Amethyst Meaning and Properties

 

 

 rich purple coloured amethyst geode

 

 

Amethyst Birthstone for February


Amethyst birthstone for the month of February can be found in several countries around the world but the finest grade material comes from Africa and South America.  The purple variety of the mineral quartz, amethyst is hugely popular as a lapidary material, widely used in alternative therapies such as crystal healing and geodes of all sizes are keenly sought after by collectors and mineral enthusiasts around the world.  According to research purple is the colour most often associated with magic, royalty and piety.   As a gemstone it can either be faceted or cut as a cabochon.

Banded or chevron amethyst (the latter being a more American term) is a combination of amethyst and milky white quartz.  This distinctive stone can have a similar appearance to Derbyshire Blue John which is a rare variety of fluorite.  On Mohs scale of mineral hardness amethyst grades 7 so it's a relatively hard stone hence its popularity as a gemstone.

 

 

Amethyst Purple Coloured Quartz


The colour of amethyst can vary significantly from the deepest shade of purple to violet but the colour will fade if exposed to bright sunlight for long periods of time.  Whilst iron is the primary source of its purple colouration the exact shade and intensity is determined by impurities of manganese.  Heat and pressure also play a part but natural minerals are formed through a variety of different geological processes and should one change or be absent the outcome may well be the formation of a different mineral.

It's not unusual for the colour within a single amethyst crystal to be unevenly distributed and when stones are exposed to heat the amount of iron that's present gradually decreases.  By interfering with the stone's chemical make-up its colour will begin to change. Heat treatments mimic natural geological processes and can be used to remove unwanted tinges of colour, to lighten or darken a stone or to change its colour completely.  Much of the citrine that's available to buy is actually heated amethyst because natural citrine is rare hence it's also expensive. When heated to around 450°C (842°F) amethyst starts turning yellow and when the temperature is increased it turns rich orange then orange-brown.  Temperature and duration of heat treatments determine the stone's final colour.  Ametrine which is a combination of purple and yellow quartz is another rare mineral and most of the world's supply comes from one mine in Bolivia although smaller amounts can also been found in India and Brazil. Although ametrine does occur naturally, due to its rarity the vast majority is produced artificially.  Prasiolite which is a type of green quartz occurs very rarely in nature hence the vast majority is produced by heat treating amethyst.  It's sometimes referred to as green amethyst which is inaccurate and a misnomer because amethyst is the geological name for the purple variety of quartz.

 

 

four faceted citrine gemstones Faceted Citrine Gemstones (heated amethyst)

 

 

History of Amethyst


Enhancing and changing the colour of rocks, minerals and gemstones through the application of heat is almost as old as the gem trade itself. Theophrastus the Ancient Greek philosopher [c.370-285 BC] documented in his treatise Theophrastus On Stones, "amethyst loses its colour in the fire like the sapphire and emerald" and later Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD] the Ancient Roman author, naturalist and philosopher wrote about "giving quartz the colour of emeralds" and "how to change one gemstone into another".

The earliest reference to amethyst can be traced back over 5000 years to 3100 BC and it's known to have been a popular and highly sought after gemstone in Ancient Egypt. Theophrastus writes that it's wine coloured and along with rock crystal can be found by "dividing other stones".  He says both are often found in veins, cavities or lining the interior of geodes and are only revealed when rocks are broken open. The first English translation of the History of Stones (Theophrastus On Stones) by the author and botanist John Hill was published in 1746.  In one of his footnotes he says;

 

"Although the ancients" knew of five species of amethyst, we have at least as many among the jewellers at present, though they are not at the pains to distinguish them by particular names, they divide them in general into Οriental and Occidental. The former are very fierce but of great hardness, lustre and beauty, the latter are had from many places particularly Saxony, Germany and Βοhemia".

 

It's believed that in the past translucent gemstones of a similar colour were grouped together so amethyst would have been placed with fluorite, corundum (blue corundum is sapphire) and possibly even tourmaline. Oriental Amethyst was a reference to stones which came from the East and "occidental" means "relating to the West". 

Later writers like Pliny compare the colour of amethyst to wine and in his works Naturalis Historia (Natural History) he writes,

 

"We will now commence with another class of precious stones, those of a purple colour or whose tints are derived from purple. To the first rank belongs the amethystos".

 

He goes on to say;

 

"All of these stones are transparent and of an agreeable violet colour and easy to engrave, those of India have in perfection the very richest shades of purple and it is to attain this colour that the dyers in purple direct all their endeavours"

 

From here the detail becomes a little confusing and historians are totally reliant on various translations of the original text to try and work out which stones Pliny is referring to.  Corundum would not have been easy to engrave because of its hardness so it's generally believed it was not included in the rank of amethystos.  This is supported by Pliny's descriptions of these stones in which he says, "they have a fine mellowed appearance to the eye and not dazzling the sight like the colours of the carbunculas."  He continues "the colour of one is almost hyacinth whilst another borders on crystal with the purple gradually passing off into white".  Regarding the latter he says it has little value because when viewed sideways and held up to the light, fine amethyst (a reference to corundum) should always have a purple brilliance like that of the carbunculus "slightly inclining to a tint of rose".  Today carbunculus is known as garnet.

He states the name amethystos according to "some authorities" comes from the Ancient Greek words for "not" and "to intoxicate" on account that it's "a supposed preservative against inebriety" and it's believed with this statement that Pliny is not referring solely to the rank of stones known as amethystos but to the entire class of precious stones which are purple or whose tints are derived from purple which includes corundum, fluorite and possibly garnet amongst others.

In another paragraph he talks about how amber is used to counterfeit certain gemstones and says,

 

"Amber too is greatly in request for the imitation of the transparent precious stones, amethystos in particular for as already stated, it admits of being dyed of every colour"

 

 

purple coloured amethyst mineral specimen

 

 

Photo Courtesy of Stan Celestian - Flickr

 

 

 

In 1846 John Kitto published an encyclopaedia called "A Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature" in which he talks about how the Ancient Egyptians counterfeited precious stones. He writes that glass was known and made by these "ingenious people at a very early period."  Glass ornaments were made about 1500 years BC and glass vases were used for holding wine as early as the Exodus. He says "such was the skill of the Egyptians in this manufacture that they successfully counterfeited the amethyst and many other precious stones."  The following paragraph demonstrates how the use of the word amethyst in ancient writings did not just refer to the purple variety of quartz;

 

"The transparent gems to which this name is applied are of a colour which seems composed of a strong blue and deep red and according as either of these prevails, exhibit different tinges of purple sometimes approaching to violet and sometimes declining even to a rose colour. From these differences of colour the ancients distinguished five species of amethyst, modern collections afford at least as many varieties but they are all comprehended under two species, the oriental amethyst and the occidental amethyst. These names, however are given to stones of essentially different natures which were no doubt, anciently confounded in the same manner. The oriental amethyst is very scarce and of great hardness, lustre and beauty. It is in fact a rare variety of the adamantine spar or corundum. Next to diamond it is the hardest substance known. To this species also belongs the sapphire, the most valuable of gems next to the diamond and of which the oriental amethyst is merely a violet variety. Like other sapphires it loses its colour in the fire. The more common or occidental amethyst is a variety of quartz or rock crystal and is found in various forms in many parts of the world as India, Siberia, Sweden, Germany, Spain and even in England very beautiful specimens of tolerable hardness have been discovered. This also loses its colour in the fire. Amethysts were much used by the ancients for rings and cameos and the reason given by Pliny, was because they were easily cut."

 

 

two large amethyst geodes
Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C | Photo by Stone Mania ©

 

 

 

During biblical times amethyst is believed to have been the third stone in the third row of the high priest breastplate.  This religious garment was worn by the Jewish high priest when presenting himself to God and was adorned with twelve precious gemstones each of which had the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel inscribed on one side.  In the Middle Ages it was believed to encourage celibacy and symbolise piety (dutiful devotion to God and observance of religious principles) hence was a favourite of the church.  More recently it can be seen in the Royal Sceptre which is part of the British Crown Jewels.  The sceptre is crafted entirely from gold and features a huge amethyst mounted below a diamond encrusted cross with an emerald in the centre. It also features the Cullinan I which is the world's largest clear cut diamond.

 

 

Tales of Amethyst in Literature


Many articles that have been written about amethyst over the years make reference to a tale from Greek mythology which explains how the name amethyst came about.  Despite extensive research we have never been able to find any hard evidence to support its existence. The only known reference in Greek mythology relates to a stone that was given to Dionysus (Greek God of wine) by the titan Rhea in order to preserve the wine-drinker's sanity.

In 1576 however which is a very long time after the fall of Ancient Greece, a book of poems was published that had been written by a French poet by the name of Remy Belleau and one bore a striking resemblance to this apparent Greek myth. Published less than ten months before his death, there is nothing to suggest it was based on any original text from Greek mythology. Bacchus is the name adopted by the Romans for Dionysus, Greek God of wine.

 

"Bacchus was pursuing a maiden named Amethyste who refused his affections. Amethyste prayed to the gods to remain chaste, a prayer which the goddess Diana answered, transforming her into a white stone. Humbled by Amethyste's desire to remain chaste, Bacchus poured wine over the stone as an offering, dyeing the crystals purple"

 

In recent years many different versions of this myth have appeared and each time it appears the person writing the article claims that it comes from Greek mythology.

 

 

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clickable shopping trolley

 

 

Further Reading

Information from Wikipedia
Facts and Photos on Geology.com