Gemstone of the Month: December
December is traditionally associated with turquoise but in recent years tanzanite has also represented the month. Both gemstones have equal justification to represent the month so, given that justification I will feature both gemstones
Talisman of kings, shamans, and warriors, esteemed in prehistoric cultures, beloved by an Egyptian Goddess
Turquoise is perhaps the oldest stone in man’s history, the talisman of kings, shamans, and warriors. It is a stone of protection, strong and opaque, yet soothing to the touch, healing to the eye as if carved from an azure heaven and slipped to earth. Its unique shade of blue, often blue-green, lends its name, to all things of this tranquil hue. The delicate veining or mottled webbing in cream or brown is inherent to the stone and serves to enhance its character. The name Turquoise dates to the 17th century and is derived from the French pierre turquoise, meaning ‘Turkish stone’ because the mineral was first brought to Europe through Turkey, from mines in the historical Khorasan Province of Persia, passing through Turkey where Venetian merchants often purchased the stone in Turkish bazaars. Turquoise is an opaque, blue-to-green mineral that is a hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminium and occurs as vein or seam fillings, as compact nuggets, mostly small in size. It is rare and valuable in finer grades and has been prized as a gemstone and ornamental stone for thousands of years owing to its unique hue. In recent times, turquoise has been devalued, like most other opaque gems, by the introduction onto the market of treatments, imitations and synthetics. The gemstone has been known by many names. Pliny the Elder referred to the mineral as callais and the Aztecs knew it as chalchihuitl. The lustre of turquoise is typically waxy and it is usually opaque, but maybe semi-translucent in thin sections. Colour is as variable as the mineral's other properties, ranging from white to a powder blue to a sky blue, and from a blue-green to a yellowish-green.
Turquoise was among the first gems to be mined, and many historic sites have been depleted, though some are still worked to this day. Turquoise beads dating back to 5000 BC have been found in Iraq and Iran has been an important source of turquoise for at least 2,000 years. It was initially named by Iranians ‘pirouzeh’ meaning ‘victory’, and later the Arabs called it ‘firouzeh’. In Iranian architecture, the blue turquoise was used to cover the domes of palaces because its intense blue colour was a symbol of heaven on earth. Since at least the 1st Dynasty in ancient Egypt (3000 BC), and possibly before then, turquoise was mined in the Sinai Peninsula. Another historic source of Turquoise is China which has been a minor source for 3,000 years or more. Prehistoric Turquoise artefacts in the form of beads have been dated to the 5th millennium BC from sites in the Eastern Rhodopes in Bulgaria.
Today the Southwest United States is a significant source of turquoise; Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada are (or were) especially rich. The deposits of California and New Mexico were mined by pre-Columbian Natives. New Mexico is thought to be the location of the oldest American mines. American Indian tribes still collect turquoise. However, they will not mine for their turquoise, only collect any stones they find from the surface, believing that to dig for such gemstones is to plunder and desecrate Mother Earth
The pastel shades of turquoise have endeared it to many great cultures of antiquity: it has adorned the rulers of Ancient Egypt, the Aztecs and other Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, Persia, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and to some extent ancient China since at least the Shang Dynasty. A common belief shared by many of these civilizations held that turquoise possessed certain qualities and it was thought to change colour with the wearer's health and protect him or her from untoward forces. The Aztecs inlaid turquoise into ceremonial objects, and shields. Like the Aztecs, the Pueblo, Navajo and Apache tribes cherished turquoise for its amuletic use. In Persia, turquoise was the national stone for millennia, extensively used to decorate objects and mosques. The Persian style and use of turquoise was later brought to India following the establishment of the Mughal Empire there, its influence is seen in high purity gold jewellery and in such buildings as the Taj Mahal. The Egyptian use of Turquoise stretches back as far as the 1st Dynasty and possibly earlier; however, probably the most well-known pieces incorporating the gem are those recovered from Tutankhamen’s tomb, most notably the Pharaoh's iconic burial mask which was liberally inlaid with the stone. It is also associated with the goddess Hathor, whose titles included "Lady of Turquoise", "Mistress of Turquoise", & "Lady of the Turquoise Country" and it was so liked by the Ancient Egyptians that it became (arguably) the first gemstone to be imitated by an artificial glazed ceramic product known as faience.
In many cultures of the Old and New Worlds, this gemstone has been esteemed for millennia as a holy stone, a bringer of good fortune or a talisman, spanning all cultures, prized as a symbol of wisdom, nobility and the power of immortality. Among the Ancient Egyptians, Persians and Chinese, Aztecs and Incas of South America, and Native North Americans, Turquoise was sacred for power, luck, and protection. For nearly a thousand years, Native Americans have mined and fashioned Turquoise, using it to guard their burial sites. Their gems have been found from Argentina to New Mexico. Indian priests wore it in ceremonies when calling upon the great spirit of the sky. Many honoured Turquoise as the universal stone, believing their minds would become one with the universe when wearing it. Because of its ability to change colours, it was used in prophecy or divining. To the prehistoric Native North American Indian, Turquoise, worn on the body or used in ceremonies always signified the god of the sky alive in the earth. Turquoise is also a stone in the Jewish High Priest's breastplate, described in Exodus 28.
Despite being one of the oldest gems, Turquoise did not become important as an ornamental stone in the West until the 14th century, following a decline in the influence of the Catholic Church which allowed the use of Turquoise in secular jewellery.
Turquoise is also the traditional birthstone for Sagittarians born in the month of December.
Only from one very limited location on the planet – blue zoisite never looked so good…
Tanzanite is the blue and violet variety of the mineral zoisite and was discovered by Manuel d'Souza in the Merelani Hills of Northern Tanzania, near Mount Kilimanjaro, in 1967. Manuel, a tailor and part-time gold prospector living in Tanzania, found transparent fragments of blue and blue-purple gem crystals on a ridge near Merelani and assumed that the mineral was olivine (the same family from which derives the peridot we have read about earlier in the August newsletter) but soon realising it wasn't, he concluded it was “dumortierite” (a blue non-gem mineral).
Tanzanite is only found in a very small mining area approximately 7km long and 2km wide. It was named 'tanzanite' by Tiffany & Co. after the country in which it was discovered since its scientific name of "blue zoisite" - which some pronounced "blue suicide" - was not thought to be consumer-friendly enough by Tiffany’s marketing department when they introduced it to the market in 1968. Never let it be said that they also wanted to capitalize on the rarity and single location of the gem - their original campaign advertised that tanzanite could now be found in only two places on the planet: "in Tanzania and at Tiffany's"!
From 1967 onwards, an estimated two million carats of tanzanite were mined before the mines were nationalized by the Tanzanian government in 1971 in an attempt to safeguard the remaining seams and ensure some profits on what was left remained in the country to help the indigenous population.
In 2002, the American Gem Trade Association chose tanzanite as a December birthstone, the first change to their birthstone list since 1912. It is now recognised as a birthstone for Librans and Sagittarians and as a 24th Wedding Anniversary stone.
Tanzanite is a pleochroic gem meaning stones appear to be different colours when viewed from different directions. Some specimens of tanzanite can be termed "trichroic" meaning they appear as 3 colours from 3 different directions.
Tanzanite is said to focus energy and release pent-up emotions as well as stimulating intuition and psychic skills.
Tanzanite is becoming increasingly difficult to mine and the shallower seams are almost depleted. Mining is moving deeper underground with its attendant risks from heat and tunnel collapse as well as the difficulties involved in locating workable seams. If you have Tanzanite, be sure to treasure one of the world’s rare beauties – until ‘blue zoisite’ is found in another galaxy far, far away … …
Keep an eye out for Kristaval’s Turquoise and Tanzanite pieces as you scroll through our pages…