I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I love collecting rocks and minerals. I thought I’d start a new series, taking an in-depth look at some of my favourites. I’m beginning with amethyst, which is one of the best known and the most beautiful. It’s also full of surprises!
Rocks have fascinated me ever since I was a child. When I was about nine or ten, a new shop opened up at the bottom of Castle Street in Shrewsbury. It was the first shop I’d ever seen that sold crystals and minerals – in fact, in the 1970s, it was probably one of the first of its kind.
We used to go to Shrewsbury quite often, and we always walked past the gem shop on the way up from the car park. Each time, I had to be pulled away from the window, and finally – after repeated pleadings – my mum bought me a piece of amethyst, no doubt wondering what on earth I wanted with it.
This piece of amethyst was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It had such wonderful depth of colour, lovely transparency at the tips, fascinating brownish-gold inclusions in the cloudier depths. I still have it, and I find it just as enchanting now as I did then.
Nowadays, there seems to be an abundant global supply of amethyst, both polished and uncut, and it’s easy to find in gem shops. If you’re a specialist mineral collector, amethyst won’t be at the top of your wish list: you’ll be after the rarer stuff! Amethyst is one of the cheapest specimens to buy – unless, that is, you’re tempted by a large ‘cathedral’ geode which would set you back several hundred pounds.
A form of quartz, amethyst occurs in volcanic deposits such as basalt; the crystals formed when minerals seeped into the cavities of porous rock and then slowly solidified. It is found in many places worldwide, and is mined in Canada, Pakistan, Madagascar and South Africa, among others; I believe that the majority of gem-shop specimens originate from Brazil and Uruguay. Much as I prize my own piece of purple paradise, I would like to think that some of the world’s natural amethyst deposits are being preserved.
So, where does the name come from?
The name ‘amethyst’ comes from the Greek ‘amethystos’ which means ‘not intoxicated’. This refers to the fact that amethyst was once believed to ward off the effects of alcohol. In ancient Rome, amethyst was used to craft wine goblets – they obviously had great faith in its powers!
In Greek mythology, Amethysta was a virgin who crossed the path of the Greek god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus to the Romans. Dionysus was notorious for his fiery temper, and he was also partial to a glass or two of red wine. He had already been insulted by another mortal, and Amethysta was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just as Dionysus was unleashing his pet tigers, the goddess Diana rescued Amethysta by turning her into a statue of clear quartz.
Dionysus, who wouldn’t be out of place in Celebrity Big Brother, immediately regretted his actions and wept into his wine goblet. The vessel overturned and the wine spilled over the crystal statue, thereby flooding it with a beautiful purple hue.
A symbol of majesty…
Purple has long been associated with royalty, making amethyst a prized jewel among the rulers of many cultures. Amethyst also represents purity and piety, and has been found in Anglo-Saxon graves. Eventually the purple colour came to symbolise Christ, and for this reason amethysts were set into rings worn by bishops. Some superb specimens are included in the British crown jewels.
Amethyst is the birthstone of February and the sun sign of Pisces. It may fade under strong sunlight, so place your crystals away from a south-facing window. Intense heat will turn amethyst yellow, and this property is used in the laboratory to create artificial citrine. In its natural state, amethyst may occur alongside citrine, and the resulting crystals, which fade from yellow to purple, are called ‘ametrine’.
As a healing stone, amethyst is said to ease headaches, release tension, reduce swellings and bruises, and guard against nightmares. It is reputed to relieve physical and emotional pain, and is often carried as a talisman for protection.
My own piece of amethyst, measuring about three inches long by two and a half inches high, is a bit too big to fit in my pocket, and it’s too heavy for my handbag, even by my standards. (Although I could have a handbag devoted entirely to crystals…) But don’t despair! Small ‘tumble stones’ or crystal points of amethyst are readily available.
If you’re looking for a good supplier of crystals, check out my review of Mr Wood’s Fossils in Edinburgh. I can also recommend Peebles Crystal Shop in the Scottish Borders; The Rock Shop at Ambleside in the Lake District; and Crystals in Winchester. There are so many online suppliers that I wouldn’t know where to go first… but seeing the stones in person, before you buy, is always a much better experience.
“My precioussss…” Here are a few of my crystals. I’ll pick one or two of the more unusual ones for close inspection next time!
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf
You might like to take a look at these other features on rocks and crystals:
Or take a walk around the wonderful standing stones of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis.