EMU Volume 20 – Chapter 8

The Contribution of Mineralogy to Cultural Heritage

Chapter 8. Gems and man: a brief history

G. Rapp

From shell beads in the Palaeolithic and stone beads in the Neolithic to beautiful artificial gems in modern times, the history of gems has roughly paralleled that of humans. In the beginning, myths and folklore about the healing properties of gemstones dominated the story. Today, the story is about scientific techniques making larger or more colourful gems and newly discovered mineral deposits revealing gemstone treasures. In the western world the written history of precious and semiprecious stones begins with the ‘On Stones’ of the Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus (ca. 315 BC) followed by the ‘Natural History’ of the Roman historian Pliny (77 AD), which was the standard work on gems and minerals for more than a thousand years. The gemstones of the Old Testament and those of ancient East Asia tell their separate stories. Following a brief summary of these early works, this paper continues with individual descriptions of the major gems and semiprecious stones, focusing on their two most important attributes colour and hardness  as well as where they are found. This is followed by a brief discussion of altered gems and a summary of modern interactions of gems and man. This paper concludes with some personal experiences of the author and a brief introduction to the geology of gem deposits.

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