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Roman Era Emerald Mine in the Egyptian Desert

Roman Era Egyptian Emerald Necklace

Fifteen miles or so from the Egyptian coastline of the sparkling Red Sea stand a series of crumbling structures. Standing upon an area known in antiquity as “Mons Smaragdus”, these ruins in the Egyptian Eastern Desert are all that remains of Sikait, the Roman Empire’s only emerald mine. Archaeological work conducted in 2020 and 2021 by the University of Barcelona suggests that as the Empire’s grip on the area loosened and eventually receded, some of the buildings were occupied or possibly even built by a nomadic tribe, the Blemmyes, which gained influence in the area.

The Blemmyes appear in written records starting from the 7th century B.C. and disappear sometime around the 8th century A.D. they are mentioned in Strabo’s Geographica in the 1st century A.D. as essentially non-bellicose nomadic raiders. Their cultural and military power increased to the point they formed a kingdom on the flank or Roman Egypt requiring repeated intervention of the Imperial army to keep them from causing trouble.

The researchers believe that the Blemmyes took over not just the site but also the mining activities at the site, possibly also making improvements to building some of the structures on the site.

Remarkable among the finds of the researchers are ancient inscriptions including at least one by a members of a Roman Legion. This inscription would be the first evidence that the Roman army was involved in exploitation of Egypt’s emerald mines, not just to defend them but also probably to help construct them. It was not uncommon in the empire for the legions to be used for civilian construction projects. Not only would this kind of work keep the troops in good physical shape between campaigns, it would keep them busy and productive. It was a Roman belief that a busy army was less likely to mutiny. The legions were involved in the construction of town walls, roads, aqueducts and mining related buildings and equipment such as water mills, stamp mills and dewatering machines.

Roman Era Egyptian Emerald Necklace

Roman necklace originating in Egypt made of gold, blue stone and emerald, A.D. 2nd century

Roman beryl intaglio portrait of Julia Domna

Beryl intaglio with portrait of Julia Domna A.D. 200-210.

Julia Domna was wife of Emperor Septimus Severus and mother of Emperor Caracalla. The Egyptian mine at Sikait is the only source of Emerald, a form of Beryl, within the Empire, and thus the likely source of the material for this object if it was not imported.

Roman gold and emerald necklace 1st – 2nd century A.D.

Ruins near Egyptian Emerald Mine

Ruins at Sikait, Egypt

In the mountains along the Red Sea coast of Egypt, across from Sinai, lie the remains of Sikait, location of the only emerald mine in the Roman Empire. This photo shows the ruins of the most impressive building complex at the site, known as Tripartite Building.

By Roland Unger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71533171

We may not have any Egyptian emeralds, but do check out our selection of gemstones.

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Beautiful Bejeweled Amethyst’s History as an Art Medium

Amethyst intaglio portrait of Julius Caesar, Roman, 50-40 B.C.E.

The February birthstone is amethyst. A form of non-fluorescing hard stone quartz whose typically purple shading comes from irradiation of iron or transition element impurities, amethyst was once considered one of the cardinal, or most valuable, gemstones. Occasionally exhibiting secondary shades of blue or red, the beautiful stone is highly popular among mineral collectors, crystal healers, art lovers, lapidaries. While not considered as valuable as it once was due to recent discoveries of large deposits of the mineral, amethyst often produces stunning jewelry.

Traditionally most carved gemstones in the west are a form of quartz, the carving techniques adopted for quartz also apply to amethyst. Amethyst deposits have been found on almost every continent and it’s availability was a key factor in it’s popularity as a carving medium of artisans in antiquity. Deposits have been found in Brazil, Uruguay, Austria, Russia, Zambia, and Korea, as well the eastern and southern areas of the United States, including Texas, North Carolina, and the Lake Superior Region.

Amethysts was carved and treasured by cultures such as those of Japan, Iran, Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Anglo-Saxons and others. Different cultures each put their own spin on the importance, meaning and value of the stone. It was highly treasured by Russian Empress Catherine who sent thousands of miners into the Ural mountains seeking the gemstone. In ancient Rome, the purple color of the gem was associated with the purple color reserved for the elite and the emperor. The medieval Catholic church’s bishops prized amethyst’s color. The ancient Egyptians worked the material into amulets for protection against harm. Moses the prophet is said to have described amethyst as representing the spirit of god. The ancient Greeks believed the stone offered protection from drunkenness. The Tibetans created rosaries from the stone and considered it sacred to Buddha. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that amethyst quickened intelligence and dissipated evil thoughts. The Anglo-Saxons fashioned beads, while was used for intaglio.

In this article we present a visual tour of the different ways amethyst has been used in art, both ancient, antique, and modern.

Amethyst intaglio portrait of Julius Caesar, Roman, 50-40 B.C.E.

Amethyst intaglio portrait of Julius Caesar, Roman, 50-40 B.C.E.

Byzantine Jeweled Bracelet of gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz

Byzantine Jeweled Bracelet of gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz, 500-700 C.E.

1st Century Greek or Roman Amethyst Oval

1st Century Greek or Roman Amethyst Oval

Amethyst, Copper, Gold and Silver Frankish Disk Brooch, 550-650 C.E.

Frankish Disk Brooch, c. 550-650 B.C.E. with Amethyst Jewel

American Brooch by Theodore B. Starr, 1900, Amethyst, Gold, Garnet, Enamel

Amethyst, Garnet, Gold and Enamel Brooch by Theodore B. Starr, American, 1900

Egyptian Amethyst Scarab, Middle Kingdom, 1981-1950 B.C.E.

Egyptian Amethyst Scarab, Middle Kingdom, ca. 1981–1950 B.C. The scarab beetle was a potent symbol of creation and regeneration among the ancient Egyptians.

Chinese Amethyst Qing Dynasty Seal, Late 19th-early 20th Century

Chinese Qing Dynasty Amethyst , Late 19th – Early 20th Century

Chinese Qing Dynasty Snuff Bottle of White, Green, and Brown Jadeite with Amethyst Quartz Stopper 1736-95

Chinese Qing Dynasty Snuff Bottle of White, Green and Brown Jadeite with Amethyst Stopper, Qianlong Period (1736-1795)

Spanish Clip Earrings, mid-19ths Century, Gold, Metal and Amethyst

Mid-19th Century Avant-Garde Spanish Clip Earrings, Amethyst, Silver, Metal

We may not have antique carvings, but you can check out our lovely collection of amethyst for sale.

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This Week’s Mineral Spotlight: Gorgeous Green Malachite

Malachite from Zaire

If the mineral is green and gorgeous there is a good chance it’s malachite. Like its copper cousins Turquoise, Azurite, and Chrysocolla, Malachite is found in copper deposits. It first became useful to humans as an ore used by the ancients to produce copper metal. Today, its primary use is decorative: bracelets, necklaces, pendants, as a gemstone and cabochon, and other types of jewelry. It’s also popular as a tumbled stone and as a standout display specimen for rock and mineral collections.

North American deposits include Mexican deposits in Milpillas; American deposits in Bisbee, Morenci, Bingham Canyon and others; African deposits in Namibia, Gabon, Zambia, Uganda, and The Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). Russia was at a one a major source of Malachite, particularly gem quality stones, however most of these deposits have been mined out and eclipsed by the quantity and quality of the African deposits. African mines product spectacular massive malachite specimens as well as gem quality malachite, and plancheite, cuprite and carrollite are also present in these deposits.

Malachite from a Smelter's Crucible

Malachite from a Smelter’s Crucible, Egyptian, Joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, ca. 1479–1458 B.C., 18th Dynasty

Copper deposit don’t typically yield huge amounts of malachite. Previously, Russia was the only significant source of a large volume of gem-grade malachite, but as the Russian mines have declined and the African mines became available the African finds have far exceeded Russian production. African banded layers malachite is sometimes over a foot thick with very tightly packed submicroscopic needle crystals. Since the opening of the African mines, the mineral market has great cutting-grade malachite with bands of very light green to almost black- green.

Malachite was well known to the ancients.  It’s Latin name, “Molchitis” derives from the Greek “molochites lithos” whose meaning is “mallow green stone” due to the mineral’s resemblance to the mallow plant’s leaves.  Some evidence exists o Malachite mining in Britain at the Great Orme Mines perhaps as far back as the 3rd and 4th millenia B.C. There is also archaeological evidence of Malachite mining and smelting to produce copper 3,000 years ago in the Timna Valley, associated with King Solomon’s Mines in modern day Israel, where it is still mined to today to produce copper. 

Lapidary, work with malachite requires a facemask. The copper carbonate dust from Malachite is poisonous. Most lapidaries use water to cut down on the dust in the air. Undercutting is often a problem during polishing, since each malachite band has a slightly different Mohs hardness, however experienced lapidaries shouldn’t have a problem. Banded malachite is always beautiful no matter how it is used.

Qing Chinese Malachite Carving, Late 18th – Early 19th Century. Seated Luohan With Servant

Above is an outstanding example of carved malachite. A Qing era Chinese art work originating in the late 19th through early 20th century, it depicts a seated luohan, or one who has achieved enlightenment. This particular luohan is identified as Nakula who sits in meditation with a rosary; a boy-servant attends at his feet. From his long eyebrows and position beneath a tree. Carved writing in the upper right corner is a poem of praise for Nakula in the upper right was authored by the Jiaqing emperor (r. 1796–1820) and inscribed in the hand of his elder brother Yongxing (1752–1823).

Malachite Monumental Vase

French Monumental Malachite Vase. Lapidary Work Early 19th Century, Pedestal And Mounts By Pierre Phillippe Thomire

The monumental vase above is crafted from Russian malachite, bronze, gilt bronze and a filling material. Malachite grows in layers of tiny crystals its colors correlating with different crystal sizes, creating the pattern. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most malachite came from Russian mines by the noble Demidov family. The family exploited hardstone quarries and metal deposits located on their estates in the remote Ural Mountains. In the 1820s on of the great discoveries in the history of semiprecious stones happened when an enormous malachite boulder around five hundred tons was unearthed there. Malachite is extremely brittle, so only small display objects can be cut from single blocks of the material. Large objects require a core structure, to which the malachite can be attached in thin pieces, effectively a veneer. Russian craftsmen developed a method to use the stone’s natural pattern and a precision cutting technique to form a continuing or “endless” ornamentation. This type of veneering appears nearly seemless and is called “Russian mosaic”.

The Demidov family used the flashy appearance of malachite to improve their social status, filling their palaces with the material and even decorating an entire room with the green stone, which inspired Czar Nicolas I to commission the famous Malachite Room in the Czar’s Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.

The monumental vase above is modeled on an ancient Roman bell-shaped krater, the most famous example of which is the first-century Medici Vase, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. This shape was quite much admired through the early nineteenth century. Count Nikolai Demidov commissioned this particular malachite vase for his villa at San Donato, near Florence. Unlike with the Russian mosaic technique, large areas of this vase’s surface is composed of small malachite particles mixed with filling substance in the same way as modern terrazzo. This raw malachite was probably transported from one of his mines to Florence to be shaped and finished by local artists not trained in the specialized Russian technique. The vase would then have been sent onwards to Paris to be fitted with its mounts and pedestal.

The gilded bronze winged female figures on the body of the vase represent Fame. Their trumpets are shaped like handles, although the vase is too heavy to be lifted like a loving cup. A gilded bronze laurel garland of laurel (Laurus nobilis) runs under the lip mount. The laurel had been adopted by Lorenzo de’ Medici (who was also a lavish patron of the arts) as an emblem of his house with the motto “Ita ut virtus,” or “Thus is virtue”— that is to say, virtue is evergreen. It’s use here implies that the Demidov’s hoped that their fortune would also be evergreen.

The mounts and bronze pedestal were made by Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751–1843), known throughout Europe for his bronze decorations and ornamental sculpture. He established a reputation before the French Revolution with beautiful mounts for Sèvres porcelain vases. In 1804 he founded a workshop that produced furniture as well as luxury bronzes.

Malachite and Azurite

Malachite with Azurite

Malachite Thumbnail

PropertyDescription of Malachite
Chemical Composition:Cu2(CO3)(OH)2
Mohs Hardness:3.5 to 4.0
Specific Gravity:3.6 to 4.0
Crystal System:Monclinic
Cleavage:Perfect in one direction, fair in a second direction
Diaphaneity:Most examples are opaque while crystals are translucent
Luster:Polishes to a very bright luster. Large specimens tend to be dull and earthy. Silky luster in fibrous examples. Unusual crystals trend from vitreous to adamantine.

Even though chyrsocolla and azurite are both copper based minerals, malachite is a better indicator of the presence of significant copper deposits. The Copper Queen mine in Brisbee was created on the basis of malachite deposits.

Malachite Copper Crescent Zaire Congo

Malachite Copper Crescent from Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Malachite Under a Stereoscopic Microscope

Image of Malachite Taken Under a Stereoscopic Microscope

Malachite has a number of different cultural meanings and associations. For the Chinese, Malachite is a lucky stone for those born in the Year of the Rabbit or Year of the Tiger. For the ancient Egyptians, the color green was associated with death and the power of resurrection – as well as new life and fertility. They believed that the afterlife contained the “Field of Malachite”, an eternal paradise resembling their lives but with no pain or suffering. They also used the material in powder form for cosmetics, particularly to try to resemble Horus, the falcon headed god Those who believe in crystal healing, crystal spirituality believe the stone has any number of healing, or metaphysical properties on the body, spirit or chakra.

View our collection of beautiful malachite specimens for sale, perfect as display piece on your table or mantle, for your collection, or for use in spiritual or crystal healing.

Learn more about Malachite at Mindat.

First image by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7515677 .

Fifth image by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10148274.

Sixth image by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10130475.dex.php?curid=10148274.

Seventh image by Karolina Fok – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84931097.rg/w/index.php?curid=10148274.