Birthstones: February - Amethyst
A hue that is associated with royalty, nobility, luxury, magic and peace, purple in all of its tones has enchanted people for centuries. In fact, throughout history purple was one of the most expensive colours to produce. Naturally occurring in Amethyst, this gemstone takes centre-stage during February, ranging from deep cadbury-hues to ethereal lilac dreams.
As Amethyst has such an intriguing history and qualities, we delve deeper below into this February birthstone below.
History and Significance of Amethysts
Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Amethyst Jewellery
Amethyst has accrued a variety of different meanings throughout history.
Like most gemstones, Amethysts have been widely incorporated into jewellery, decoration, religion and spirituality for centuries. In fact, the earliest known pieces of Amethyst jewellery originated from Ancient Egypt. Then, Amethyst was a popular choice for intaglios, portraying emperors, soldiers, myths and more.
Amethyst Scarab, ca. 1981-1950 BC, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The name ‘Amethyst’ originated from the Biblical Greek word “amethystos” which loosely translates too ‘not drunken’. A snowball effect ensued, as it became to believe that these violet-hued gemstones could protect against drunkenness.
In Paganism, one of the world’s oldest religions, Amethyst was a focal gemstone for meditation, healing rites and as a scrying tool. When placed on the patient, Amethyst helped cleanse, purify and heal the mind body and soul, calming the patient’s irrational fears, balancing emotions and preventing nightmares.
Through early Christianity to the Middle Ages, Amethysts grew in popularity, resulting in a myriad of different associations and beliefs. In fact, during the ‘Old World’, the time period which historians refer to before the ‘New World’ was discovered, Amethysts were considered to be one of the cardinal gems. The cardinal gems were gemstones that were selected for their rarity and precious nature, making them far greater than any other gemstones. These included Diamond, Emerald, Ruby and Sapphire (which still stand today), and once upon a time Amethyst was with them.
Byzantine Gold Cross Necklace with Amethysts and Emerald Plasma, 6th - 7th Century, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Byzantine St Theodore Cameo Amethyst Pendant, ca. 1100, Istanbul, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Especially in early Christianity, Amethyst was synonymous with Christ, perhaps lending to why purple is also associated with royalty. What’s more, at this time, the lighter Amethyst hues represented Christ’s purity of spirit, and the deeper purplish-red hues represented the chastening and purifying of Christ’s suffering. This culminated in another belief where, as the colours alluded to the wounds of Christ, that Amethysts could help heal wounds. This belief alone meant that many Medieval soldiers wore Amethysts as a stone of protection in battle, as it could heal any wounds they received.
Victorian Gothic revival Gold Amethyst Cross, Source - Lillicoco Archive
Portuguese Table-Cut Amethyst Cross, ca. 1680-1700, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
What’s more, in the Old Testament, Amethyst is mentioned as one of the 12 stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel, and one of the 12 gemstones adorning the breastplate of high Priest Aaron in Exodus 39. Today, Amethyst and Christianity are still intertwined; ecclesiastical rings like Bishops Rings are often made with Amethysts with their diocese’s intaglio.
14th Century Amethyst Ring 'As with great love' inscription, ca.1400, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
During the Renaissance, the belief that Amethysts could help prevent drunkenness was renewed.
The French Poet Remy Belleau created the story of Bacchus and Amethyst in 1576. Bacchus was the Roman God of wine and within Belleau’s tale a beautiful maiden crossed the path of Bacchus on her way to pray at Diana’s temple. Bacchus was at this time incredibly angry for receiving slight. His anger got the better of him, deciding to unleash his two guardian tigers on the maiden. Yet, before the tigers could reach her, Diana intervened, turning the maiden into a pure clear Quartz stone. Immediately, Bacchus was overcome with remorse, and to atone for his actions he poured wine over the stone, turning the crystal into a deep Violet shade, and consequently, Amethyst was born!
17th Century Amethyst Cupid Cameo Pendant, 1600-1650, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
French Amethyst Grape Earrings, ca.1851, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
As mentioned earlier, the colour purple has become synonymous with royalty and divination through history, and Amethyst’s role and use in society has helped garner this. From being one of the cardinal gems in the Old World to associations with Christ, this gem was widely used to decorate English regalia.
Georgian and Victorian Antique Amethyst Jewellery
In the 18th and 19th century, large deposits of Amethyst were found in Brazil, consequently depreciating its value. Yet, this contributed to its popularity and vast presence in antique jewellery. Advancements in gemstone cutting led to sophisticated Amethyst parures, tiaras, brooches and rivieres. Like Garnets, antique Amethysts were subject to foiling - which essentially was where coloured foils were placed into the gemstones setting. This was especially popular in Regency England as candlelight balls allowed these inner fires to burn brightly.
In Georgian Amethyst jewellery, Amethyst was a popular choice for sentimental pieces. Yet it was often placed with shimmering Pearls, filigree metalwork and high carat of Gold.
Georgian 15ct Gold Amethyst Earrings, Source - Lillicoco
In the 19th century, Russian Amethysts were prized above all for their intense Cadbury purple hue.
In the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau era, cabochon and natural cut Amethysts were celebrated due to their inclusions. Plus, they became associated with the Suffragette movement and were widely used in Suffragette jewellery.
In the Edwardian era, paler hued Amethysts were chosen in accordance with the Edwardian aesthetic of pastel colours.
Vintage and Modern Amethyst Jewellery
The popularity of Amethysts dwindled after the first World War with monochrome and bright gemstones like Sapphire and Emeralds preferred in Art Deco creations. That being said, Amethysts did see a resurgence in mid-century Victorian and Georgian revival pieces.
However, Queen Elizabeth II still has a special amethyst jewellery set, and a large Amethyst remains within the Imperial Sceptre in the famous crown jewels.
The Sovereigns Sceptre, Source - The Crown Jewels, Historic Royal Palaces
It’s not just Christianity in which Amethyst was popular. In Eastern cultures, such as in Tibet, Amethysts were considered sacred to the Buddha. Therefore, prayer beads, a form of Buddhist jewellery, were widely made from Amethyst.
Today, Amethyst is the February Birthstone and is still regarded as one of the most popular gemstones in modern jewellery due to its natural abundance and its ability to create both bohemian and inclusion-free jewels.
Famous Amethysts in History
Due to all of these meanings and the abundance of Amethyst in both history and mines, there have been a few famous Amethysts found and set into jewellery. One of the earliest examples is the reported ring of St Valentine (another important saint day in February!). Apparently St Valentine wore an Amethyst ring which was carved into a shape of a cupid or had a cupid engraved within it.
Portrait of St Valentine, Source - History
Another famous Amethyst is the Delhi “Sapphire”, which is on display at the Natural History Museum. This Amethyst is believed to be cursed as it was looted from the Temple of Indra in Kanpur (the Hindu God of war and thunderstorms) in 1857 by British troops. Since it arrived on British shore, whoever had the stone fell into a series of misfortunes, from financial issue to deaths of family members. This meant that the piece was passed from person to person until it fell in the hands of Edward Heron-Allen who transformed it into a silver ring with two Amethyst scarab beetles (symbolic for immortality and protection) and engraved the ring with zodiac symbols to help neutralise its negative power. Sent to the National History Museum, many historians today believe the myth was made up by Heron-Allen itself, yet it still protected by a glass case (just in case!).
Two of the largest and also historically significant Amethysts is the 56ct Tiffany Amethyst necklace, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1915, the 96ct Morris Amethyst Brooch, notable for its deep hue and created in the Edwardian era.
Other famous Amethysts have Queen Silvia of Sweden’s Amethyst tiara, and the Duchess of Windsor, Wallace Simpson’s Cartier Amethyst and Turquoise Necklace made in 1947.
You can see our Lillicoco collection of Amethyst pieces here.