Curious Lore of Precious Stones – George Frederick Kunz



The author of “Lithica” celebrates the merits of the agate in the following lines: (2)

Adorned with this, thou woman’s heart shall gain,
And by persuasion thy desire obtain;
And if of men thou aught demand, shalt come
With all thy wish fulfilled rejoicing home

This idea is elaborated by Marbodus, Bishop of Rennes, in the eleventh century, who declares that agates make the wearers agreeable and persuasive and also give them the favor of God. (3) Still other virtues are recounted by Camillo Leonardo, who claims that these stones give victory and strength to their owners and avert tempests and lightning. (4)

The agate possessed some wonderful virtues, for its wearer was guarded from all dangers, was enabled to vanquish all terrestrial obstacles and was endowed with a bold heart ; this latter prerogative was presumably the secret of his success.

(2) King’s version in his “Natural History of Precious Stones,” London, 1865, p. 392.
(3) Marbodei, ” De lapidibus,” Friburgi, 1531, fol. 10.
(4) Camilli Leonardi, ” Speculum lapidum,” Venetia, 1502, fol. 22.

Some of these wonder-working agates were black with white veins, while others again were entirely white. (5) The wearing of agate ornaments was even believed to be a cure for insomnia and was thought to insure pleasant dreams. In spite of these supposed advantages, Cardano asserts that while wearing this stone he had many misfortunes which he could not trace to any fault or error of his own.

He, therefore, abandoned its use; although he states that it made the wearer more prudent in his actions. (6) Indeed, Cardano appears to have tested the talismanic worth of gems according to a plan of his own,—namely, by wearing them in turn and noting the degree of good or ill fortune he experienced.

By this method he apparently arrived at positive results based on actual experience; but he quite failed to appreciate the fact that no real connection of any kind existed between the stones and their supposed effects. In another treatise this author takes a somewhat more favorable view of the agate, and proclaims that all varieties render those who wear them “temperate, continent, and cautious ; therefore they are all useful for acquiring riches. (7)

According to the text accompanying a curious print published in Vienna in 1709, the attractive qualities of the so-called coral-agate were to be utilized in an airship, the invention of a Brazilian priest. Over the head of the aviator, as he sat in the air-ship, there was a network of iron to which large coral-agates were attached.

(5) Albertus Magnus, ” Le Grand Albert des seeretz des vertus des Herbes, Pierres et Bestes. Et aultre livre des Merveilles du Monde,
d’auleuns effetz causez dauleunes bestes,” Turin, Bernard du mont du Chat (e. 1515). Liv. ii, fol. 8 recto.
* Cardani, ” De subtilitate,” Basilea?, 1560, p. 460.
* Cardani, ” De gemmis,” Basilea?, 1585, p. 323.

These were expected to help in drawing up the ship, when, through the heat of the sun’s rays, the stones had acquired magnetic power. The main lifting force was provided by powerful magnets enclosed in two metal spheres; how the magnets themselves were to be raised is not explained. (8)

(8) Valentini, ” Museum museorum oder die vollständige SchauBühne,” Franckfurt am Mayn, 1714, vol. ii, pt. 3, p. 34; figure of airship on p. 35.

About the middle of the past century, the demand for agate amulets was so great in the Soudan that the extensive agate-cutting establishments at Idar and Oberstein in Germany were almost exclusively busied with filling orders for this trade.

Brown or black agates  having a white ring in the centre were chiefly used for the fabrication of these amulets, the white ring being regarded as a symbol of the eye. Hence the amulets were supposed to neutralize the power of the Evil Eye, or else to be emblematic of the watchfulness of a guardian spirit.

The demand for these amulets has fallen off greatly, but when it was at its height single firms exported them to the value of 40,000 thalers ($30,000) annually, the total export amounting to hundreds of thousands of thalers. Even at present a considerable trade in these objects is still carried on. That there is a fashion in amulets is shown by the fact that, while red, white, and green amulets are in demand on the west coast of Africa, only white stones are favored for this use in Northern Africa.


There are a few talismanic stones which have gained their repute in our time, notably the alexandrite, a variety of chrysoberyl found in Eussia, in the emerald mines on the Takowaya, in the Ural region.

The discovery of this variety is stated to have been made in 1831 on the day Alexander II (then heir-apparent) reached his majority, and it was therefore named alexandrite, by Nordenskjöld, the mineralogist. The stone as found in gem form rarely weighs over from one to three carats, and is characterized by a marked pleochroism of a splendid green changing to a beautiful columbine red. But in Ceylon much larger gems are found, some few weighing 60 carats each, although rarely of more than one or two carats.

The color is of a darker and more bottle-like green, and the change by night renders them darker and more granitized than the Russian stones, which are extremely rare.

As red and green are the Russian national colors, the alexandrite has become a great favorite with the Russians, and is looked upon as a stone of good omen in that country. Such, however, is its beauty as a gem that its fame is by no means confined to Russia, and it is eagerly sought in other lands as well.


Amber was one of the first substances used by man for decoration, and it was also employed at a very early period for amulets and for medicinal purposes.

More or less shapeless pieces of rough amber, marked with circular depressions, have been found in Prussia, Schleswig-Holstein, and Denmark, in deposits of the Stone Age. These depressions are sometimes regularly disposed and at other times irregularly, and seem intended to imitate similar depressions found in large stones and rocks, often the work of man’s hand, but occasionally the result of natural causes.

In Hoernes’ opinion they marked the resting place of the spirit or spirits believed to animate the stone, and hence it is probable that the amber fragments were used as talismans or amulets. (9)

(9) Hoernes, ” Urgeschichte der bildenden Kunst,” Vienna, 1898, p. 376. Figured in S. Muller’s ” Ordn. af Danm. Olds.,” i, PI. XV, Figs. 252 sq.

For the ancient Greek poets, the grains of amber were the tears annually shed over the death of their brother Phaëthon by the Heliades after grief had metamorphosed them into poplars growing on the banks of the Eridanus (the modern river Po). (10) In a lost tragedy of Sophocles, he saw the origin of amber in the tears shed over the death of Melêager by certain Indian birds.

For Nicias it was the “juice” or essence of the brilliant rays of the setting sun, congealed in the sea and then cast up upon the shore. A more prosaic explanation likened amber to resin, and regarded it as being an exudation from the trunks of certain trees.

Indeed, the poetic fancy we have just noted is the same idea clothed in a metaphorical or mythological form. Another f a n c y represented amber to be the solidified urine of the lynx, hence o n e of its names, lyncurius. (11)

The brilliant and beautiful yellow of certain ambers and the fact that this material was very easily worked served to make its use more general, and it soon became a favorite object of trade and barter between the peoples of the Baltic Coast and the more civilized peoples to the south.

(10) Ovidii, ” Metamorphoses,” lib. ii, 11. 340 sqq. Some have proposed to read Redanus instead of Eridamus and have seen in the former name the designation of a stream flowing into the Vistula.
(11) 11 Punii, ” Naturalis Historia,” lib. xxxvii, cap. 7.

Schliemann found considerable amber from the Baltic in the graves of Mycenae, and the frequent allusions to it in the works of Latin authors of the first and succeeding centuries testify to its popularity in the Roman world. Probably the very earliest allusion in literature to
the ornamental use of amber appears in Homer’s Odyssey, (12) where we read:

Received a golden ileeklaee, richly wrought,
And set with amber beads, that glowed as if
With sunshine. To Eurydamas there came
A pair of ear-rings, each a triple gem,
Daintily fashioned and of exquisite grace.
Two servants bore them.

Amber ingeniously carved into animal forms has been discovered in tumuli at Indersoen, Norway. (13) These curious objects were worn as amulets, and the peculiar forms were supposed to enhance the power of the material, giving it special virtues and rendering it of greater value and efficacy.

Pieces of amber with singular natural markings were greatly esteemed, especially when these markings suggested the initials of the name of some prominent person. Thus, we are told that Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia paid to a dealer a high price for a piece of amber on which appeared his initials. The same dealer had another piece on which he read the initials of Charles XII of Sweden.

When he received the news of this king’s death, he bitterly lamented having lost the opportunity of selling him amber for a high price. But he was cleverly consoled by Nathaniel Sendal, the relator of the story, who easily persuaded the dealer that the markings could just as well signify the initials of some other name.

” Bk. xviii, 11, 295-298, trans, of William Cullen Bryant.
* Du Chaillu, ” The Viking Age,” New York, 1889, vol. ii, p. 314.
(Figs. 1210, 1211, 1212.)

Sendal adduces this as a proof that the letters read on such pieces of amber were as much the product of the observer’s imagination as of the markings on the material. (14) Those who secured amber so mysteriously marked by Nature’s hand probably felt that they had obtained a talisman of great power, especially destined for their use.


While the special and traditional virtue of the amethyst was the cure of drunkenness, many other qualities were attributed to this stone in the fifteenth century. For Leonardo, (15) it had the power to control evil thoughts, to quicken the intelligence, and to render men shrewd in business matters.

An amethyst worn on the person had a sobering effect, not only upon those who had partaken too freely of the cup that intoxicates, but also upon those over-excited by the love-passion. Lastly, it preserved soldiers from harm and gave them victory over their enemies, and was of great assistance to hunters in the capture of wild animals.

The amethyst shared with many other stones the power to preserve the wearer from contagion. (16) A pretty legend in regard to the amethyst has been happily treated in French verse.

The god Bacchus, offended at some neglect that he had suffered, was determined to avenge himself, and declared that the first person he should meet, when he and his train passed along, should be devoured by his tigers.

(14) Sendelii, ” Eleetrologite,” Elbingae, 1725, Pt. I, p. 12, note.
(15) Camilli Leonardi, ” Speculum lapidum,” Venetia, 1502, fol. 22.
(16) Johannis de Cuba, ” Hortus Sanitatis,” [Strassburg, 1483]
tractatus de lapibus, cap. vii.

Fate willed it that this luckless mortal was a beautiful and pure maiden named Amethyst, who was on her way to worship at the shrine of Diana. As the ferocious beasts sprang toward her, she sought the protection of the goddess, and was saved from a worse fate by being turned into a pure white stone.

Recogniziûg the miracle and repenting of his cruelty, Bacchus poured the juice of the grape as a libation over the petrified body of the maiden, thus giving to the stone the beautiful violet hue that so charms the beholder’s eye. (17)

From the various descriptions of this stone given by ancient writers, it appears that one of the varieties was probably the purple almandine or Indian garnet, and it is not improbable that we have here the reason for the name amethyst and for the supposed virtue of the stone in preserving from drunkenness.

For if water were poured into a vessel made of a reddish stone, the liquid would appear like wine, and could nevertheless be drunk with impunity.


Arnoldus Saxo, writing about 1220, after reciting the virtues of the beryl as given by Marbodus, after Evax and Isidorus, reports in addition that the stone gave help against foes in battle or in litigation; the wearer was rendered unconquerable and at the same time amiable, while his intellect was quickened and he was cured of laziness. (18)

(17) Belleau, ” Œuvres poétiques,” ed. Marty-Laveaux, Paris, 1878, vol. ii, pp. 172 sqq. The poem in which this tale occurs is the ” Amours et nouveaux eschanges des pierres précieuses,” -written in 1576 and dedicated to Henri III.
(18) Rose, ” Aristotles de lapidibus und Arnoldus Saxo,” in Zeitsehr. für D. Alt., New Series, vol. vi, p. 431.

In the old German translation of Thomas de Cantimpré’s “De Proprietatibus Rerum,” we read that