As spring’s late arrival shifts towards summer’s opulence, I am reminded of amethyst’s ubiquitous presence beyond my sculptor’s hands and studio. Well known to even the most novice of jewellery and gemstone aficionados, amethyst remains an accessible mineral in my art practice. The path it’s been on throughout the ages has been been one that continually cycles through rising and falling. While we have been very busy in the studio this year, I’m excited to share with you, my fellow art admirers, the background of amethyst and some surprising recent news involving this well-known gemstone. It is my hope that I can inspire in you the same level of fascination in this seemingly common gemstone.
What is amethyst?
Amethyst refers to a gemstone and a colour- specifically the regal violet variety of quartz. Quartz is one of the most abundant minerals on earth, though amethyst is likely the most coveted member of the quartz family. It is one of the most popular purple gemstones, better known than its purple cousins tanzanite and iolite among others. It is a semiprecious gemstone, the traditional birthstone of February. It’s colour ranges from deep and dark to light lilac with blue undertones, referred to as ‘Rose de France’. The transparent, deep purples with flashes of red are the most sought after and regardless of where it is mined, this colour is known as Siberian amethyst. In general, amethyst gets its colour from trace amounts of ferric iron, known as irradiation, or iron impurities. Violet has long been associated as a significant and noble colour, therefore it is no surprise that it is found in the crown jewels of many countries, from Great Britain to Russia, particularly Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) and to Tibetan Buddhists who use it as prayer beads. Catherine the Great’s love of amethyst resulted in subjecting thousands of workers to mine the finest quality from the Ural Mountains. This created the ‘Siberian’ grade that is still used today to refer to high calibre amethyst. Until the 18th century, amethyst was considered one of the cardinal, or most valuable, precious gemstones alongside diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds. In the 19th century, settlers from Idar-Oberstein, a region in Germany that remains one of the leading gem-cutting centres in the world with a rich history in mining and lapidary stretching back centuries, immigrated to Brazil. They discovered incredible quantities of amethyst mines in Brazil, and it’s lack of scarcity changed the gemstone’s accessibility and perception.
Where is it mined?
Until the discovery of bountiful amethyst deposits in 19th century South America, the finest were found in the Russian Ural Mountains. While small amounts of amethyst can be found in igneous (lava rocks), metamorphic (change in existing rocks) and sedimentary (rocks formed by accumulation of sediments) around the world, the quantity and quality is inadequate to support mining operation.
The most significant amethyst mines are characterized by fractures and cavities in igneous rocks. Today, Brazil and Uruguay have proven to be primary producers of impressive amounts of amethyst in their mining cavities, some containing tons of amethyst crystals. Amethyst geodes are smaller cavities that are cut open in such a way to reveal the fabulous crystal formations, which you may have seen as office or home decor.
Secondary amethyst deposits can be found in Canada, India, Mexico, Madagascar, Namibia, Sri Lanka and the United States to name a few. While amethyst has been produced in many places in the United States, the only commercially viable amethyst mine is Four Peaks Mine in Arizona, known for its reddish purple amethyst.
In 2007, the largest amethyst geode was discovered, named The Empress of Uruguay. With an impressive height of 3.27 metres, the geode weighed 2.5 tonnes, with each of the thousands of crystals formed 130 millions years.This impressive specimen took three months to extract from the solid volcanic rock and captured the imagination of René Boissevain, founder of The Crystal Caves Museum in Atherton, Australia. Fetching for US$70,000, René’s task was shipping the geode from Uruguay to Australia and then to find a way to display its full natural beauty in the museum. He had a special extension with air conditioning, special lighting and ambiance for effect to help showcase the amethyst geode.
“Amethyst Intaglio,” a portrait of the Roman Emperor Caracalla, changed in the Byzantine period into a portrait of St. Peter with the addition of an inscription and a cross, ca. 212 CE, from the Cabinet des Médailles in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, by Clio20. Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0.
What path it took historically (revered by many ancient cultures)
Amethyst is derived from Greek amethystus, which means ‘sober’. In Ancient Greece, amethyst was believed to protect people from intoxication, which is why cups and goblets were embellished with amethysts. Wearing the gemstone was thought to defend the person from becoming drunk.
While reflecting on the varied and deep history of amethyst, I remember the somewhat obscure Greek myth surrounding it:
“The origin of amethyst is told in different legends. According to one Greek myth, when a drunken Dionysus (the Thracian god of wine) was pursuing a maiden named Amethystos, she refused his affections and prayed to the gods to remain chaste. The goddess Artemis granted the prayer and transformed her into a white stone. Humbled by Amethystos’ desire to remain chaste, Dionysus poured wine over the stone, dyeing the crystals purple.
In another legend, Dionysus was angered by an insult from a mere mortal and created fierce tigers to attack the next mortal who crossed his path. Along came unsuspecting Amethyst, a beautiful young maiden on her way to pay tribute to the goddess Diana. To protect Amethyst from the animals, Diana turned her into a statue of pure crystalline quartz. At the sight of this beautiful statue, Dionysus wept tears of wine in remorse for his action, and his tears stained the quartz purple, creating the gem we know today.” (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Amethyst)
In early Egyptian civilization, amethyst was common adornment for a pharaoh’s tomb. Ancient Egyptian soldiers during this time wore the gem to remain calm and focussed during battles. Persian and Peruvian civilizations believed amethyst carved into a sun symbol could deflect witchcraft. During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci wrote that amethyst brought power of intellect and dissipated dark thoughts.
The gemstone also shares its history with biblical times, resulting in an interesting religious history. According to the Bible, the High Priest Aaron wore a breastplate with twelve gemstones, amethyst being one of them. In the Catholic religion, amethyst was (is) worn by clergy members, and as I mentioned earlier, Tibetan Buddhists make malas or prayer beads with it. In both Buddhism and Catholicism amethyst is believed to strengthen celibacy and symbolize piety.
Amethyst today (Naren King, etc)
Now I bring us back to present day (more or less), to the largest amethyst geode discovered. Can you believe it is even bigger than The Empress of Uruguay, and also found a new home in Australia? Naren King, founder of Crystal Caste in Byron Bay, Australia, a place that provides a sanctuary for reflection and peace, surrounded by Buddhas, deities and crystals. In 2016, to mark Crystal Castle’s 30 year anniversary, King’s dream to have a truly inspiring crystal came to fruition. A Uruguayan farmer whom he has had a long professional relationship informed him of a recent find – a 5.5 meter tall amethyst geode. King flew out to see it with his own eyes and it was his daughter who convinced him into buying it. Six months later, the 120 million year old geode was shipped to Brisbane. In King’s own words:
“I don’t want to share how much I paid for it but we did throw the rest of our mortgage at it – every cent,” [King] said. “I guess it is particularly irresponsible.
“But I don’t mind a bit of financial recklessness.
“When I was 27 years old and wanted to start Crystal Castle, five banks knocked me back until I raised a deposit with my credit cards.
“Time will tell but I believe if you build it they will come.
“We just create and acquire what we love.”
Mr King said the crystals gave him a sense of awe.
“It’s the creation of awe through nature and these crystals are the epitome,” he said.
“These crystals come with their own program, or specific healing energies.
“It’s no coincidence that the Pope’s ring is amethyst and the Queen’s crown is set with crystals.
“For me, it’s because they bring you into a space of magic and wonder.”
(Nicholas McElroy, Gold Coast Bulletin, June 20, 2016)
It is entrepreneurs and dreamers like Naren King, who take high risks to realize their vision, while having a unique and passionate business, that continue to inspire artists like myself, as well as tourists and fellow gem admirers around the world.