Written by Modern Jeweler On May 2, 2013.
Until 1912, the year a Jewelers of America forerunner revised this country’s birthstone list, chalcedony boasted five, and at earlier times, six, spots on that enduring roster, making this broad branch of the quartz family the most heavily represented of any in the gem kingdom.. Today agate, carnelian, chysoprase and jasper are missing from the birthstone roll. Only bloodstone and sardonyx remain, but these chalcedonies function as alternates.
In the case of bloodstone, March’s sole gem since the list was first codified, receiving second billing in the 20th century was a real slap in the face, part of our culture’s shift away from what are now called “ornamental” gems toward crystalline gems. That’s a nice way of saying these opaque stones are second-rate because they’re not transparent and so not facetable. Ironically, of the few ornamental stones found in jewelry stores today, black onyx, a dyed chalcedony, is one of the most familiar.
As for the dozens of other ornamental stones which play big roles in jewelry history, most today are considered anachronisms, of significance mainly to hobbyists, rock hounds and practitioners of ancient jewelry arts such as carving and engraving-arts that were once mainstay gemstone fashioning processes. That’s what makes the presence, although it is largely token, of bloodstone on the modern birthstone list so important. It is a last link to a sacramental tradition which views gems more as amulets than adornments, talismans than trinkets.
Sealed in Stone
Chalcedony’s key role in the jewelry industry of antiquity is easy to understand when one realizes that the primary use of gems in early civilizations such as those of Babylonia and Assyria was as seals usually set in rings-de rigueur items for prominent men.
This admiration was contagious. According to the Bible, King Solomon wore such a seal-ring and Moses ordered only seal-stones used in the 12-gem breastplate made circa 1300 B.C. for his brother Aaron when he was installed as chief rabbi at the temple in Jerusalem. In his book “The Curious Lore of Precious Stones,” famed gemologist George F. Kunz conjectured that six of the gems in that most celebrated of vestments were likely chalcedonies: three of them jaspers, two agates, and one onyx.
Big deal, say modern cynics, these quartzes were used because they were the most available gems. Not so. Some accounts of lapidary history suggest that early carvers could just as well have used garnet, lapis lazuli and serpentine. In time, cutters expanded their repertoire of items to include beryl, malachite, turquoise and zircon, among other species. Yet the search for carvable quartzes continued too.
This is where bloodstone enters the picture. A hybrid of two chalcedonies, dark-green plasma and deep-red jasper, this gem at its best exhibits a filed of forest green that is either speckled or spotted with full blooded red. A gem with this combination of colors was bound to fire the extremely mythopoeic imaginations of the ancients.
Take the Greek name for bloodstone, heliotrope, by which the gem was known until recently Translated literally, the word means “to turn toward the sun.” Pliny the Elder (d. 79 A.D.), the Roman soldier-scholar who wrote one of the earliest and for centuries most influential treatises on gems, explains the name as a depiction of the fiery reflection seen when a piece of bloodstone is place din water and pointed at the sun.
The Christians who revered bloodstone went much further in their imaginings by associating the gem’s red with the blood of Christ. In fact, legend had it that bloodstone owed its red spots to drops of blood which fell from Christ’s body on to a jasper at the foot of the cross on which he was crucified.
Given such associations, it is hardly surprising that bloodstone was a very popular talisman throughout medieval and Renaissance Europe. In his book, “From the World of Gemstones,” Dr. Hermann Bank quotes the following from a childhood reminiscence by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574): “When Luca Signorelli heard that I suffered severely from nose bleeding at that time, and even fainting, he lovingly suspended a bloodstone round my neck with his own hand.”
Even today, bloodstone continues to enjoy a reputation for virtues other than beauty. Shanti Shah of Indogems Inc., New York, tells us that finely powdered bloodstone has long been and still is a very popular medicine, as well as aphrodisiac, in countries such as India and Sri Lanka. “It is said to cure many diseases,” Shah says.
Bloodstone’s double life as gemstone and healing agent may help to explain its recent and rather pronounced shortages in what dealers consider acceptable qualities. Although it is found in California., Wyoming, and also in Australia, the best specimens, nearly all of them, come from India’s rich gem and mineral mining areas of Aurangabad and Poona, southeast of Bombay. Of late, though, that region’s production has not been equal to demand.
A buyer at Lucien Stern Inc., a New York firm that specializes in ornamental gems, thinks material she sees nowadays is not up to snuff. “Maybe if I was less of a purist, I’d buy this stuff just to keep us more fully stocked, but I can’t bring myself to do it,” she says.
This hard-line position has left stock of bloodstone at an all-time low. “We have not seen the better qualities of bloodstone for the past two or three years,” says Shah.