Carnelian (sometimes spelt Cornelian) is a member of the Chalcedony group of gems, who in turn belong to the cryptocrystalline family of Quartz. This gem has been treasured throughout history and for centuries has been engraved, and cut into signet rings.
Derived from the Latin word meaning “fleshy,” because of its orange to reddish orange colour, it is also referred to as Red Chalcedony or Red Agate due to the stunning red tints created from the presence of iron oxides.
Romans believed that the different colours of the stone represent the sexes; dark symbolises man, and light symbolises woman. When Carnelian grades into brown it is referred to as Sard. When it is a stronger white colour it is referred to as Sardonyx, and if the gem is extremely dark it can be called Jasper.
Carnelian is surrounded in myth and legend. It was believed by some that it stops bleeding and heals wounds. Egyptians thought that the gem had strong powers in the afterlife and would help to make people feel calm about death: in an excavation site uncovering the tomb of a Sumerian Queen from the third millennium BC, a robe has been discovered encrusted with the gem; presumably for this reason. They also believed that amulets of Carnelian could help the soul’s journey into the next life.
Although the gem has been discovered in Cornwall, England, as well as in France, the main sources of Carnelian are Japan, Brazil and Uruguay. India has some very old Carnelian mines still in operation, which tend to produce gems with a strong reddish brown colour.
A lot of Carnelian in the trade today is actually dyed Agate. As both Carnelian and Agate are from the Quartz family, many people in the trade feel that it is not necessary to say whether a Carnelian’s colour has been achieved through treatment. Natural Carnelian is becoming increasingly rare and there is very little of it in the marketplace at the moment, therefore if you are buying a Carnelian necklace or bracelet, it is safe to assume it has been dyed.
Luckily, it is normally possible to spot the difference even with an untrained eye. Natural Carnelian often has a few imperfections and a more cloudy appearance, whilst dyed Carnelian will normally show slight colour banding or stripes. The photo on the previous page has a mixture of dyed and non-dyed pieces.