One of the great features (and there are many to choose from!) about Polly’s jewellery is her use of semi-precious stones. They’re not always cheap by any means, but they go so perfectly with the yellow metal, and quite a plain stone can be lifted to new heights by 22ct gold. One stone that ticks all the semi-precious boxes is amethyst, and it’s one we use regularly and we always seem to have an amethyst piece in stock. But it hasn’t always been cheap and plentiful…
The word amethyst comes from the ancient Greek amethystos which means ‘not intoxicated’ because the Greeks really believed that if you carried a piece of amethyst on you, you would be safe from intoxication. They even carved goblets from amethyst to ward of drunkeness. I can’t imagine how they came to this conclusion because I’m sure Greeks have got as drunk as anyone, but the idea must have started somewhere! The ancient Egyptians used amethyst too, making beads and carving amulets, Roman and Anglo Saxon soldiers alike carried it for protection, and in Tibet it’s been sacred for all history, so there’s evidence of amethyst being very common and widespread, even as it is today.
But until the 19th Century really high quality amethyst was rare and precious, and was one of the ‘cardinal’ gems along with ruby, sapphire and emerald and was the special preserve of Royalty and the otherwise rich and important, like church leaders. Interestingly some sources say that Bishops wear an espiscopal ring with amethyst in it alluding to ‘not drunk at Pentecost’, and others say it’s because the amethyst was extremely precious and therefore right for such elevated members of the church. I think either is quite possible, actually! And legend has it that St. Valentine wore a ring with an amethyst stone in it carved with cupid’s head, presumably nothing to do with warding off drunkeness but more to do with the properties of keeping calm and being peaceful. An apt stone for the birth stone of February, anyway.
The most expensive and desireable stones were mined in Russia, the most precious of these being ‘Siberian amethyst’ which is a deep reddish purple, and even though not much comes from there any more, that colour of amethyst is still called Siberian. Then in the 19th Century amethyst was found in Brazil, in abundance, and the value dropped dramatically. Now amethyst is mined all over the world – North America including Canada, South America, Africa, Europe, Russia and Asia – and in very large quantities. From Zambia alone about 1000 tons a year are produced. The reason it’s found all over the world is because it’s found in volcanic ground and igneous rock as well, and just about everywhere on earth has one or other of these features. The crystals vary so much because the volcanic regions produce amethyst in geodes (sort of bubbles of rock that, when you break them open, are lined with amethyst crystals) some of which are large enough for a person to stand up in, and some just pebble size. In igneous rock it can be found in a vein which can produce enormous chunks or thousands of little crystals. As I said before, the most precious is the very dark purple, especially with red lights in it, and the paler amethyst was much less desirable until some marketing genius, probably from one of the big jewellery houses, christened some very pale, almost pink amethyst ‘Rose de France’ and voila! pale amethyst is a must have gem.
Another colour feature of amethyst is called ‘colour zoning’ which means, as it would suggest, that the crystal has different sections of colour in it. In the 90s the now most famous of this colour zoned amethyst was discovered in Morocco where crystals were found containing purple and clear crystal almost in stripes. The crystals are renowned for being beautifully formed and with some additional polishing and shaping are positively dramatic and can be very beautiful.
But amethyst is not just different shades of purple by any means. I read somewhere in all my research that citrine is actually heat treated amethyst, and while it’s true that some of the stones that are sold as citrine are actually heat treated amethyst, citrine is a stone in its own right but is not common. But there is also a stone called ametrine – a combination of amethyst and citrine – which occurs naturally when an amethyst crystal is subjected to different levels of heat during its formation, resulting in one part of the crystal being purple and the other differently heated part being yellow, so I suppose technically citrine is heat treated amethyst, only some of it occurs naturallly but more of it is artificially heated; supply and demand in action.
There doesn’t appear to be any controversy about what citrine actually is, though, compared with the argument that surrounds ‘green amethyst.’ It seems that if someone tells you you’re looking at a green amethyst, they’re not lying, they’re just trying to sell you something for more than it’s worth, probably. If it’s a crystal and it’s green and it’s very expensive then it should be call prasiolite which is indeed a quartz crystal, but it’s very rare. Found in Brazil originally and almost completely mined out, it is widely substituted with heat treated amethyst which, of course, is not worth a small fortune at all. Normally when amethyst is heated it goes yellow – as in citrine – or even orange, and sometimes it goes very pale mauve and with too much heat will go clear. But in some amethyst, due to its chemical structure presumably, heat treatment will turn it a pale green which is very beautiful but not very precious after all. Unfortunately this is another stone that the layman will be hard pressed to identify from the real thing.
But magpies don’t care about being Royalty or heat treatments; whether it’s rare and valuable or cheap as chips, if it’s lovely and they want it – oompa loompa!