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AMETHYST: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE FOR METALSMITHS

Amethyst is the February birthstone, and the zodiac stone for those born under the sign of Pisces. It is also appropriate for celebrating 6th wedding anniversaries.


Amethyst is a stone that has long been loved by royalty, and today is a versatile stone for metalsmiths and artisan jewelers.


In this metalsmith’s guide to Amethyst, we’ll explore its unique color, where it can be found in nature, its historical use, metaphysical meaning and tips for designing jewelry with it.


WHAT COLORS DO AMETHYSTS COME IN?


Amethyst, by definition, is purple. It is so distinguishable that ‘amethyst’ is now the name of a color as well as the name of a gemstone.


But in that beautiful color are variations ranging from light to dark purple, and reddish to violet purple. While the intense and uniform saturation of purple is the most common in the stones you’ll find, amethyst gemstones may also show ‘color zoning’ – what Lucidity Gemstones refers to as ‘variegated’. How does this occur? To answer that question, let’s explore a little about how amethyst forms in nature.


Amethyst is a form of quartz, and iron is the agent that colors the stone. Amethyst crystals grow slowly inside rock cavities– so slowly that the concentrations of iron infiltrating the host rock may change over time, adding layers of crystal that have more or less iron content. As time goes on, radiation that is emitted from the surrounding host rock causes the iron to lose an electron, which changes the iron’s color to the familiar purple.


In crystals that had varying iron composition, this creates zones of different color intensity like growth rings on a tree. The most intense color is usually at the apex of the crystal, and is sometimes in a layer so thin that it is a challenge for stone cutters to obtain a uniform cut stone.



WHAT IS GREEN AMETHYST?


You may have heard of green amethyst? Well, technically, amethyst can NOT be green.


Remember that, by definition, amethyst is purple. But you’ll see the language ‘green amethyst’ to refer to prasiolite.


Prasiolite is a yellow-green to green variety of quartz. While some prasiolite is mined, much of it is produced by heating natural amethyst to about 500 degrees Celsius, which changes the amethyst's color from purple to its pale greenish tints. The name ‘prasiolite’ comes from two Greek words that define well the stone’s color: prason (leek) and lithos (stone).


Only a few amethyst localities in the world are known to have amethyst that converts to prasiolite, the most notable being the Montezuma deposit in Minas Gerais, Brazil.



WHAT IS AMETRINE?


Ametrine is a variety of bicolored quartz in which citrine and amethyst occur in contact with one another in a single crystal. Its composition gives the stone its compound name.


Ametrine’s natural occurrence as a commercial stone is limited to a mine in eastern Bolivia.





WHERE CAN AMETHYSTS BE FOUND?


Amethysts are mined in many places in the world, including the United States, where the Four Peaks Mine in Arizona produces a unique reddish-purple stone. That mine was known by Native Americans, because amethyst arrowheads were found nearby.


Norsk bokmål: Amethyst Geode, Public Domain

But by far, the majority of amethysts come from mines in southern Brazil and in neighboring Uruguay. There it is found in the cavities of basalt (think congealed lava) flows.


Large cavities can contain hundreds of pounds to several tons of amethyst crystals. Smaller cavities are known as geodes, and if you’ve been to gem and mineral shows, you’ve certainly seen amethyst geodes.


The large quantities of amethysts mined today make it an affordable stone for metalsmiths.



THE HISTORY OF AMETHYST JEWELRY


Amethysts acquired their name from stories of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (Bacchus), who was given an amethyst to protect him from drunkenness. The Greek word amethystos means ‘not intoxicated’. It continued to have this association for millennia. Gradually this belief evolved to a broader association of amethyst with clear-headedness in business and battle.


"The stone is an amethyst; but I, the tipler Dionysus, say, 'Let it either persuade me to be sober, or let it learn to get drunk.'" – Plato the Younger

Amethyst jewelry has been found and dated as early as 2000 BC. The Egyptians mined amethyst in southern Egypt and carved it into amulets and religious items associated with their gods and afterlife.


Amethyst scarab, Egypt, ca. 1981 – 1950 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public domain

Some historical accounts say that Saint Valentine had an amethyst ring carved with an image of Cupid, possibly the source of its status as the February birthstone. Its association with a happy love life predates St. Valentine. The Romans believed that women who wore amethyst would be better able to keep their husbands.


Amethyst was long held to be one of the most precious gemstones, on a par with diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, and often favored by royalty.


As far back as ancient Rome, only the nobility and the imperial court could “wear the purple” because of the cost of the dye. The color – and thus the gemstone - symbolized both power and responsibility. This extended to the clergy; only high-ranking clergy – bishops in particular – wore amethyst rings.