Gemstone Origins: Part II

four elements

Four Elements in 17th Century Alchemical Symbol

Western ideas about the origin of gemstones and precious metals hinged on the ancient belief that everything in the material world was constructed from four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Empedocles (c. 490-430 BC) was the first to advance this notion. He also proposed forces he called Love and Strife as the universal powers that mixed and separated the elements.

Plato (c. 427-347 BC) believed that “when earth is compressed by air into a mass that will not dissolve in water, it forms stone, of which the transparent sort made of uniform particles is fairer, whereas the opposite kind is coarser.”

diamond octahedron

Plato also described the nature and formation of gold as follows: “Of all the substances which we have ranked as fusible kinds of water, that which is densest is formed of the finest and most uniform particles. This is a unique kind, tinged with a glittering and yellow color, that most precious of possessions known as gold, which has filtered through rocks and there congealed.”


Early Islamic Portrayal of Aristotle

Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student, proposed a fifth element, aether, in addition to the four proposed about a century earlier by Empedocles. Aether was the divine unchangeable substance that makes up the stars and planets. Since the other four elements were unstable and corruptible, a fifth perfect element was added since the heavens were thought to be immutable.

In Aristotle’s time, gemstones were thought to retain the influence of the stars because of their near-perfection. To Aristotle, gemstones were formed from water and earth in conjunction with a special “lapidific sap.” Aristotle believed metals originated from the imprisonment of vaporous “exhalations” in the earth, particularly in stones, where they were congealed by some sort of drying process.


Theophrastus as Depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BC) was the successor to Aristotle. For centuries his treatise, De Lapidibus, was widely quoted in other lapidaries. Although Theophrastus included strange stones such as lyngurium (solidified lynx urine) in his collection of minerals, he also began to classify rocks and gems based on their hardness and reaction to heat. According to Theophrastus (Trans. Caley & Richards, 1956): “Of the substances formed in the ground, some are made of water and some of earth. The metals obtained by mining, such as silver, gold, and so on, come from water; from earth come stones, including the more precious kinds, and also the types of earth that are unusual because of their color, smoothness, density, or any other quality.”

yellow diamond

Diamond Crystal

During the Islamic Golden Age, scholars in the Middle East expanded the use of experiment and observation to classify materials. One of the most famous of these scholars was al-Biruni (AD 973-1048). His Book on Mineralogy, The Book Most Comprehensive in Knowledge on Precious Stones was written in the early 11th century. In this work, al-Biruni catalogued minerals by their color, odor, hardness, density, and weight. Despite its relative sophistication, the book also revealed al-Biruni’s struggle to understand the process of gem formation and the inclusions found within the stones (Trans. Said, 1989): “All the transparent objects are, in reality, the water that has become petrified. Although this process occurs naturally, many things found in it do not bear any relationship to it, e.g., air-bubbles, water drops, leaves of grass, slivers of wood, etc.”


Artistic Depiction of Geber

Another, more controversial scholar of the Islamic Golden Age was Jābir ibn Hayyān, known as Geber (c. AD 721-815). Geber is credited with writing over three thousand documents on an astounding range of subjects including alchemy. Researchers doubt if Geber actually wrote many of these documents and believe that many were actually written by medieval alchemists many centuries later. Nevertheless, most agree that there was an 8th-century scholar who practiced alchemy with experimental techniques. Geber’s system incorporated the four classical elements (air, earth, fire, and water) and two additional elements: sulfur, which characterized the principle of combustibility; and mercury, which characterized the principle of metallic properties. The “exhalations” of Aristotle were now introduced as sulfur and mercury.

IchthyosaurusIn the Middle Ages, scholars believed that fossils were the devil’s attempt to create animals. This explained the fact that many of the organisms were unrecognizable creatures, often described as monstrous or misshapen grotesques.

albertus magnus

Albertus Magnus

Like Geber, Albertus Magnus (1206-1280), a famous German philosopher and theologian, was also credited with various alchemical works. Most of these attributions have now been discounted. We do know however, that as a classical scholar and Catholic bishop, he desired to reconcile the Greek philosophies with those of the Christian world. His major work on metals and stones, De Mineralibus, also relied on advances made in the East during the Islamic Golden Age. He quotes Ibn Sina (AD 980-1037) one of the most significant scholars of that period: “Avicenna [Ibn Sina] indeed says that all marvelous things are brought about through the influence of the heavenly bodies; and since it is clear that the effects of stones are marvelous, it can be proved that their form contains some divine matter.”

Avicenna 13th century

Sketch of Avicenna from 13th Century Manuscript

Albertus, like his predecessors, found stones to be dry and earthy, metals moist and aqueous. Like many in his day, Albertus also believed gemstones had special powers or virtues. In the case of diamond, for example, he says (Best & Brightman 1973): “Take the stone which is called Adamas, in English speech a Diamond, and it is of shining colour, and very hard, in so much that it cannot be broken, but by the blood of a goat, and it groweth in Arabia, or in Cyprus. And if it be bounden to the left side, it is good against enemies, madness, wild beasts, venomous beasts, and cruel men, and against chiding and brawling, and against venom, and invasion of fantasies.”



Paracelsus (1493-1541), or Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, was a physician, alchemist, astrologer, and occultist. Among other things, he was interested in the power of gemstones to cure. In his Coelum Philosophorum or Book of Vexations (Trans. Waite, 1894), Paracelsus harkens back to Aristotle when he says stars are the “informing spirit” of all stones. “The whole ball of the earth is only something thrown off, concrete, mixed, corrupted ground, and again coagulated, and gradually liquefied into one mass, into a stony work, which has its seat and its rest in the midst of the firmamental sphere. Further it is to be remarked that those precious stones which shall forth-with be set down [in this text] have the nearest place to the heavenly or sidereal ones in point of perfection, purity, beauty, brightness, virtue, power of withstanding fire, and incorruptibility, and they have been fixed with other stones in the earth.”

emerald el dorado


According to Paracelsus, all metals and stones, including gemstones, are composed of Sulfur, Salt, and Mercury. “So, then, the first matter of minerals consists of water; and it comprises only Sulfur, Salt, and Mercury. These minerals are that element’s spirit and soul, containing in themselves all minerals, metals, gems, salts, and other things of that kind, like different seeds in a bag. These being poured into water, Nature then directs every seed to its peculiar and final fruit, incessantly disposing them according to their species and genera.”


Georgius Agricola

Georg Agricola (1494-1555) was a man ahead of his time. Perhaps this is why he is known as the father of mineralogy. In De Natura Fossilium (1546), Agricola rejects Aristotle’s view that metals and gemstones have their origin in the stars. Instead he looked to natural causes such as the solution of minerals in liquid groundwater and their precipitation by gravity, heat, cold, and evaporation. Agricola classifications also show a degree of sophistication: “Minerals have differences which we observe by color, taste, odor, place of origin, natural strength and weakness, shape, form, and size.”

1652 Map of World

1652 Map of the World

Spessartite garnet

Spessartite Garnet

Medieval lapidaries typically describe stones and catalog their magical and medical properties. They rarely deal with the origin of gemstones. A notable exception is Thomas Nicols’ quaintly titled 1652 Lapidary or, The History of Pretious [sic] Stones: With Cautions for the Undeceiving of all those that deal with Pretious Stones. According to Nicols: “Diaphanous gemmes are all generated of a humour which containeth in its self most pure subtile earth, and by reason of its exquisite subtility, it can by no means hinder the diaphanity of the water…The climates fittest for the production of stones of excellent beauty are such saith Boetius [de Boodt], as do lie nearest the Tropicks; and therefore have the sunne ever neare them. They may be produced in any climate, but the more noble kind of gemms and pretious stones, are in their excellency plentifully to be found in the Regions of the oriental Indies, and that without doubt, because it lyeth nearest the Tropick, and so hath the sunne ever neare it.”

cut sapphireNicols classified gemstones according to their “magnitude, matter, forms, colors, transparency, opacity, semitransparency, and mixt forms. Other divisions they do admit of in respect of their native soyls and the things to which they do adhere and in which they grow.”

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom (c. 1689)

During the 17th century several researchers began to study crystallography. One of the leading scholars of the period, Robert Boyle, used personal observation and experimentation in his studies, and he pioneered the use of crystal habit as an aid to gem identification. He believed that gemstones obtained their color and medicinal virtues by a mixing of pigments and metallic substances while the gems were liquid or soft. In An Essay About the Origine and Virtues of Gems he makes frequent mention of “petrescent liquors” and “lapidescent juices that concrete.” “The petrific juice or spirit coming to be in a sufficient proportion mingled with these impregnated waters, so as to coagulate them, and concoagulate with them; from their coalition may result those precious stones that we call transparent gems…Even diamond themselves, the hardest of gems, were once fluid substances.”

Robert Boyle was also an alchemist who believed in the transmutation of metals. He played a prominent role in repealing Henry IV’s law against multiplying quantities of silver and gold.