Amethyst

On the nature of amethyst

When a small amount of iron is present in the mineral quartz, the resulting color may be purple (amethyst). Amethyst is the purple type of quartz. Its color is on the cool side with bluish tones. Occasionally it can take on red hues that some gemologists describe as “raspberry.” Amethyst’s color range can extend from a pale lilac to a rich royal purple. Within one stone, you might find areas progressing from darker purples to lighter one; this phenomenon is known as color zoning.

Amethyst cluster from South Africa.  Image by J.J. Harrison.

Amethyst cluster from South Africa.  Image by J.J. Harrison.

This beautiful violet gemstone has the potential for enormity. Single amethyst crystals can be gigantic: the Gemological Institute of America's museum once featured a specimen weighing 164 pounds. Meanwhile, in places like Uruguay, amethyst can form in hollow, crystal-lined geodes spacious enough to contain a human being.

On finding amethyst and what to look for

Should you be inclined to look for amethyst at its source, get ready to travel the world.  Some of the most notable deposits are found in Arizona, Uruguay, Brazil, and Zambia. Brazil is the world's foremost producer of amethyst while some of the stones uncovered in the mines of Zambia are examples of the gem’s most magnificent colors.

These two cut stones—19.25-ct. and 17.02-ct.—are excellent examples of fine-quality amethyst from Arizona. GIA.

These two cut stones—19.25-ct. and 17.02-ct.—are excellent examples of fine-quality amethyst from Arizona. GIA.

Color. Amethyst lovers searching for the most coveted hues of amethyst look for a reddish purple to pure purple. A deeply saturated color is considered best by gem dealers so long as the color remains bright. Amethyst can be so dark that they appear black when the light is dim, which is not considered a desirable trait for this purple gemstone. On the other hand, amethysts can also display a weak, watery color or have zones of both lighter and darker color - these qualities lower the stone's value.

Clarity. Amethysts typically do not have eye-visible inclusions.  Gemstones that originate in Africa are a little different.  African amethysts can display an unusual and very desirable shade of raspberry but these stones are also more likely to have noticeable inclusions.  In raspberry-colored amethyst, the inclusions are considered acceptable and, of course, the raspberry amethysts without visible inclusions are more valuable.

Cut. Amethyst is cut in every method imaginable.  Standard cuts include rounds, ovals, pears, emerald cuts, triangles, marquises, cushions, and many others. There are also numerous facet patterns such as triangular and kite-shaped brilliant cuts, step cuts, and combinations of the two as well as concave faceting. Amethyst even lends itself to freeform shapes, fantasy cuts, and carving.

These two well-cut amethysts demonstrate the gem’s possible light-to-dark color range. GIA.

These two well-cut amethysts demonstrate the gem’s possible light-to-dark color range. GIA.

Carat. Amethyst is available in all size ranges, from quite tiny to breathtakingly enormous.  A fairy tale giant would have no problem finding an amethyst of an appropriate size to set in a ring for his giantess.  Amethyst is perfect as the center stone for a fabulous cocktail ring because the price per carat does not rise dramatically with larger size.

Historical notes and other interesting facts about amethyst

Before and after Brazil. Amethyst was just as expensive as precious ruby and emerald until massive deposits were unearthed in Brazil in the 1800s.

Ancient Egyptians wore purple.  Amethyst was another of the gemstones worn by both men and women in ancient Egypt.

Roman intaglio engraved gem of Caracalla in amethyst, once in the Treasury of Sainte-Chapelle.

Roman intaglio engraved gem of Caracalla in amethyst, once in the Treasury of Sainte-Chapelle.

Goes well with wine. Did you know that amethystos means “not drunk” in ancient Greek? Because of its wine-like color, early Greek legends associated amethyst with Bacchus, the god of wine, and it was believed that wearing or carrying an amethyst could prevent drunkenness. Other stories held that amethyst kept its wearer clear-headed and quick-witted in battle and in business affairs.

Roman ladies layered. Portraits of the Roman period document the women's love for jewelry and its opulent use. Necklaces were worn in varying lengths, together with earrings, pins, bracelets and rings often on every finger. Gemstones became predominant in the designs as emeralds became available from the new mines found in Egypt, but sapphires, amethysts and cheaper imitations in colored glass were exceedingly fashionable as well.

Necklace, lyre-shaped gold links alternating with amethyst beads, made in Europe during the Roman Empire, about 100-200. From the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Necklace, lyre-shaped gold links alternating with amethyst beads, made in Europe during the Roman Empire, about 100-200. From the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Carved in antiquity. Amethyst was carved with images or inscriptions in antiquity. The engraving of gemstones was a major luxury art form in the ancient world, and an important one in some later periods.

Saints wore amethyst. Saint Valentine supposedly wore a purple amethyst ring with an image of Cupid engraved in it, a recognizable symbol associated with love. Roman soldiers would recognize the ring and ask him to perform marriage for them. Probably due to the association with Saint Valentine, amethyst has become the birthstone of February, which is thought to attract love.

Leonardo's thoughts. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that amethyst quickens intelligence and gets rid of evil thoughts.

Amethyste and Bacchus. In his poem "L'Amethyste, ou les Amours de Bacchus et d'Amethyste" (Amethyst or the loves of Bacchus and Amethyste), the French poet Remy Belleau (1528–1577) invented a myth in which Bacchus, the god of intoxication, of wine, and grapes was pursuing a maiden named Amethyste, who refused his affections. Amethyste prayed to the gods to remain chaste. The goddess Diana saved Amethyste by transforming her into a white stone. Humbled by Amethyste's desire to remain chaste, Bacchus poured wine over the stone as an offering, dyeing the crystals purple.

Pear-shaped and emerald-cut ametrines from the Smithsonian Institution.

Pear-shaped and emerald-cut ametrines from the Smithsonian Institution.

Ametrine.  In Bolivia, amethyst and citrine occur in the same crystal. The unique gems, called ametrine, are half purple and half yellow.

Amethyst grotto. A large geode, or "amethyst-grotto", from southern Brazil was presented at an 1902 exhibition in Düsseldorf, Germany.


Resources and further reading

The Gemological Institute of America's Gem Encyclopedia.

Gemstones of the World. By Walter Schuman.  Our go to book at Grimballs.

Jewels: A Secret History. By Victoria Finlay.  An non-fiction adventure through time and place exploring the history of gems.

Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History's Gem Gallery.

Wikipedia's articles: Amethyst and Valentine's Day