Gemstones in the Middle Ages Part 1

03 Kaye cover smallWhen I was a kid, I loved collecting things I found. I think that’s why Reggie, a character in my Sir Kaye the Boy Knight children’s book series, does the same thing. I especially loved collecting rocks and minerals. It wasn’t something I could find laying on the ground, but as a kid, one of my favorite minerals was pyrite. Whenever I did get hold of some pyrite, it was easy to convince my friends it was real gold and I could trade it for other valuable items—hey, I never said I didn’t have moments as a little stinker.

Anyway, during my rock-collecting years as a kid, there would have been nothing cooler than for me to be collecting rocks off the ground and to suddenly stumble upon a beautifully cut and polished gem just lying in the dirt. A colorful gem like that would have been the prize of my collection and I would never have traded it for anything. So recently I thought to myself, “What if something like that were to happen to Reggie…”

Don’t worry, I’m not giving away any spoilers today. However, while working on Legend of the Forest Beast, I’ve had to do a little research about medieval gems and jewelry and I do have a few interesting facts to share.

Medieval Treasure Chest small
This is not an actual medieval treasure, but it’s a cool picture.

Most gemstones start out looking like ordinary rocks. They have to be cut and shaped and polished before they are ready to be worn as jewelry. When you think of gems and jewelry today, you might think of a ring with a sparkly stone in it.

If you look closely at one of those sparkly stones, you will notice that it has many, many flat sides and it most likely has a pointed back. The flat sides are called facets, and this way of cutting a gem is called a faceted cut. Medieval gems did not look like this. The knowledge and technology to make facets didn’t exist until near the end of the middle ages. Instead, cut and polished gems during the middle ages were smooth and rounded with a flat back, almost like half a round bead or half a marble. This style of shaping and polishing a gem is called a cabochon cut. Cabochon cut jewels in the middle ages were not always perfectly rounded. Sometimes they were kind of lumpy-looking.

Here’s a diagram illustrating the difference between cabochon cut gems and faceted gems:

gem type illustrationHere are some photos of medieval rings. Notice the domed shape of the cabochon cut stones in the rings.

medieval rings cabochon cut 2

medieval rings cabochon cut

Medieval England (which is the basis for my fictional land of Knox) had to import most of its precious stones from more exotic climes. Amber, pearls, jet, and corals were all that were locally available. The most valuable and most desired imported gem was the ruby, followed by sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, and another kind of pale red stone that was called a balas ruby.

In Part 2, next week, I’ll share some interesting facts I’ve learned about how gems in the middle ages were used and their curious connection with handwriting.