History and Lore of Peridot
Peridot is named after the French word peritot, meaning gold, because the mineral can vary towards this color. Peridot is the birthstone for the month of August. It is also the stone given to celebrate the 16th year of marriage. Peridot has a very long written history. Ancient papyri record the mining of these stones as early as 1500 BC. The main source of peridot in the ancient world was Topazo Island (now Zabargad or St. John’s Island) in the Egyptian Red Sea. In Ancient times, peridot stones were used for carved talismans. Island habitants were forced to collect the gems for the Pharaoh’s treasury. Legend says that jealous watchers who had orders to put to death any trespassers guarded the entire island. The story continues that the miners worked in the daytime as well as night, as the gems could be found after nightfall due to their radiance. The miners would mark the spot at night for retrieval the following day.
Peridot is the National gem of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians knew it as “the gem of the sun.” Peridot was mined for over 3,500 years on St Johns Island. As late as the 19th Century, the Kedhive of Egypt had a monopoly on the mines. At one point, the island’s exact whereabouts became a mystery for several centuries until being rediscovered in 1905. Joel Aram, from the “Color Encyclopedia of Gemstones 2nd Edition,” writes “Zabargad is an island in the Red Sea that is often shrouded in fog, making it difficult for ancient navigators to find. The location has been lost in fact, for centuries, and was rediscovered in about 1905. The island is located 35 miles of the Egyptian coastal port of Berenica.” In the 19th Century, the mines on Zabargad Island produced millions of dollars worth of peridot. After 1905, production of the gems peaked, but by the late 1930’s it tapered off to practically nothing and reached a virtual stand still in 1958, when the mines were nationalized. Although parcels of St. Johns peridot still come into the market once in a while, it is not known whether it is new or old. Most assume it is old.
Peridot was known in old times as chrysolite. The name chysolite however, was used at a time when we did not have the ability to so accurately identify stones as we do today. The word “chrysolite” was also used for some colors of topaz until we began to be able to recognize the differences between these stones.
Once upon a time, ecclesiastical treasures in European cathedrals included some fine, large peridots, but wars and pillage have dispersed many of them. The ones that disappeared probably do exist today but have been cut down to smaller size and set in jewelry.
In the middle ages, Europeans brought peridot stones back from the Crusades to decorate church plates and robes. Peridot was also known to ancient Hebrews and is listed both as one of the stones used by Aaron and found in the text of the apocalypse (Revelations).
Before a coup d’etat in 1962, that left the country a socialist totalitarian state controlled by its army, Burma was a thriving peridot producer, principally in its North Central Mogok district. Now, Burma is in economic shambles, completely poor and depressed. The only Burmese peridot available now is decent, but far from great, yet the price is a hundred times that of Burma’s best before the country was shut off from the world. Politics are the reason Burma can no longer be counted on for peridot. Burma still produces some gems, but mining is clandestine and most goods are passed onto the outside world through a rather elaborate network of smugglers. Thailand is actually a cheap conduit for Burmese contraband.
One famous large peridot gem adorning the shrine of the Three Holy Kings in the cathedral at Cologne was for centuries, believed to be an emerald, and only identified as peridot late in the last century. A few jewelry historians are now convinced that some, maybe all of the emeralds Cleopatra was famous for wearing, were not actually emeralds, but Peridots from Egypt. This emerald-looking shade of green is almost never encountered in peridots under ten carats. To find stones of such color, one must look in Egypt and Burma, where production has reached a virtual standstill in recent years.
Peridot has long been called “an Evening Emerald,” for under artificial light, the stone glows a brilliant green. Peridot is similar to the emerald but softer in intensity. Peridots of two or three carats are expensive, and a fine eight-carat stone is extremely rare. Any stones beyond eight carats are collectors or museum pieces. Two of the finest peridot displays containing some of the largest and best specimens are in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Field Museum in Chicago. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC has a cut peridot stone of 310 carats.
Throughout history, there have been many legends that state the strong magical power that peridot possesses. Legend says that if the gem is set in gold, it will develop its full potential as a talisman and will have the power to dispel terrors of the night- fears and bad dreams. However, according to Pliny The Elder, the Great Roman authority on such matters, for peridots to work their strongest magic, they must be worn on the right arm.
Several experts believe that the second gemstone in Aaron’s breastplate was a peridot. There is also an argument that has never been settled as to which gem was used as the seventh foundation stone for the New Jerusalem of the Bible. Some authorities maintain that this too was peridot. Another note about the power of the gem is contained in a statement made by the Bishop of Mainz about 1,100 years ago to the effect that “…in the peridot is shown true spiritual preaching accompanied by miracles.”
Peridot has been long considered to be an aid to friendship and supposedly frees the mind of envious thoughts. It is also supposed to protect the wearer from the evil eye. Other legends credit peridot with bringing happiness and good cheer, attracting lovers, and strengthening the eyes. Pliny wrote that peridot is dull during daylight hours but will glow like a hot coal by night.
Several sources say that in ancient times, cups or other vessels made of peridot were used in healing because medicinal liquids drunk from them were more effective. In 1502 in Venice, Kunz cited the manuscript which relates the ancient practice of using a piece of peridot upon which was carved an ass to assist a person with a skill or prophesy. On the other hand, the engraving of a totem or a vulture allowed the stone to have control over various demonic spirits as well as the winds.