Opulent Opaques


The word most likely invokes images of glittering rubies, diamonds and sapphires. Clear crystals sparkling and worn in elaborate jewelry pieces, or spread out in a pile of treasure.

But not all gemstones are transparent.

Quite a few are opaque, and many of them were once prized more than their clear counterparts.

We’ll be taking a closer look at two stones; Lapis lazuli and carnelian. Two stones that are on opposite ends of the color spectrum, both deserving of another glance.

Lapis Lazuli is a stunning indigo stone with unique features hard to match in even the finest sapphire. Although opaque, the stone has an intense violet-blue color, and can have flecks of metallic and veins of white.

~Lapis pieces by Lika Behar

Lapis is in fact an aggregate stone; this means it is actually made up of several minerals altogether. The combination of these minerals can vary from stone to stone, and can include lazulite, sodalite, calcite and mica, among others. The ‘gold’ flecks seen in some stones is actually pyrite, also known as fool’s gold.

Lapis has been a prized stone in many ancient cultures, not only due to the vivid coloring but also because it was easily powdered, carved and polished. This meant it could be used in a variety of ways.

~Ancient Lapis carvings, (from Wikipedia Commons)

Some mines are rumored to be the original mines still in use today, with a major source being in Afghanistan.

Babylonian, Incan, Roman, Arabic, Egyptian and other cultures all used lapis lazuli extensively. In some ancient writings, lapis was often prized on par with gold in terms of value.

The name Lapis Lazuli comes from Latin words meaning stone and blue, however the root of the word is a much older Arabic term “L’azulaus” meaning sky, heaven and/or blue.       

Indeed, many legends, texts and stories from ancient times speak of the lapis lazuli’s ties to royalty, heaven and divinity.

~Powder Lapis (From Wikipedia Commons)

It’s not hard to imagine why, given the vivid color. Found naturally, it would have inspired many with the intense hue and glittering flecks. The color is not easily replicated, nor found in many places in nature.

In fact, in the middle ages lapis was ground to a powder, mixed with oils, and used as pigments and dyes, including as a base for the expensive and rare ultramarine paint.

~Lapis necklace by Roberto Coin

Powder lapis was also used as a cosmetic alongside other gemstones in Egypt and China.

An opaque stone but one that has peerless color, history and unique appearance that rivals the finest transparent stones. Lapis Lazuli is an amazing stone worth a second look.

~Lapis earrings, made by Panowicz Jewelers

Carnelian is a member of the wide group of chalcedony gemstones, and is the orange variety. The color can be bright and intense, to darker and brownish.

The name carnelian is believed to stem from a mistranslation of a Latin word for ‘cornel cherry’, likely named after the color of the stones.

~Carnelian ring by Lika Behar

The stone was used in Egypt, not only for jewelry but also inlays and carved seals. Wax does not readily stick to carnelian, and it was soft enough to be carved into unique patterns and shapes. This led to it being used as seals and signet rings throughout history.

It was also used as burial amulet, and even included in passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

~Roller style signet made from Carnelian (From Wikipedia Commons)

The stone’s virtues were extolled in many corners of the world, and like lapis, has been found as beads, inlays, amulets and carvings. The gemstone’s ancient lore is widespread, from Japan, Persia, and Burma, to South West Australia, Europe and more.

Most often the stories and legends refer to burial rites or cures for blood related medical problems. The belief could be because of the color of the gemstone. It was prescribed for bleeding gums and hastened healing of cuts and abrasions, among other things.

~Ancient Carnelian carvings (From Wikipedia Commons)

Another attribute assigned to carnelian was its’ ability to enhance the wearer’s speech and provide confidence to the timid. As such, it was often worn as a good luck charm for public speakers and actors.

The powers of carnelian were often said to be enhanced if the stone was warmed before being held.

Similar to lapis, the colors of carnelian may have led to the stone’s popularity. Although the color can range widely, the oranges and darker reds would have been difficult colors to reproduce easily.

In fact, the finest lively, intense carnelians practically glow, and the color is not easily matched by any transparent crystalline gemstone.

~Carnelian earrings and ring, by Panowicz Jewelers

Carnelian’s storied history makes it an interesting gemstone already, but with its wide range of uses and colors, it makes for a wonderful accessory.

Not all gemstones are clear as crystal, but all of them are beautiful. Opaque gems have some of the most amazing legends surrounding them. If ancient cultures found them enchanting and worthy of legend, they are definitely worth another look today.

 ~Blog by Isabelle Corvin, Staff Gemologist and Merchandising Manager 

 This blog was featured by the American Gem Society in the print version of the 3rd quarter 2021 issue of Spectra magazine!