Amethyst Quartz | Meaning and Properties

 

 

piece of an amethyst geode with large rich purple coloured crystals 

 

Amethyst | A Few Quick Facts


  • Prior to 1856 purple could only be produced from natural dyes hence it was a relatively rare colour

  • Amethyst first appeared during the Neolithic Age and paintings of animals and the outline of human hands have been found on cave walls in France. The dye was created from sticks of manganese and hematite powder and works have been dated to about 16,000 to 25,000 years BC

  • In the 15th century BC purple dye was being produced from the mucous of the murex sea snail and was known as purple dye murex or tyrian purple.  Thousands of these medium sized predatory molluscs were needed to make the tiniest amount of dye

  • Throughout history the colour purple has only been allowed to be worn by royalty, aristocracy and other wealthy and powerful members of society.  Periodically laws have been put in place to prevent commoners from wearing the colour

  • In the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament God instructs Moses to have the Israelites bring him an offering which includes cloth of blue, purple and scarlet

  • The colour was originally known as tyrian purple and was named after the Phoenician city of Tyre which is modern day Lebanon

  • In an experiment conducted in 2008 an attempt was made to recreate tyrian purple using the original formula.  12,000 sea snails created just 1.4 ounces (less than 40 grams) of dye and to put that into perspective, it was just enough to colour a piece of material the size of a handkerchief

  • Prior to his crucifixion Jesus was dressed in purple cloth by the Romans to mock his claim of being King of the Jews

  • Even in today's society purple is considered to be a slightly more exclusive colour

 

 

Birthstone for the Month of February


Amethyst which is the 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.

Chevron amethyst is a combination of amethyst and milky white quartz.  This distinctive stone can sometimes be confused for Derbyshire Blue John which is a rare variety of fluorite.  On Mohs scale of mineral hardness quartz grades 7 so it's a relatively hard material which makes it quite easy to work with.

 

 

group of medium sized chevron amethyst polished stones on a being coloured stone surface


Chevron Amethyst | Photo by Stone Mania ©

 

 

The Unmistakable Colour of Amethyst


The colour of amethyst can vary significantly from the deepest shade of purple to violet but will fade if exposed to bright sunlight for long periods of time.  Whilst iron is the primary source of its colour the intensity and precise shade 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 completely different mineral.

It's not unusual for the colour within a single amethyst crystal to be unevenly distributed and with exposure to heat the amount of iron that's present gradually decreases.  By interfering with the mineral'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 the overall shade or change the colour completely.  Much of the citrine that's available to buy is actually heated amethyst because being a relatively rare mineral it's also quite expensive.  When heated to around 450°C (842°F) amethyst turns yellow and as the temperature is increased the colour changes to rich orange and then orange-brown.  The final colour is determined not only by temperature but also by how long the stone has been heated.  Natural ametrine which is a combination of purple and yellow coloured quartz is another rare mineral and most of the world's supply comes from just one mine in Bolivia although smaller amounts can also been found in India and Brazil.  Although it 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 heating 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.

 

 

single citrine crystal in the shape of a terminated point
Citrine Crystal (heated amethyst)

 

 

The 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 the Ancient Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD] 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 remarked on its colour being similar to wine and that along with rock crystal it 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 the 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".

 

 

upright free-standing amethyst geode


Amethyst Geode

 

 

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 red corundum is ruby) and possibly tourmaline. Oriental amethyst was a reference to stones from the east and "occidental" means "relating to the west". 

Later writers like Pliny also 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 sketch so historians are 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."  Carbunculus is known today as garnet.  He continues, "the colour of one is almost hyacinth whilst another borders on crystal with the purple gradually passing off into white".  He says it has little value because when viewed sideways and held up to the light, fine amethyst (a reference to corundum or blue sapphire) should always have a purple brilliance like that of the carbunculus (garnet) "slightly inclining to a tint of rose". 

He says 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"

 

 amethyst quartz crystals against a black background. In a museum display cabinet


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."

 

 

large open mouth shaped amethyst geode in museum display cabinet
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Washington D.C | Photos; Stone Mania ©

 

large cluster of amethyst crystals, in museum display cabinet


Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Washington D.C | Photos; Stone Mania ©

 

 

In biblical times amethyst quartz 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 amethyst 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, the world's largest clear cut diamond.

 

 

Tales of Amethyst in Literature


Countless articles that have been written about amethyst over the years make reference to a tale from Greek mythology which explains how the mineral's name came about.  Despite extensive research we have never been able to find any hard evidence to support its existence.  The only known reference to amethyst 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 long time after the fall of Ancient Greece, a book of poems was published that had been written by the French poet 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 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 the person writing the article claims that it comes from Greek mythology.

 

 

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Our Collection of Amethyst

 

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Further Reading

Information from Wikipedia
Facts and Photos on Geology.com