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Worldbuilding: Gemstones

What gems and semi-precious stones were available?  There is no room to list all of the semi-precious gemstones or the places they have been found, but we will hit the highlights. Let's take a brief trek through history.

Agate (green, pale white to tan, gray, gold, red, black, and other color patterns and combinations such as eyes, plumes, lace, swirls, bands, zigzags, and fire flash) was used in Bronze Age Minoan culture as jewelry, in Sicily back to 400 BCE, and in ancient Sumer and Egypt for decoration and religious ceremonies. (Mined in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Poland, Botswana, India, Australia, Oregon, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Michigan.)

Amber (golden yellow) is fossilized tree resin and has been used for decoration since Neolithic times. Found everywhere there is tree resin.

Amethyst (pale to deep purple) was worn by ancient Greeks to prevent intoxication. It was used for jewelry and adornment of objects. (Mined in Brazil, Uruguay, South Korea, Austria, India, Greece, Russia, Africa, United States, Canada.)

Aquamarine (pale to dark blue) was used in Ancient Rome to calm waves and keep sailors safe at sea. (Mined in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Brazil, Colombia, Zambia, Madagascar, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya.)

Carnelian (orange to red) was used in 4th-5th millennium BCE by Minoans on Crete and by ancient Romans. It was found on Assyrian cylinder seals and Egyptian and Phoenician scarabs. (Mined in Brazil, India, Siberia, Germany.)

Citrine (pale yellow to brown) was believed to bring prosperity. (Mined in Brazil.)

Coral (white, pink, red, black) is a sea animal. Coral beads were popular during the Manchu or Qing Dynasty in China (1644-1911 CE). It was used in Ancient India, Egypt, Polynesian islands, Africa, and other coastal cultures. The beads were introduced in Europe by the East India Company.

Diamond (white, yellow, blue, pink, black) is derived from the ancient Greek adámas and were first mined in India. (Mined in Central and Southern Africa, Canada, India, Russia, Brazil, and Australia.)

Emeralds (pale to dark green) were used by ancient Greeks and Hebrews and mined by Egyptians, Austrians, and in northern Pakistan. (Mined in Colombia, Zambia, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Russia, North Carolina, and the Yukon)

Garnets (pink to dark red) have been worn since the Bronze Age. (Mined in Asia, Colorado, North Carolina, Czech republic, Madagascar, Russia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Turkey.)

Jade (pale yellow to dark green) was used during prehistoric periods for hardstone carving. It was treasured in Mesoamerican cultures as well as Neolithic China, Japan, and Europe. (Mined in Burma, North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, Canada, New Zealand, and Guatemala.)

Jasper (green, brown, pinks, red, orange, yellow, blue) means "spotted or speckled stone" and was recorded in Anglo-Norman culture, ancient Greece, the Middle East, Azerbaijan, Persia, Assyria, and Ancient Rome. On Minoan Crete (1800 BCE) jasper was carved into seals. There are multiple varieties often named after the mines. Each has a unique color spectrum and pattern. (Mined in the United States, Wales, Spain, Madagascar, Egypt, Africa, and anywhere there is volcanic rock, rivers, lakes, and mountains.)

Jet (black) is derived from decaying wood under extreme pressure and dates back to 10,000 BCE in Germany. It was used in Britain from the Neolithic period through the Bronze Age for necklace beads. It went out of fashion during the Iron age, but made a comeback in early third century CE in Roman Britain. It was again fashionable in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods and the later Medieval period. Jet beads became massively popular during the Victorian era. Long jet bead necklaces were also popular during the Roaring Twenties in the United States.

Lapis Lazuli (brilliant blue) was mined in the 7th millennium BCE in northeast Afghanistan. It was used at Neolithic burials in Mehrgarh, the Caucasus, and Mauritania. It was used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BCE). In the Middle Ages it was exported to Europe and was used in paint pigments. (Mined in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Chile, Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada.)

Obsidian (black) is a naturally occurring volcanic glass. It was mentioned by Pliny the Elder and a Roman explorer found it in Ethiopia. (Found in Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Australia,[ Canada, Chile, Georgia, Greece, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Scotland, Turkey, and the USA.)

Onyx (black and white, Sardonyx has red and yellow) was used in ancient Greece and Rome and in Egypt’s Second Dynasty for bowls and pottery items. Sardonyx dates back to Minoan Crete. Both are mentioned in the Bible. Brazilian green onyx was used for art deco sculptures in the 1920s and 1930s. (Mined in Yemen, Uruguay, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Madagascar, Latin America, the UK, and the US.)

Opals (fiery play of colors with a milky white, greenish, or black substrate) occur in the fissures of almost any kind of rock. Pliny the Elder mentioned opals. Opals were first referenced in ancient Rome in 250 BCE and were valued above all other gems. They were supplied by traders from the Bosporus who claimed they were mined in India. Opals were considered good luck in the Middle Ages. They were associated with bad luck after Sir Walter Scott featured them in a novel in 1829, causing sales to drop significantly. Famous opals were presented to Queen Elizabeth II and the Empress Josephine of France. Opals were mined in Central Mexico as early as 1870, but the largest mines are now in Australia. (Mined in Ethiopa, Australia, Nevada, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Czech Republic, Canada, Slovakia, Hungary, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil.)

Pearls ( white, pink, silver, cream, brown, green, blue, black, yellow, and purple) are formed in the shells of mollusks. Deep sea natural pearls are extremely rare and valuable. Cultured pearls from oyster and freshwater mussel farms make up the majority of those currently sold. Pearls were collected in Southern India in 5 to 6 BCE. Pliny the elder (23 to 79 CE) mentioned Sri Lankan pearls. Seawater pearls were gathered in prehistoric eras in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Gulf of Mannar. They were sought during the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 CE) in the South China Sea. Spanish explorers discovered pearl divers in the islands off the Venezuelan coast and offered a pearl to the Spanish queen. 

Peridot/Olivine (olive green) was first mentioned in the 1700s and has been found in lavas and meteorites. (Mined in Arkansas, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Australia, Brazil, China, Egypt, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar (Burma), Norway, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania.)

Rubies (pink to blood red) were primarily found in Upper Myanmar Burma and are mentioned in the Bible. They were held in high regard in Asian countries and were traded along the Silk Road of China circa 200 BCE. (Mined in Burman, Thailand, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, India, Namibia, Japan, Scotland, Madagascar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Macedonia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and Vietnam, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wyoming.)

Sapphire (blue, yellow, orange, padparadscha, green, brown, purple, and violet) was valued in Ancient Israel and Greece. They were popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. (Mined in Eastern Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China, Madagascar, East Africa, Montana, Afghanistan, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, Colombia, India, Kenya, Laos, Madagascar, Malawi, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and Thailand.)

Shells of all types, colors, and sizes were valued across the globe and were used as currency as well as adornment.

Topaz (Colorless if no impurities, blue, brown, orange, gray, yellow, green, pink and reddish pink) was popular during the Middle Ages. (Mined in Brazil, Russia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Pakistan, Italy, Sweden, Japan, Brazil, Mexico; Flinders Island, Australia; Nigeria and the United States.)

Tourmaline (black, colorless, brown, violet, yellow, orange, blue, red, green, pink, bi-colored, tri-colored) is a Sri Lankan gem brought to Europe in great quantities by the Dutch East India Company in the 1700s. (Mined in Germany, Italy, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Austria, Slovenia, Africa, Afghanistan.)

Turquoise (blue, green, aqua) dates to the 17th century and was first brought to Europe from Turkey from the mines in Persia. Pliny the Elder referred to the mineral as callais and Aztecs chalchihuitl. It was worn in Ancient Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and by Aztecs, Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, and to some extent in ancient China since at least the Shang Dynasty. (Mined in Iran, Sinai, United States, China, Afghanistan; Australia, north India, northern Chile, Cornwall, Saxony, Silesia, and Turkestan.)

We now have a trove of manufactured gemstones from Swarovski crystals to cubic zirconia that can be just as beautiful and shiny as the real thing.

What gemstones are of value in your story world?

Do gemstones convey status, position, or wealth? 

Do gemstones have magical qualities or powers?

Where and how are your invented stones mined or obtained?

Suggested references:
1. Gemstones of the World by Walter Schumann
2. Smithsonian Handbooks: Gemstones by Cally Hall
3. Fabulous Fakes: The History of Fantasy and Fashion Jewellery by Vivienne Becker
4. Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present (World of Art) by Clare Phillips
5. Tiaras - A History of Splendour by Geoffrey C. Munn
6. 7000 Years of Jewelry by Hugh Tait
7. Jewelry: History & Technique from the Egyptians to the Present by Guido Gregorietti
8. A History of Jewellery 1100-1870 by Joan Evans
9. A History of Jewelry: Five Thousand Years by J. Anderson Black
10. Answers to Questions About Old Jewelry, 1840-1950: Identification and Value Guide by C. Jeanenne Bell

Next week, we explore Appearance.

For advanced world-building, the SBB Build A World Workbook is available in print and e-book.

Other titles in the series:

Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book takes you from story seed to conflict outline. The fourteen companion Build A Plot Workbooks, in print and e-book, offer step by step development prompts: ComedyCon, Heist & Prison BreakFantasyGothicHistoricalHorrorLiterary
(Drama),  MysteryRoad TripRomanceScience FictionTeam VictoryThriller & SuspenseWestern.

SBB II Crafting Believable Conflict in print and e-book and the Build A Cast Workbook in print and e-book help you build a believable cast and add conflict based on the sixteen personality types.

SBB III The Revision Layers in print and e-book helps you self-edit your manuscript.

Free story building tools are available at  

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