Ask Mint | The many shades of gemstones

Ask Mint | The many shades of gemstones
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First Published: Mon, Mar 02 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Mar 02 2009. 11 23 AM IST
In 1984, the US Congress fixed the minimum drinking age at 21. The experience has shown that the age-21 bar does not work. Last year, a group of educationists launched a movement called the Amethyst Initiative, against the age-21 bar. The sponsors said there was clandestine “binge drinking” on campus and off campus. If an American citizen can vote, can marry and can join the military when he is 18, why should he not get himself a beer?
More interesting to me was the question, why did they call it the Amethyst Initiative?
In Greek mythology, Amethyst, a young girl, incurred the wrath of Dionysus, the god of wine, and he sent two tigers to chase her. She cried for help, and Diana came to her rescue and turned her into a white stone. On realizing what had happened, Dionysus shed tears which fell into his goblet of wine, and then the tear-tainted wine spilled over the white stone. The stone took on the colour of the wine.
Etymologically, the word is traced back to Latin amethystus from Greek a, “not”, and methustos, “to be drunk”. Meth is Greek for wine. The belief was that if you drank wine from an amethyst cup, you would not get intoxicated.
People continue to believe in the therapeutic powers of amethyst. WSJ. Magazine’s winter 2008 issue has a report about an ABC News’ anchorman in Iraq, Bob Woodruff, whose brain was shattered by a bomb. An amethyst, placed under his pillow by a friend, brought him round, and he is back on duty.
When we think of gemstones, the first and most coveted stone that comes to mind is the diamond. Together with emerald, pearl, sapphire and ruby, it makes the Big Five among gems.
The name diamond comes from Greek adamastos, which means unconquerable.
Adamas by extension came to mean the hardest iron. This meaning is reflected in the adjective adamant.
Diamonds in legend are far less interesting than diamonds in history. The Hope diamond, named after London banker Thomas Hope, carried a curse with it. Its history of 300 years is marked by mysterious, often gruesome, deaths. The last of the owners donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
Another famous diamond, Kohinoor, was the jewel among jewels in the possession of the Mughal emperors. In 1739, Nadir Shah invaded India, and seized the Mughal treasury. Learning that the jewel was hidden in the emperor’s turban, he invited the emperor’s family to a feast, and suggested they exchange turbans as a gesture of friendship. Nadir Shah took the jewel from the turban and named it Koh-i-Noor—the mountain of light. The diamond passed into the hands of other rulers and is now with the British.
Queen Victoria wore it as a personal ornament. In 1937, Queen Elizabeth, the consort of George VI, made a crown with this diamond to wear at the coronation of her husband. It is now on display behind high security armoured glass in the Tower of London. In 2002, it was placed on top of the Queen Mother’s coffin on its way to Westminster Abbey.
There is also a sinister side to the story of diamonds. The history of the diamond trade was totally transformed after the rather serendipitous discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867. A farm boy Erasmus Jacobs brought home an unusually glittering stone for his sisters to play with. His parents identified it as a diamond, beginning the diamond rush. Today, the industry supports about 10 million people.
But with success came problems. In the brutal conflict that broke out in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, diamonds were poured in to support the rebels. These diamonds came to be called blood diamonds or conflict diamonds. Illicit rough diamonds are used today to support conflict, terrorism, smuggling and insurgency. The UN, with the support of other agencies, has created the Kimberley Process Certification System to keep illicit blood diamonds out of the legitimate market.
To many, the ruby is the most valued gemstone. It is said to represent passion, beauty and prosperity. In the Bible, Job said, “The price of wisdom is above rubies.” Solomon said, “A virtuous woman is more valuable than rubies.” The most valuable shade of the ruby is pigeon blood, mined in the Mogok valley of Myanmar.
The pearl is a class apart. It is not mined as a mineral; it is an organic growth inside a living oyster. It gets its name from Latin pernula, from perna, which means ham or seashell, a reference to its shape. It has another Latin name, margarita.
A gorgeous margarita necklace was presented to Jacqueline Kennedy by Romulo Betancourt, then Venezuelan president, when the Kennedys visited the country.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Mar 02 2009. 01 15 AM IST