I grew up thinking of amethysts as semiprecious stones—which, to my mind, meant starter stones, the kind you bought before you could afford really precious ones. Amethysts, after all, were mere quartz. True—but there are many respectable gems in the quartz family, including citrine, chalcedony and chrysoprase. Amethysts are the top of the line, one of the few naturally occurring purple gemstones. (Sapphires come in purple, since you ask, and so do garnets. Gem-quality sugilite is a deep translucent purple.)
Amethyst crystals have a complex structure, often with layers of varying color intensity, so evenly colored stones are harder to find. The purple is believed to come from iron impurities goosed into bloom by naturally occurring radiation.
Here’s the thing: Once upon a time, amethysts were precious indeed. Moses gave them a place on the breastplate of the High Priest. Ancient Greeks drank wine from amethyst cups, which they believed were a protection against drunkenness. (The word amethyst literally means “not drunk.”) Saint Hildegarde of Bingen prescribed them to beautify the skin; Catholic clergymen wore them to maintain a chaste frame of mind (I’m sure it worked like a charm). Because amethysts were purple, the color of royalty, royalty wore them. Also, they were rare—until the discovery of huge amethyst deposits in Brazil in the 19th Century. That sent the price plummeting, and put the “semi” before “precious.”
Small digression: Purple was the royal color because until 1856, when a chemist named William Perkin accidentally synthesized the first aniline dyes, the only reliable purple pigment came from a family of predatory sea snails. This was the legendary Tyrian purple, so expensive to produce that only royalty could afford it. It looks to have been pretty garish. Bright purple is a hard color to wear.
Amethysts, however, are very wearable. But I never pined to own any until I started collecting old Mexican silver, which features stones indigenous to Mexico. (You’ll also see turquoise, malachite, obsidian, coral, citrine, agate and jade.)
Silver brings out the best in amethysts, whether they’re clear or cloudy, light or dark. It somehow gives the stones their proper context—and now I find I can’t get enough of them. The piece at right (and at the top of this post) is by Margot Van Voorhies, an American who moved to Mexico in 1937 and became one of the great designers. Her earlier pieces are signed Los Castillos, for the studio she ran with her silversmith husband, Antonio Castillo. After they divorced in the mid 40s, she opened her own studio, Margot de Taxco. Her designs are unrepentantly girly; I adore them.
The bracelet at left is one of the first pieces of Mex I bought. It’s an anonymous version of a design originated by William Spratling; the three huge cabochons are an unusual addition. If it were gold, it would not only cost a fortune, it would be gaudy, even vulgar. In silver, it’s a party—a party I can afford to dress for.
The great Mexican silver designers used amethysts with abandon—light and dark, large and small. I’m glad these stones are semiprecious. I’m having such a good time.