Friday, August 30, 2013

Birthstones: Early History

First of all: happy 400th post to me! Yay!

Birthstones is a topic that I see a lot selling beads, stones, and jewelry, yet I know very little about it myself—aside from the table of values we have as a "cheat sheet" in the store, which I have committed to memory by this point. I thought I'd put together a rough little guide to birthstones for my own edification as well as that of others.  In the interest of brevity, I'll be breaking this into multiple parts. This first part details the earliest known history and appearances of what we would consider birthstones.

The history of birthstones first appears around 3000 BCE, in India and Mesopotamia. Both regions had developed intricate and highly respected astrological systems. These were complex systems loaded with mythology, imagery, relationships, and mathematics. In their day, astrologers were considered scientists and much of what they studied overlapped with what is today considered astronomy.

The Babylonian (Mesopotamian) system eventually, with significant Greek and Medieval influence, became the Zodiac with which most Westerners are familiar; your reply to the cheesy, "Hey baby, what's your sign?" pick-up line stems from this system.

The Indians and Babylonians also ascribed magical and spiritual powers to gemstones, depending on their color and quality, associating them with a planet or luminary object based on their color. Specifically, stones were thought to absorb and hold the vibrations of their associated planetary object. If an astrologer noted a particularly unfavorable aspect of your chart, they would recommend a gem to balance it out, or to give extra strength to your already-strongest planet. Thus the idea of a "birthstone"—a stone you could wear or carry that was associated with the specific instances of your birth—first took place. The planets and their associations are as follows:

Vedic astrologers also take the day of the week and the hour of the day into account. Each day is associated with a different planet, and each hour of the day has its own ruler as well. The hour rulership changes depending on the day, but the planet and day relationships are:

  • The Sun rules Sunday.
  • The Moon rules Monday.
  • Mars rules Tuesday.
  • Mercury rules Wednesday.
  • Jupiter rules Thursday.
  • Venus rules Friday.
  • Saturn rules Saturday.

Thus, if you were born on a Sunday and had a lot of Venus in your chart, you could claim diamonds and rubies as your birthstone. And if you were born in one of Mercury's hours on that day, emeralds as well. 

And yet the actual month of your birth is nowhere in sight!

Another important early link between astrology (and thus birth dates) and gemstones was the work of Titus Flavius Josephus, a first century CE Jewish historian and scholar. He connected the twelve stones of the Hoshen (the sacred breastplate worn by the Israelite High Priest) to the twelve calendar months as well as the twelve Zodiac signs. He liked it so nice he did it twice, as the saying goes; Josephus actually leaves us with two different lists. The original text in Exodus makes it unclear which stones are referenced or how they are marked; what IS clear is that it was meant to be a three-by-four grid, with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel carved on (or associated with) each stone. The whole thing was to be set in a square, gold setting, which the priest would tie to his front.

One interpretation of the Hoshen.The Hoshen in action.

The possible stones, along with their Zodiac signs, are listed from right to left. In the first row:

  • Sard, carnelian, or jasper for Aries and March.
  • Chrysolite or peridot for Taurus and April.
  • Yellow beryl for Gemini and May.

The second row:
  • Carbuncle or ruby; malachite or turquoise (there is debate over whether the specific word used indicates a reddish stone or a green-blue stone) for Cancer and June.
  • Lapis lazuli for Leo and July.
  • Unknown, possibly onyx for Virgo  and August. The word in the Greek translation of the Hebrew writings (onychion) is the same word used for onyx; however, what is considered onyx today wasn't mined until the classical era of Greece. Onychion could have referred to any pink-white stone. Other scholars have suggested diamonds, but the art of diamond cutting was unknown at that point in history.
The third row:
  • Amber, jacinth, tourmaline, or yellow agate (perhaps citrine?) for Libra and September. There is a lot of debate over this stone as well. The attribution by Josephus is a stone that was referred to in classical texts as lyngurium, which was noted for its electrical properties and ability to attract metal. (Our English word "electric" and its derivatives comes from the Greek word for amber, elektron.)
  • Blue lace agate (or another blue agate) for Scorpio and October.
  • Amethyst for Sagittarius and November.
The fourth row:
  • Yellow topaz, amber, yellow jasper, serpentine, or flint for Capricorn and December. The favorite for this stone is yellow topaz, though it is a favorite by a slim margin only. The original Hebrew word, tarshish/tarsis, could refer either to the location of Tarshish (and any mineral thereof), or could be a corruption of asshur, which has been confirmed to refer to flint. There are two different Greek words given in the translation: chrysolithos ("gold-stone") and anthrax ("coal"), which adds to the confusion.
  • Yellow beryl, onyx, malachite, or emerald for Aquarius and January. Jewish tradition favors yellow beryl; scholars favor malachite.
  • Ruby, emerald, or hyacinth; a greenish form of jasper for Pisces and February.

The other important mention of gemstones in the Bible is in the Book of Revelation, referring to a city wall. Each layer of this wall is built out of a different stone, which all seem to be a throwback to the stones in the Hoshen. However, it's important to remember that Revelation was written in Greek by John of Patmos, long after Exodus in the original Hebrew. He also didn't connect any of the stones to a birth month or Zodiac sign or symbol, though later scholars would associate each of the apostles with a stone from John of Patmos' list.

Beyond ancient Mesopotamia and India, however, there is little to no record of people wearing precious gems specifically associated with their birth and birthday in particular, and absolutely no record that connects gems to an individual's birth month as defined by the Gregorian calendar. In Europe there was the practice of wearing each gemstone in its associated month (in the associations given by Josephus); claiming one as "your own" specifically because of your birth month dates back, at the earliest, to the 1560s in Germany.

Next up: Birthstones: Contemporary History

Sunday, August 25, 2013

101 in 1001

Things have been done and such!



In Progress:

Another update and comment. (1 - 3) ( 7 - 4). I also finished Rabbit, Run so that's another book off the TIME Top 100 list. (3 - 3). I also finished another Trek episode and donated to LoveHopeStrength. (5 - 12) (12 - 3).  I donated a bit over 3000 more grains of rice at FreeRice. (12 - 7)

Right now I'm reading Beloved, which is turning out to be much better than Rabbit, Run. Not quite as good as A Confederacy of Dunces, which apparently isn't on the official TIME list. That's another one I'm just going to quietly edit in there; but what book to take out?



Rest of the list after the jump.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Geo-Shopping: Labradorite

The problem with working in a bead store is that I have no self control. After the lapis lazuli binge I went on (okay, not really a binge), I broke down and bought a whole bunch of moonstone and labradorite. Hooray!

Labradorite chips

Do you remember feldspars from the last geo-shopping post? They're the minerals that crystallize in magma and make up around 60% of the Earth's crust. Labradorite is another feldspar, (Ca,Na)(Al,Si)4O8; specifically it is a variety of anorthite. What characterizes labradorite in particular is high levels of calcium compared to sodium; specifically, labradorite contains anywhere from 50% to 70% calcium, and 30% to 50% sodium. It's named for the location of its first find, the Labrador peninsula in Canada. It can be found all over the world, from South America to Europe to Australia.

At first glance, it's kind of a dull gray rock. What makes labradorite interesting is the colorful sheen (called "schiller" or "labradoresence") it picks up when light hits it at just the right angle. Schiller is caused by the play of light against lattice distortions of high- and low-levels of calcium plagioclase phases. The light gets bounced around different layers and lattices like a ping pong ball, and the result of all that reflection and refraction is a rainbow shimmer.

Before labradorite was labradorite, it was known to the Eskimo Inuit and the Innu as "fire stone." They used a powdered form as a health tonic; it was also heavily associated with the aurora borealis. The stone was "discovered" by Europeans in the 1770s and it's been called labradorite ever since.

Because of labradorite's schiller, I think labradorite is a gem best left to be featured on its own. Matching it with other stones can be tough.

labradorite pi bracelet
Pi Bracelet in Labradorite

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What I Read: Rabbit, Run

Another piece off the TIME Top 100 list, I felt obligated to slough through this one because of (maybe misplaced) Pennsylvania pride. That is the only reason I could carry myself through to the end of the book.

I can see why the technical mastery of Updike's prose would land this in the TIME Top 100 list. I guess. (His editor should have cared less about excising the sex scenes and more about needless wordiness in other parts, especially towards the end. Or did the end only seem to drag because I was so close to finishing and just wanted the damn thing to be over already?) Yes, Updike has an eye for detail and the writing, quite often, is beyond anything I will ever hope to produce. But fuck that.

Even if the writing is great, the characters are all horrible, and while Updike has made them each horrible in their own way, I still didn't want to spend a single word more with them I had too. The sole exception to this, maybe, was Ruth, except that she also somehow seemed enamored of Rabbit for no reason at all except maybe Updike was throwing in a little self-insert here and there. The bits of stream of consciousness here and there also don't really add much to the novel except to be annoying.

Or maybe they're a call back to On the Road, which was the impetus for Updike bringing Harry Angstrom to literary life to begin with. I can even empathize with why he wrote it, because I also think On the Road is a self-indulgent overrated turd of a novel. But much like when I'm having a conversation with someone and learn that their reason for hating George W. Bush's presidency is because he wasn't conservative enough, the enemy of my enemy does not a friend make.

Harry Angstrom is a dick. He is not some great confused and alienated everyman, a statement on the condition of a materialistic and over-consuming Cold War era society. He is an asshole. Updike could have redeemed himself by killing this asshole at the end of the book, but no. He brings back Rabbit in really too many sequels, more fitting for a slasher movie franchise than a literary milestone.

Not only is Harry Angstrom a terrible person, there is not one person in this book worth liking. They are all unhappy and miserable and kind of unattractive (except for the women Rabbit wants to sleep with). There are also a lot of characters who have decided, for whatever reason, that Rabbit is a really fascinating and interesting man. Eccles is chief among them, but the woman with the rhododendrons (YOU KEPT ME ALIVE, HARRY~~) and Ruth as well identify a certain je ne sais quoi about Harry. Harry Angstrom is a straight male white dude's Bella Swann: dull enough so that the (presumably male) readership can project themselves into him, yet everyone in the book's universe is fawning over him for a whole variety of reasons.

In a one word review: vomit.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Etsy Finds: SiSi J Couture

Ages ago, I came across a "baseball cuff" on Pinterest. In particular, this one from HandMarkedMetals on Etsy:

Lawyer Mom is a huge baseball and Phillies fan, so I put it on my "Things to Show Mom" board and went about my business.

When her birthday finally came up, I had no better idea so I went back to the pin to buy it off Etsy. But: horrors! It was gone! The shop has since closed. So I searched for other baseball cuffs on Etsy. When one came up with a Phillies bottle cap, I knew it would be the one to get. That one ended up coming from SiSi J Couture.

Baseball Cuff With Bottlecap Centerpiece by SiSi J Couture

I was really pleased with the craftsmanship on this piece: all of the beading is solid and the bottlecap is pretty solidly attached (I was worried about it falling off during shipping or through use, but it's held up quite well). Lawyer Mom was over the moon.

Ignore the crumbs. It was lunchtime.

SiSi J Couture does lots of bow work and frills that, while not my normal cup of tea, are rather cute and also very professional-looking. My favorite, though, are the baseball cuffs. She also does custom baseball cuffs too, so you can rep your own team's pride!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Geo-Shopping: Lapis Lazuli

It's been a while since I've had one of these posts. I mentioned lapis, briefly, in a stashbusting project. You may recall it ended up looking like this:

I recently got some more: I found a strand of neat dogbone lapis for a very budget-friendly price. I always like to keep an eye out for unusual bead shapes, like nuggets, cubes, or dogbone. Here's my score (most of which already ended up in another bracelet):

So. What's with this lapis?

It's a complicated amalgamated mass of things. Those of you following along at home may recall that many (though not all) of the stones that end up here are silicates. That means their interior structure is silicon dioxide. It looks like this:

In its most basic form, silicon dioxide is quartz. Variations in this structure give us citrine, amethyst, carnelian, and so forth.

Lapis consists of, first of all, a silicate known as lazurite, which is a feldspathoid silicate mineral. Say that three times fast!

If you are familiar with mineralogy or geology, you probably recognize feldspathoid up there. It refers to feldspars, minerals that crystallize from magma. A feldspathoid (or foid) is a mineral that resembles feldspars but doesn't have enough silicate to be considered one itself. Lazurite, specifically, is (Na,Ca) 8(AlSiO4)6(S,SO4,Cl)1-2.

While this is the main ingredient in lapis lazuli (responsible for 25 to 40 percent of its content), and chiefly responsible for the brilliant ultramarine color of lapis (by way of a sulfur anion), as I mentioned earlier, lapis lazuli is a bit of a conglomerate. It's often found with iron pyrite and calcite. Sodalite is often found in lapis as well, contributing to its azure coloring.

The name lapis lazuli has an interesting history. "Lapis" is the Latin word for "stone," the same root word from which we derive the word "lapidary." "Lazuli" comes to Latin by way of Persian, referring to "Lāzhward," the primary source for the stone in ancient times (now in modern-day Afghanistan). The Latin name for Lāzhward was lazulum; its genitive form becomes "lazuli." Thus, lapis lazuli literally translates as "stone of lazulum (Lāzhward)."

However, this name only dates back to Medieval Latin. Historically, lapis was referred to as sapphire, the name we now use for the blue variety of corundum—though simultaneously, the name of lapis lazuli's mining location began to be associated with the color and the stone itself. For thousands of years, Afghanistan was essentially the world's only source for lapis (one mine has been in operation for 6,000 years!). Lapis mined there was traded all around the known world. While it's most famously associated with the luxuries of ancient Egypt, bits of lapis jewelry and carvings have been uncovered as far west as Mauritania. The Epic of Gilgamesh also makes several references to lapis, and it is thought to be one of the gemstones on the hoshen, the priestly breastplate of the Israelite High Priest. Lapis lazuli was also used for dyes in tempera and oil paints until the discovery of a synthetic equivalent called French ultramarine.

Today, lapis is primarily used for ornamental and decorative purposes. Afghanistan is still the world's top supplier, though other sources have been found in neighboring Pakistan and as far off as the Andes (in Chile) and California, USA.

Because lapis has so many constituent ingredients, it's a rock, not a mineral. While it does contain some silicate, it's softer than most "purer" silicates (for example quartz); lapis is only about a 5 on the Mohs scale. Beware of stringing it alongside harder substances and treat any lapis jewelry you wear in high-traffic places (bracelets, rings, dangling pendants) with care.

When shopping for jewelry or beads, buyer beware: unscrupulous dealers have been known to pass off sodalite or even dyed howlite, chalcedony, or jasper as lapis. The easiest way to tell if you are getting true lapis lazuli is to check for the tell-tale gold flash of iron pyrite inclusions. Lapis from the Kokcha Valley in Afghanistan is typically the most brilliant shade of ultramarine; stones from other sources are often dyed to achieve this same blue. If you care to test lapis (or any stone) for dye, use a Q-tip and swab a small, inconspicuous part with nail polish remover. The nail polish remover will wash away any dye. There is reconstituted lapis on the market as well: lower-grade bits of lapis rubble ground up, glued together, and cut again. As far as I know, there's no good way to determine reconstituted lapis from regular lapis. In an ideal world it would be as simple as price, but I'm not naive enough to believe that reconstituted lapis lazuli has never been passed off as the "real" thing.

Personally, I have no issue with dyes or altering stones in any way. We've been doing that since at least the Greeks. Nor do I take issue with reconstituted stones, as in some cases it leads to a more attractive and more durable piece. But I have major issues with a supplier dying some Chilean lapis with ferrocyanide and then passing it off as Afghani. Forewarned is forearmed!

To learn more:

Or browse some gorgeous lapis and lapis-inspired items:

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