By Dr Emrys Chew

The rich purple gemstone known as amethyst has a history that extends into the reaches of antiquity. All the great civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean world valued it. In view of its wine-dark hues, it came to be associated with the prevention of intoxication. Amethysts were popular in Egypt for scarabs, and many specimens have been found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Cleopatra’s favourite piece of jewellery was apparently an amethyst ring engraved with the figure of Mithras, the Persian sun god. In Greece and Rome, amethysts were often used for intaglio rings, many of which were carved with the head of the wine god Dionysus (or Bacchus). Indeed, the gem’s very name derives from the Greek word amethystos, meaning ‘not intoxicated’. The stone’s wine-like coloration and reputation for keeping its wearer sober no matter how much alcohol was consumed made it a particular favourite among clergy and kings. Amethyst is mentioned in the Bible as one of the twelve stones adorning the breastplate of the Jewish high priest, as well as one of the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem. In the Christian church, the crosses and rings of high-ranking ecclesiastics often have amethysts as their centre stones. Since the thirteenth century, the Popes have received an amethyst ring upon their investiture; at their demise the ring, engraved with the image of Saint Peter casting his fishing net, is smashed. Amethysts also have a time-honoured connection with royalty: the colour purple had been worn by Roman aristocrats and emperors, but when the English king, Edward the Confessor, wore a crown bearing an amethyst at his coronation in 1042, he effectively revived the Western tradition of wearing ‘royal purple’.

It is undoubtedly the rich wine-like shades of amethyst that have generated its colourful myth-history and mystical qualities. According to Greco-Roman legends, the wine god Bacchus created the gemstone unwittingly. Annoyed by the goddess Diana, Bacchus set his sacred tigers upon a maiden attending her shrine. To preserve the maiden—whose name was Amethyst—Diana transformed her into a pillar of petrified but sparkling quartz. So amazed was he by Diana’s miracle that Bacchus poured a libation over the statue, which became infused immediately with the purple of the grape. Thus, as early as classical times, amethyst has been linked to the belief that this gemstone afforded protection from drunkenness and poisoning, instilling sober judgment and guarding against afflictions of both heart and mind. This effect may have been more perceived than real, for amethyst pieces in cups (or goblets carved from amethyst) could easily cast a glorious hue over their contents, enabling even water to look like wine.

Nonetheless, the ancient Egyptians also favoured amethyst for its purifying power against intoxication—both in this world and along the journey to the next—as is borne out by the amethyst scarabs unearthed in many burial sites. The early Arabs held that the stone warded off nightmares and guaranteed peaceful dreams. In the Far East, it was considered to be a stone sacred to Buddha and prayer beads were fashioned from it. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe, it had talismanic and medical value in keeping the mind clear, improving the memory, and cleansing the body of impurities as well as contagious diseases. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that it was able to dissipate evil thoughts and quicken the intelligence. A popular stone with religious leaders, it was widely believed to cleanse the soul and aid in a person’s spiritual development. Adorning the Inquisition crosses of the early modern period, the amethyst became an Episcopal stone symbolising purity and humility, for the colour purple was believed to blend the blue of heaven with the red of redemptive blood. Skulls carved from amethyst have also been discovered amid ancient ruins in Central and South America, where it is thought they were once used to enhance psychic awareness. Even in some circles today, amethyst is prized as a particularly potent variety of quartz crystal, inspiring creativity and increasing energy levels.

Amethyst is also associated with love and lovers. Roman wives cherished it in the belief that its steadying influence would ensure the fidelity of their husbands. It was thought to draw the love of a worthy woman to a man, and then sustain the relationship of those who were seriously in love with each other. Saint Valentine, who is said to have worn an amethyst ring engraved with the figure of Cupid, was martyred on 14th February in the year 270 for marrying such couples in defiance of an imperial ban: hence, the association of Valentine’s Day and amethysts with the second month of the calendar year.

From a scientific perspective, however, amethyst is simply a variety of quartz, one of the most common minerals in the Earth’s crust. In terms of chemical composition, it is a crystalline form of silicon dioxide, but amethyst contains traces of iron that impart the distinctive purple coloration. In nature, amethyst occurs as individual crystals or coarsely granular aggregates, found either in alluvial deposits or in geodes. Amethyst is dichroic, showing a bluish or reddish tinge when viewed from different angles, but stones do vary in colour from paler shades of mauve, lilac and lavender, through to a deep velvety purple. The most rare and valuable stones are deeply and evenly coloured, with few or no internal flaws. Occasionally, amethyst occurs in combination with other colours of quartz; the unique gem known as ametrine is, in fact, a purple-golden blend of amethyst and citrine.

As a form of quartz, amethyst is a moderately hard substance, measuring 7 on Mohs’ scale. It is also quite tough and lends itself to carving, whether fashioned into delicate bowls, cameos, figurines or Fabergé eggs. Fine transparent material is generally faceted, but other grades are cut as cabochons or beads. Many exquisite examples may be seen among the crown jewels of Europe; the gem was a particular favourite of the Russian empress, Catherine the Great, who amassed an impressive amethyst collection.

Amethyst is a naturally abundant gem mineral. Following his travels to distant lands, Marco Polo in the thirteenth century spoke of amethysts from the gem gravels of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Amethyst is still mined in the Ural Mountains of Russia, Germany, Namibia, Zambia, Madagascar, India, Australia, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Variations in colour are often indicative of geographical origin. Brazil is generally regarded as the most significant source: some of the largest geodes are found there, and the gem material is renowned for its rich colour and consistent clarity. The fabled Anahi mine in neighbouring Bolivia produces many beautiful deep specimens, though not in nearly the same volume as Brazil. Canadian amethyst may have blue undertones, while Russian amethyst may display flashes of red. African amethyst is noted for its vibrant royal purple. Although many sources of amethyst are capable of yielding dark, high quality gems, it is widely agreed that those from the gem-rich lands of Namibia and Zambia are the world’s finest.

Further Reading

  1. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Teresa Waugh (London, 1984).
  2. Christopher Cavey, Gems and Jewels: Fact and Fable (London, 1992).
  3. Cally Oldershaw, Christine Woodward and Roger Harding, Gemstones (second edition, London, 2001).
  4. Stephen Spignesi, Gems, Jewels and Treasures (New York, 2001).