Monday, April 23, 2012

"A Girl's Best Friend"

Ever since the dawn of time, humans have been fascinated by precious stones and metals and it’s no wonder - the sheer beauty of, for instance, a diamond sparkling in the light is undeniable!  It’s easy to see why primitive people would have considered them as gifts from the gods and worn them as amulets or talismans.  Even today, there are gemstones which are considered to either bring luck or be cursed, and when you look at something like the Koh-i-Noor diamond (once the largest known diamond in the world and said to be a cursed with bad luck for men who own it, but not women), I for one can totally understand this.  There is something both magical and evil in the way it draws your eye which one can well imagine would make people so greedy they’d want to kill to possess it!

Regency ladies obviously loved jewels as much as anyone and I’m sure most of our heroines would be very pleased to be presented with a “parure” (matching set) of jewellery of some kind, be it priceless diamonds, rubies or emeralds, or something made of lesser gemstones like garnets and amethysts.  I wouldn’t say no myself to any of those!

Most of the aristocratic families had heirloom sets of some kind and still do – there was a wonderful exhibition of tiaras for example at the Victoria & Albert Museum a couple of years ago, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  And for an author, such heirlooms can of course play a vital part in our plots, especially after the year 1758.  That was when a Viennese man, Joseph Strasser, developed strass, a type of glass which could be mistaken (by someone who was not an expert) for diamonds.  It could be cut and was very similar in appearance.  What better way for an impecunious lord or lady than to have their real diamonds exchanged, secretly, for strass so that they could sell the real thing?  And then perhaps have to do everything they can not to be caught out …

For anyone wanting to do some research on gemstones, a visit to the Natural History Museum in London is a must.  Apart from the fact that the building itself is a wonderful example of Victorian architectural exuberance, with its ornate façade, sculptures and gargoyles, it houses a huge collection of precious stones, rocks and minerals.  I can spend hours there, looking through the row upon row of glass cases up on the first floor.  In the so called Vault in a side room are some beautiful specimens and a collection of 296 naturally coloured diamonds – one of each colour that can be found.  These are displayed as a work of art in the shape of a triangle and called “The Aurora Pyramid of Hope” since they reflect the light just like the Aurora Borealis.  And the lighting changes from normal to ultraviolet, showing the viewer how they sparkle with different colours depending on the light.  It’s magical!

The museum has the largest ever cut topaz – 2,982 carats – from Brazil, which is amazing.  And in one display case you can see what the Koh-i-Noor looked like in its original form.  Its Indian Mogul-style cut wasn’t considered brilliant enough by Europeans so Prince Albert ordered it to be recut before Queen Victoria wore it.  This made it smaller, which is a shame, but both cuts looked beautiful to me, each in their own way.  (See photo above - Mogul cut on the left).  There is also another supposedly cursed stone, the “Cursed Amethyst” which was donated by someone called Edward Heron-Allen.  (Photo below)  He believed it was so evil he had it set in a special magical ring to neutralize its power!
Another must for anyone interested in gems is of course the Tower of London, where the fabulous Crown Jewels never fail to amaze.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen them now, but they are as fascinating every time.  For slightly “lesser” jewels (or perhaps I should say, jewellery which could possibly be affordable by ordinary people) I prefer to stroll along Old and New Bond Street and the nearby Burlington Arcade, where Regency ladies used to go too.  The shops there have some amazing examples of both new and antique jewellery, and being a historical author I, of course, prefer the antique ones.  It is always fun to speculate which of the lovely diamond earrings or bracelets one would buy, should one be lucky enough to win the lottery.  One day …

A few facts about jewellery and gemstones – “coloured stone” is apparently the trade term for all of them except diamonds (even those that have no colour).  They are valued according to their rarity and the most sought after are pure or flawless, ie. do not have any foreign matter or fissures inside them which could affect their transparency or “clarity”.  Colour, lustre, and iridescence play a part in grading them, with colour being the most important, and also the stone’s weight and size – its “carat”, a measurement used since early times.  Hardness (ie. its resistance or not as the case may be when you scratch it with something else) is also taken into account - the less valuable and not very hard gemstones are only “semi-precious”.  Diamonds are, of course, the hardest of all.

The cutting of coloured stones is called lapidary work, and the cutters (or lapidary) of gemstones are usually highly skilled and must know the different properties of the stones they work with.  They take into account the various characteristics of each stone before cutting them so as to get the best out of each one.  In ancient times, gemstones used to be decorated only by scratching figures, symbols and letters onto them.  Stone cutting as we know it now with facets didn’t develop until around the 15th century and there are lots of different types of cut.

Everyone talks about diamonds being “a girl’s best friend”, but as can be seen by the “Aurora” display, there are many different types and colours.  And personally, I prefer rubies – the most sought-after being the so called “pigeon’s blood” or pure red with a hint of blue.  Their fiery colour draws me in every time I see them.  Sapphires and emeralds are of course also beautiful, but for sheer colour, I think I like aquamarines and amethysts better.  We all have our preferences – if you had the money, what would you buy?  I’d love to know!

Highland Storms - winner of RoNA for Best Historical
The Silent Touch of Shadows - time slip, coming 7th July 2012


Victoria Connelly said...

I adore aquamarines too!

I have a sapphire and diamond engagement ring and another ring with tiny rubies set into it but I'd happily receive any precious stone!

Christina said...

That sounds lovely, Victoria, and yes, we wouldn't say no to any of them, would we?

Jane Odiwe said...

Oh, Christina, you're a girl after my own heart! I love Georgian jewellery, and if like me you like looking at pictures of it there is a lovely book called Georgian Jewellery 1714-1830 by Ginny Redington. I put it on my Christmas list because it's quite an expensive book, but it's mouth-wateringly sumptuous with numerous colour photos!

A lovely post-I must check out the NHM!

Christina said...

Thanks for the tip, Jane, will put that book on my wish list too! I have one called "Ancestral Jewels" by Diana Scarisbrick which has lovely photos, but I wouldn't mind more :)

mizwaller said...

Tourmaline and Tanzanite for me. I guess I like pastels. I spent a wonderful,leg numbing day at the V & A a few years ago just looking at the jewelry.