Precious gemstones have adorned humanity since ancient times, and their colourful crystals are treasured as symbols of wealth, power, and beauty. But have you ever wondered about the origins of their names? Names like Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald carry centuries of myth and lore buried within, tales waiting to be unearthed like gems. From words whispered by merchants along Silk Road caravans to the melodic naming languages of long-lost kingdoms, gemstone names hold surprising stories reflecting the cultures that discovered and coveted them.
In this article, we’ll dig through the etymological layers to reveal the unexpected histories hidden in how we call out these prized pieces of glittering rock. Prepare to unlock the doors to a realm where the names of gemstones are not just arbitrary labels but fascinating tales woven through centuries of geological history, mythology, and cultural significance.
The Art, Science & Lore Of Gemstone Names
The art of naming gemstones is more complex than one might imagine. It’s fascinating to think about how these dazzling stones get their names. Many names of the most beloved gemstones are steeped in history and tradition. Take the classic example of the Ruby. Its name comes from the Latin word “ruber,” meaning “red.” It’s a fitting name for a gemstone that’s deep, rich, and vibrant in colour. However, there’s more to it than that.
The Ruby has been known and revered for thousands of years and is associated with many myths, legends, and cultural traditions. In ancient India, the ruby was considered the “king of precious stones.” Its purpose is to bring good fortune and protect against evil spirits. Similarly, in ancient Greece, the ruby was associated with the god of wine and celebration, Dionysus. It was believed to bring passion, energy, and vitality to its wearers.
So, when we look at the name “Ruby,” we’re not just seeing a simple description of the stone’s colour. We’re seeing a whole history and culture wrapped up in a single word. And that’s true for many gemstones. From Diamonds to Emeralds, Sapphires to Opals, each stone has its unique story, a tale that goes far beyond its chemical composition and the names of its discoverers.
The Stories Behind How Gemstones Got Their Names
Adularia, also known as Feldspar, has an intriguing backstory. Its name, “Adularia”, has roots in a case of mistaken geography. In 1783, when the mineral was discovered in Switzerland’s Mount Saint Gotthard, it was initially intended to be named after the mountain range it was found in. However, due to a mix-up, it was mistakenly believed to belong to the Adula Mountain range and thus got its present name.
The origin of the name Carnelian is steeped in controversy, with different sources offering varying explanations regarding its etymology. Some linguists contend that the name Carnelian originates from the Latin word “carnis”, which means flesh, given its close resemblance to certain flesh tones. On the other hand, others argue that Carnelian is derived from the Latin word cornum, which translates to cornelian cherry, a fruit that shares a similar colour to the mineral. However, all parties agree that the name reflects the mineral’s orange to a deep reddish hue.
Cavansite is a true gem in its own right, not just because of its gorgeous blue-green hue but also because of the story behind its name. This mineral was discovered in 1967 in Malheur County, Oregon, by geologists and named shortly after in 1973. The name Cavansite was chosen to reflect its chemical composition, which contains calcium (CA) and vanadyl (VAN) silicate (SI) hydrate.
Amethyst gets its name from the Greek word “amethystos,” which translates to “not drunk” or “sober.” In ancient Greece, it was believed that wearing or carrying an amethyst would prevent intoxication and promote a clear mind, especially during religious ceremonies. But the tales surrounding Amethyst go beyond its ability to prevent drunkenness.
Another famous story involves the wine god Dionysus, who grew angry with mortals and vowed to sick his tigers upon anyone who crossed his path. Young Amethyst was on her way to pay respects to the goddess Artemis when she stumbled upon Dionysus. Fearing for her life, Amethyst called out to Artemis for help, who turned her into a Clear Quartz pillar to keep her safe. Moved by her pure devotion, Dionysus wept tears of wine onto the stone, staining it a deep, rich purple, and thus amethyst was born.
Grossularite owes its name to the humble gooseberry! The first specimens of this mineral to be studied were found to have a stunning light green colour, similar to that of a ripened gooseberry fruit. Its name derives from the Latin grossularium, meaning “gooseberry”.
Brucite has a layered and complex past that mirrors its intricate chemistry and structure. Originally named after American mineralogist Archibald Bruce by George Gibbs in 1819, the mineral that bears this name today is different from the one Gibbs described. That mineral, now known as Chondrodite, was mistakenly named Brucite, leading to a century-long confusion.
Are you confused yet? Hang on. The true Brucite was named by F.S. Beudant in 1824, who discovered it in a remote region of Italy. Interestingly, Beudant had initially mistaken it for Calcite but, upon closer inspection, realised its unique composition and crystallographic features. The name Brucite stuck as an homage to the original namesake and its significance in mineralogy.
To add to the drama, “Brucite” was again hijacked in 1847 by A. Dufrenoy, this time being used to refer to yet another mineral altogether, Zincite.
Wolframite, first discovered in Germany, comes from the old German words ‘wulf’ and ‘rahm’, meaning wolf and froth, respectively. There may be some debate around the exact origins of the name, but most agree that it was given by German miners who noticed its ability to ‘gnaw’ through Cassiterite, making the smelting of tin more difficult. However, according to the 16th-century mineralogist Georgius Agricola, the name reflects the bubbly appearance of the mineral when it is smelted, resembling the foam created by a wolf devouring its prey. Either way, the name Wolframite is a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of early miners and their ability to draw inspiration from the world around them.
Due to its iridescent colours, Peacock Ore, also known as Bornite, is a copper mineral named after the male peacock’s tail feathers. Copper miners, who were the first to discover this gem, were amazed by its iridescent tarnish, and the name Peacock Ore stuck ever since. However, what is less known is that it was initially named after the German mineralogist Ignaz von Born, who first discovered the mineral in 1725.
Zircon bears a name that has been subject to controversy regarding its origins. Some argue that the word zircon is derived from the Arabic word “zarqun”, which means gold colour, as its golden hue in some specimens is strikingly similar to that of the precious metal. Others claim that German jewellers coined the name “cerkonier”, later changed to “cirkon” and eventually evolved into zircon.
Topaz has a rich history and intriguing story behind its name. Some believe the name ‘Topaz’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘tapas,’ meaning fire or heat. This is due to its stunning golden colour, once thought to be caused by the sun’s heat. Others speculate that the name comes from the Greek island of Topazos, where the ancient Romans believed the gemstone was first discovered. And to make things even more interesting, the island was initially named Topazos, meaning “to seek” – a fitting title for a rare and precious gem.
Morganite is a beautiful pink gemstone that gets its name from the American financier and philanthropist J.P. Morgan. It was first discovered in Madagascar in 1910 and was initially called “pink beryl” or “rose beryl”. However, due to its striking beauty and increasing popularity, it was later renamed after Morgan’s contribution to the field of gemology.
Most believe the Latin root word “niccolum”, meaning nickel, was the sole inspiration for the mineral name. However, renowned mineralogist Frederick Pough has a different story. According to him, German miners named the mineral “Kupfernickel,” meaning copper-nickel, because they believed underground imps or gremlins teased and bothered them. To get back at these creatures, they started calling them “nickels.” The miners extended this name to the mineral abundant in metallic veins. It is fascinating to learn that the name Niccolite, which sounds so ordinary, has a fantastic backstory that involves supernatural beings from the underground.
Malachite is a gemstone with a rich historical and cultural significance, all wrapped up in its name. The Greek origin of this name, moloche, refers to the plant mallow, known for its green hue. The colour of malachite is so rich and lush it’s easy to see why it would be associated with this vibrant plant. But the name Molochitis was used as early as 77 AD by Pliny the Elder, so the gemstone’s origins and stories go back centuries.
Hematite originates from the Greek word “haima”, which means blood. This may seem like a strange name for a stone, but it’s fitting when you consider its properties. Hematite is a type of iron oxide, and when it’s ground into a fine powder, its deep red colour can resemble blood. All hematite specimens exhibit this unique feature, regardless of colour, before being crushed.
Howlite is named after its discoverer, a Canadian chemist and mineralogist, Henry How who first identified the substance in 1868. The stone is a type of calcium borosilicate that often occurs in nodules or masses and has a distinctive white or grey colour with black lines or veins. Howlite is also known as “White Buffalo Stone” because it is believed to have been discovered by Native Americans during a sacred buffalo hunt.
Kyanite derives from the Greek word kyanos, meaning blue, which directly references this mineral’s most common colour. This gemstone is also known as Disthene, which originates from the Greek language, meaning two strengths as Kyanite is stronger along its length than across its width.
Neptunite is a rare and beautiful mineral that is commonly found with Aegirine. Unlike Aegirine, which was named after the Scandinavian sea god Aegir, Neptunite was named after the Roman sea god Neptune, which is fitting, considering it is often found in aquatic environments. The mineral’s black colour and shine were thought to represent the ocean’s dark depths, and its sleek texture was associated with the smoothness of a calm sea.
Platinum was discovered in Colombia in the 18th century and soon made its way to Europe, where it was initially confused with silver due to its silvery-white sheen. Its name, Platina, was derived from the Spanish word plata, which means silver because it resembled the precious metal.
Demantoid is a variety of Garnet named after the word “demant,” meaning diamond in Russon. And with good reason, too. This emerald-green gemstone bears a striking resemblance to a diamond in its glittering brilliance and exceptional clarity.
Discovered in Tanzania in 1967 by a tailor named Manuel d’Souza, it quickly caught the attention of Henry B. Platt, Vice President of Tiffany and Company. Platt was so enamoured with the gemstone that he named it after the country where it was discovered rather than its mineral variety name of Zoisite. He reasoned that the name Zoisite, similar to the word “suicide,” would not be an appealing choice for a gemstone.
Frequently Asked Questions
Today, gemstone names must adhere to strict regulations set forth by the International Mineralogical Association’s Commission on New Minerals Nomenclature and Classification.
The Law of Priority dictates that the oldest name given to a gemstone is its true name, and any later names are to be discarded. Additionally, any new gemstone name must be unique and substantially different from all existing names to avoid confusion. Gemstone names should end in -ite or -lite and are to be attached to places, persons, or significant chemical properties but never to common words. Language also plays a role, with Greek being the preferred language for foreign names.
Through careful consideration and adherence to these regulations, the names of gemstones are steeped in history and meaning, adding to their allure and fascination.
Final Thoughts On Gemstone Names
After exploring the surprising and fascinating stories behind gemstone names, it's clear there is more to these precious stones than meets the eye. From legends and myths to historical references and cultural significance, each gemstone has its unique tale waiting to be discovered. They hold within them the stories of our ancestors, the secrets of our history, and the beauty of our world. So next time you wear that ruby ring or admire someone's emerald necklace, consider the hidden stories behind those precious stones.
Whether you're a lover of jewellery or intrigued by the mysterious power of names, there's no denying that gemstone names have a special place in our hearts and minds. So, let's continue to explore and celebrate the stories behind these glittering treasures. Now it's your turn – what is the name and story of your favourite gemstone? Share in the comments below! Let's keep these enthralling tales going for generations to come.