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Stefan's Florilegium


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Semi-Pre-Gems-art - 8/27/13


"Semi-Precious Gems in Period" by Lady Rutilia Fausta.


NOTE: See also the files: Diamonds-art, Rubies-Spphrs-art, jewelry-msg, jewlry-storag-msg, gem-sources-msg, amber-msg, A-Lapidary-art, lapidary-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at:


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at



Semi-Precious Gems in Period

by Lady Rutilia Fausta


            Now that I have covered the major precious gems, I am going to discuss the uses of non-"precious" gems in period. They were used as often or more often than the precious ones- and many of them are far less precious to our pocketbooks!


            Commonly used in our period were pearls, coral, amber, glass, chalcedony, garnets, topaz, turquoise, opal, onyx, jet, carnelian, agate, and lapis. I will be focusing on pearls, coral, and amber for this article.


            Pearls were arguably the most common non-precious gem in our period. However, a pearl is not really a gem or a stone- it is, of course, from an oyster, clam or mussel. They are quite soft, and come in a variety of shapes and colors- as well as both from freshwater and saltwater.

Crown of the Holy Roman Empire


            Pearls were highly sought after, bought and sold in great quantities. The most highly prized were 'orient pearls', from the Persian Gulf. The Liber Lapidarium, written by Bishop Marbodus in the 12th century wrote that, "experienced lapidaries(stone cutters) prefer clear to dark pearls, and hold those that are round to be the best"- and that still holds true today. 'Scotch' pearls, from the rivers of Britain were used as less-expensive substitutes- and these were not even from oysters, but from mussels. Pearls were also found in the North Sea and the English Channel.


900-1000 Ottonian/Byzantine ring with pearls and intaglio


            Pearls were commonly pierced, for embroidery or jewelry use. Marco Polo wrote that most pearls from the Orient were pierced in Baghdad before they reached Europe. They were so commonly pierced that many people thought that that was the way they naturally formed! Later in the 14th century it was written that the best pearls were from Ormuz, which appears to be a city in modern-day Iran. It was also recorded that large amounts of shell were exported into Iran, to be used in bracelets and jewelry- what we now know as mother-of-pearl.


            By the 13th and 14th centuries, sumptuary laws were cutting into the pearl business. In 1340, a Florentine merchant notes that these laws severely cut into the market for pearls in England, France, Spain, Tuscany and Lombardy. However, pearls were extremely common among the wealthier classes all the way through our period. Pearls were used in every conceivable way- but were extremely popular as belts, necklaces, and particularly as headdresses.


Detail of the William II Alb, 1181-1220: pearls and gold

A Roman ring made entirely of Amber: found in England


            Amber is another "gemstone" that is actually not a stone. Amber is the fossilized resin of pine-like trees. It is extremely soft, a 1.5 to a 2 on the mohs scale- meaning it can be scratched by almost anything, including a fingernail! (With effort).  It was, and is, found almost exclusively on the shores of the Baltic Sea, though also found on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Baltic Amber is from a large forest that existed in that area 35-40 million years ago- the trees dripped sap, which was fossilized. Much amber still exists in the fossil layer below the Baltic Sea, from whence it is washed out. 30,000 pieces of worked amber were found in Poland- but the site was from 2000 BC! We think of amber as being very Viking, but it was actually traded all over Europe and was quite popular with the Celts, the Romans, the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and later, all of Europe.


It was most popular as beads, and by the 13th century was cut 'in the fashion of paternoster beads' and sold that way- pierced and on strings. It was recommended that the purchaser of amber buy amber that 'was the color of fine gold, with no turbidness(clouds) or spots, for the better and clearer the color, and the larger the bead, the more valuable' It was also used as buttons. The Teutonic Knights had a near-monopoly on the collection of amber from the Baltic Sea in the 13th and 14th centuries- anyone caught collecting without a permit was killed.

Amber paternoster found in Ireland, Ca. 1250


            Amber jewelry has been in use for the entirety of our time period (and in fact back into prehistory!). It was made most often into beads, but as the pictures above and below show, it could be made into many jewelry objects.


Amber Pendants: Medieval


            Coral is the final semi-precious stone I am discussing- and it is still not a stone! It is another organic product, which prevents it from being classified as a mineral or a stone. Coral, of course, is the outer shell of a complex ocean animal. Naturally, it occurs in several colors, but the most popular both today and in antiquity is the reddish-orange, salmony color. It is about a 3.5 on the Mohs scale- harder than pearls and amber, but softer than all other common gemstones. (A knife or glass has a hardness of 5.5)


            It is commonly found in the Mediterranean, usually at depths of 4-300 meters. It requires warm waters and a relatively sandy bottom. It is typically found in dark areas- caves, crevices, or other environments with low light. Coral has been found as jewelry from the Egyptians on to present times. It comes in an array of shades, although most red corals now are dyed to enhance their color. The most popular color in medieval times appears to have been a very salmon-colored coral, as recorded in numerous paintings of the period.


St Eloy, by Petrus Christus, 1450-1460.

Note the coral branch and coral beads in the background.


            In Italy, by the 14th century, infants were often given coral as beads or crosses, for it was believed that the coral would help protect the child from ills or poor fortunes. Coral as paternoster beads was also extremely common- Queens gave them to each other, and the Duchess of Burgundy in 1405 had listed in her will nearly 80 different coral paternosters. They were almost as valuable as gold- and the making of them was a huge affair, to the point that in the 1500's there were specialists making coral beads for quite high wages.

A page from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves-ca 1440


            My favorite mention of coral comes from the theme to our upcoming Anniversary- Chaucer's Canterbury tales. With Anniversary coming up, I felt this was a good way to end this month's (extra long!) essay.


Prologue, The Prioress

Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene, An theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene, On which ther was first write a crowned A, And after Amor vincit omnia.


(She wore small coral beads about her arm-a pair of beads (a paternoster with 2 sets) gauded all with green (green century/marker beads), and from this hung a shiny gold brooch, on which was first written a capital A, and then (A)mor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All)).


Copyright 2009 by Jennifer Kelly. <jen at>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

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