diamond was primarily used for fashioning knives that were strong enough to carve the pale green stone.
Although supplies of diamonds in the modern world are considerably larger than those used in ages past they have retained a great deal of their value. The introduction of synthetic, chemically identical diamonds which are produced in laboratories means that the modern buyer must be more cautious when investing in a diamond.
Rubies are the red or pink variety of the mineral corundum (aluminium oxide), which forms into coloured crystals whose hue is dictated by the element chromium. Only red corundum is known as ruby; all other colours are sapphires. This can cause some confusion, as the distinction between a pink sapphire and pink ruby is by no means clear cut.
Corundum is extremely hardwearing; only diamonds and their close cousins moissanites are stronger. This means that many rubies survive for longer than the items they have been set into, and many of the largest rubies have been set into a great variety of pieces over the centuries since they were first pulled from the earth.
Whilst it is common to think of diamond as the most valuable stone in modern times rubies actually command a higher price per carat. This is partly due to their rarity, but also connected with the historical value which has been placed upon them since their discovery. The ancient Sanskrit word for ruby is “ratnaraj”, which translates as “king of jewels”.
Unlike diamonds, whose value is assessed on their clarity, rubies are almost exclusively valued on their colour, with redder stones commanding higher prices than their paler kin.
Sapphires are variants of corundum with additional elements that give them a colour other than red. There are a tremendous variety of colours of sapphire, the most common and easily recognisable of which is the blue sapphire, but sapphires can be yellow, green, orange, pink, violet and many colours in between.
The name sapphire comes from the Greek “sap-pheiros” meaning blue, which was at one point used to describe a variety of blue stones. We now know that there are many coloured stones which are chemically sapphires, but in ages past these had a variety of different names. For example, green sapphire used to be known as Oriental Peridot.
Like rubies, sapphires are extremely hardwearing. Both they, and their red cousins, have adorned the family jewels of many great royal families throughout the ages.
Star Sapphires and Star Rubies
Both varieties of corundum can exhibit a trait known as asterism, where small, needle-like inclusions of the mineral rutile cause light shone directly at the stone to show a bright six-pointed star within.
Emeralds are a variety of the crystalline mineral beryl which is coloured green by the presence of chromium or vanadium.
Whereas the carbon that makes up a diamond and the corundum that makes up both sapphires and rubies are extremely hardwearing, beryl is much more brittle. This led to lapidaries adopting the “emerald cut”, a broad, squared cut which acts to preserve the stone against damage. Despite this attempt to preserve the stones their relative fragility means that fewer have survived to the present day.
Whilst techniques for producing artificial emeralds have been developed in the modern age it is relatively simple to differentiate these creations from true, natural emeralds. Because of their brittle nature all natural emeralds have inclusions (flaws) within them which are not present in artificial variants.
Like all gemstones, the popularity of emeralds has fluctuated with the fashion and prevalent taste of the day, but they have remained one of the most valuable gems known to humankind since they were first discovered.
Whilst the perceived value of diamonds has increased since ancient times, amethysts have fallen from favour considerably. Modern amethysts are no less beautiful than those in ancient times, in fact those sold today are often of greater clarity than those included in antique jewellery.
The change in the amethyst’s fortunes is intrinsically linked to the amount in circulation. In ancient times amethyst was as rare as any of the other cardinal gems, however in the early 19th century extremely large deposits were found in Brazil. These sources of amethyst are still not exhausted, and today Brazil provides the vast majority of amethysts in the world.
When amethyst became more readily available its value decreased. Though it can still be found in many high quality pieces of modern jewellery it is now often paired with lesser materials to create more affordable pieces.
Antique and Modern Cardinal Gems
Although the term “Cardinal Gem” has fallen out of use it is helpful when looking at antique pieces as it gives historical context as to why particular stones were used, and the knock-on effects of their desirability.
Despite their later drop in value, amethysts were treated with much the same reverence now reserved for the other, more consistently valuable gemstones in the list above. This means that the jewellers of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras created some truly remarkable pieces whose value far exceeds that of the materials used.
It’s also notable that the diamond, which has become almost synonymous with the idea of fine jewellery, was for much of history placed on an even footing with rubies, emeralds and sapphires. Modern jewellers shop fronts are often full of diamonds to the exclusion of all other gemstones, but antique pieces are much more varied.
Most importantly, it shows that all fine jewellery which has ever been created is essentially a response to the times in which it was produced. The styles and preferences of any given generation will be informed by historical context, and the march of progress does not stop.
Modern technology has allowed us to detect new sources of valuable gemstones and extract them with greater safety in larger amounts. It has also led to the discovery of new gemstones, such as the deep blue Tanzanite, currently only found in the African nation of Tanzania. It has also allowed for the creation of synthetic gemstones which are chemically identical to the real thing, and can be modified in colour and shape with the use of chemical treatments and mathematically precise, computer assisted cutting lasers.
At Laurelle Antique Jewellery we are fascinated by the provenance and history that surrounds and suffuses our pieces. Every day we learn something new about the precious creations of ages past.
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