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The Most Treasured Gemstones of Ancient Egypt and Ancient China

| 6 min read

Ask anyone on the street what the most desirable gemstone of all is, and almost without exception they will tell you ‘Diamond’. Since Frances Geraty coined the slogan ‘A Diamond is Forever’ in 1948, we've been more than a little obsessed with them. Before then, Diamonds were just one ‘precious stone’ that was highly valued, along with Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald. But the regard these stones are held in has not always been universal.

People have been wearing jewelry since the human race began. If you’ve ever visited a Neolithic burial site, you will have seen that there were objects placed in the tomb alongside the body, almost always including jewelry. The oldest burials would have stone, bone, shell or wood bangles and beads. Jewelry found in the UK dates as far back as 11,000 BC. Over time, more precious items were found (usually locally) and treasured, and were more durable and more colorful – the natural minerals we call gemstones. Those that are the most valued have changed dramatically through time, culture and trade. These are snapshots of the most treasured gemstones of these diverse cultures.

JADE IN ANCIENT CHINA

If there was an award for the most desired gem through history, Jade would almost certainly win. Treasured in China from Neolithic times right through to the present day, what people call ‘Jade’ is actually two different stones – Nephrite and Jadeite. In China, there is a broader cultural concept of Jade with other stones such as Quartzite and Dolomite commonly being called ‘Jade’ too.

Jade is usually opaque to translucent, and often has a luscious glass-like quality. The color varies from pastel blue to lavender, white, yellow, black, orange and pink, with the most sought-after color being a bewitching apple green, also known as Imperial Jade. The green coloration is caused by chromium impurities within the gem.

Jade burial suit

Jade has been mined in China since at least 6000 BC, being used for carvings, ceremonial weapons and ritual objects as well as jewelry. Jade was used for the finest objects and cult figures, and for grave furnishings for high-ranking members of the Imperial family. It was believed that Jade conferred immortality and could ward off evil spirits. It was even thought that Jade prevented the body from decaying after death. For this reason, it was used to make burial suits for the royal family of the Han dynasty. These suits used thousands of Jade plaques, usually sewn together with gold thread as can be seen above.

Jade has been mined in China since at least 6000 BC, being used for carvings, ceremonial weapons and ritual objects as well as jewelry.

The extraordinary thing about Jade is that its value has scarcely changed over the years. Alongside the rarest Diamond colors, Jade is the world’s most expensive gem. The Hutton-Mdivani Jadeite necklace sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2014 for a world record price. It was purchased by Cartier, following a 20 minute bidding frenzy between seven bidders, for over $27 million – more than double the reserve price.

Have a look at some of our wonderful Jade jewelry designs here.

LAPIS LAZULI IN ANCIENT EGYPT

It is widely believed that Cleopatra (69 - 30 BC) used powdered down Lapis Lazuli as an eye adornment, much like modern day eye shadow. Perhaps the most famous use for Lapis Lazuli in the Ancient Egyptian civilization, though, is in the death mask of Tutankhamun where it is used for the eye surrounds and eyebrows. The stone was also found in many of the pieces of jewelry discovered in his tomb, along with Turquoise, Carnelian and other gems.

The stone was so highly prized by the Ancient Egyptians that they even afforded it a godly importance. Dead kings in Ancient Egypt were believed to be reanimated as the sun god Ra, who is often described and depicted as having gold flesh, silver bones and Lapis Lazuli hair.

Tutankhamen's death mask

The stone features golden flecks (normally Pyrite) on a dark blue base, so it became associated with the night sky. In time, it came to symbolise life, the heavens and the gods. Lapis Lazuli was long used for sacred amulets across Ancient Egypt, quite often taking the form of a scarab beetle, itself a symbol of protection, renewal and resurrection.

The stone features golden flecks (normally Pyrite) on a dark blue base, so it became associated with the night sky.

Lapis Lazuli was often demanded by the Ancient Egyptians from the nations they conquered, and could be sourced within the borders of its lands. However, it’s believed many of their gems came from further afield, brought in on trade routes. One of the sources found in Tutankhamun’s Mask is the Sar-i-Sang Lapis Lazuli mine, in the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan. It is one of the oldest mines in the world, and has been continually producing the gem for over 7,000 years. It is still producing, and you can buy Sar-i-Sang Lapis Lazuli from Gemporia.

Browse our collection of Lapis Lazuli jewelry here.

TURQUOISE IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Turquoise is the only gem to have lent its name to a color. Although this name only dates back to the seventeenth century, the gem has been mined since at least 6,000 BC in Egypt, possibly even predating the similarly sought after Persian Turquoise. Along with Lapis Lazuli, it is one of the gems most treasured by the Ancient Egyptians.

It is astonishing that the mines the Egyptians sourced their Turquoise from are still in use today. These famous mines in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt produced gems which adorned the necks of ancient Pharaohs. Like Lapis Lazuli, it was often carved into the shape of a scarab beetle and used as a protective talisman. Egyptian Turquoise is famed and prized for being more of a translucent azure color than many other famed deposits.

Ancient Egyptian necklace

In 1914, the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE) were excavating the Tomb of Sithathoryunet when they came across a hoard of jewelry. Sithathoryunet was believed to be a king’s daughter during the 12th Dynasty (1991 - 1802 BC) and her pieces were staggering in their beauty and craftsmanship. Among them was a necklace featuring gold, Carnelian, Lapis Lazuli, Turquoise, Garnet and Feldspar.

It is astonishing that the mines the Egyptians sourced their Turquoise from are still in use today.

As well as Lapis Lazuli and Turquoise, the Ancient Egyptians also used many more ‘common’ stones across not only their jewelry pieces, but also powdered down as medicinal remedies. These included Amethyst, Chalcedony, Feldspar, Garnet, Jasper, Obsidian, Olivine and Quartz. The green stone Malachite was also used by the Ancient Egyptians, but never in jewelry. Instead, it was powered down and used as a type of eye makeup.

Many other stones were used too, including Green Jasper, which was found in a gold ring and dates from nearer 332 BC, which many scholars note as the end of this era. It depicts Ptah, the god of architects and, appropriately enough, craftsmanship. This intricately carved ring can be seen on the opening spread of this article.

See our Turquoise jewelry designs by clicking here.