Europe’s other native gemstones

In addition to amber, Europe had immediate access to seven more gems. Some were actually native, others were imported but from within the ancient Mediterranean trading circuit.

Garnet is the second chief gemstone native to Europe. Like amber, it’s found around the world, but Bohemia had a large vein of deep red garnet. Red stones in early European jewelry are probably garnet, not rubies. As I’ll discuss more when talking about imported gemstones, medieval jewelers polished garnet, but did not cut it into facets as we do now.

Jet may have been the next most common gemstone. It’s really wood petrified into a very hard coal that can be polished. It was found in many parts of England, as well as in other parts of Europe. Whitby, in England, was the best-known medieval source. Its product was called “Whitby Jet.” Nobody was yet aware of coal’s value for energy; they saw it merely as a glossy black stone.

Beryl was also native to Europe, but not in its most valuable form, the emerald. Beryl’s crystal is by nature colorless, but it takes on color from other elements. For example, iron tints it to Aquamarine. It can also come in red, green, various blues, and golden. Only some of the colors we have today, mined in Africa and South America, were available in medieval Europe. Probably most of their beryl was golden or aquamarine blue.

Quartz isn’t valuable, but it’s pretty. Medieval jewelers could use it for a diamond-like effect, but nobody valued colorless gems as much as colored ones. Diamonds were not the peak favorite gem, as they are now, so imitating diamond was not important.

Coral came from the African side of the Mediterranean. Coral was believed to have natural magic, capable of protecting the wearer against lightning and other dangers. For those who could afford decorative stones for their children, coral was a top choice, since children needed extra protection against danger. Coral formed bead strings, including rosary strings (for counting prayer repetitions).

There were a number of minor “gemstones” of varying value. Europe didn’t have a good source of pearls, but some rivers—oddly, in chilly Scotland—-produced small pearl-making mollusks. A fossilized fish tooth, called Toadstone, was believed to come out of a toad’s head. It polished to a nice brown, but its main value was for luck.

Chalcedony, a kind of agate, gave Europe a number of minor gems: jasper, carnelian, onyx and others. Its most famous use was in making cameos. A mineral with layered colors could be carved in relief so that one color formed the figure (usually a portrait) while the other was a contrasting background. A higher surface layer might provide additional color to the carved figure. Making cameos was not an active art in medieval Europe (excluding Italy), but Roman cameos could be discovered in ruins around England and France. Roman cameos found this way were highly prized as jewelry. Medieval jewelers incorporated Roman cameos into contemporary designs without an eye to preserving them as found.

This entry was posted in Coins and Jewels. Bookmark the permalink.