A Brief History of Amethyst, Part 2: From Regal Gem to Pervasive Treasure
In Europe during the dark ages, purple was one of the most difficult pigments to make and along with amethyst was intimately associated with European royalty. One famous example of amethyst’s use in royal jewels is the Iron Crown of Lombardy, from the Kingdom of Italy. This crown, claimed to have been made with iron from one of the nails used to crucify Jesus, was made sometime in the 4th or 5th centuries C.E. and among a total of 22 gemstones features four violet amethysts. Amethyst remained a prominent gem in European royal jewels throughout the middle ages. Following the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet during the 7th century C.E. amethyst began to become associated with Budhha and meditative states. Prayer beads have been found from this part of the world that utilize amethyst as their main material, suggesting a relationship between the stone and sacred rituals.
Continuing to hold its place as a gem of royalty, amethyst remained an important adornment for the heads of European rulers well into the renaissance. Great Britain’s use of amethyst during this time helps to secure the nation’s crown jewels a spot as some of the most famous jeweled regalia in the world. Saint Edward’s Crown, originally crafted in the 13th century C.E., is a marvelous example of how the English used amethyst gemstones. The crown was destroyed in 1659 during the English Civil War, but was replicated in 1661 for King Charles II. The crown is set with 444 gemstones, including 7 large amethysts. The Sovereign’s Orb and Sovereign’s Sceptre that are famously seen in monarchs’ hands during British coronations were also made in 1661, and both are adorned with a large amethyst gem at their heads among the many other gemstones used in their creation.
By the end of the Renaissance, amethyst had solidified its position as one of the traditional birthstones, still representing the month of February. The customs surrounding these birthstones were strengthened in English-speaking societies when poems describing each of the traditional birthstones were published by Tiffany & Co. in 1870. During this same period, large deposits of amethyst were discovered in South America (the most famous of which reside in Brazil), and in response to the increase in supply that followed, the amount of value that Europeans associated with the gem began to decline. Because of this, amethyst lost its seat as one of the cardinal gems and became a semi-precious gemstone. Many consider this shift to be the origin of the English terms “precious gemstone” and “semi-precious gemstone” that are sometimes used today.
Amethyst continued to occupy positions of prominence, such as the British crown jewels, long after was deemed to be a semi-precious gemstone. The story of a gemstone known as the Cursed Amethyst tells of an amethyst gem purported to have been stolen from the temple of Indra in Cawnpore, India (known today as Kanpur) during the rebellions of the mid-1800’s that was passed from person to person all while seeming to cause misfortune to befall each of those who possessed it. The cavalryman who brought the stone back to England is believed to have lost most of his possessions and his good health after returning home, and the same is said to have happened to his son after inheriting the amethyst. In 1890 the owner of the gem at the time apparently experienced instability in their life, so they gave the stone to a singer who is said to have then lost her voice. The amethyst ended up back in the owner’s possession, who locked it away in a bank vault inside seven lockboxes and declared in his will the stone should be donated to the Natural History Museum in London after his death. In 1944, the Cursed Amethyst was donated to the museum by his daughter. Most of what is known about the history of the Cursed Amethyst is based on the content of a written warning left by the previous owner inside of the lockboxes in which the amethyst had been stored.The gem, a 3.5cm x 2.5cm oval cut violet amethyst, finally went on display in 2007.