Jewellery Stories

Sapphire Lore Throughout the Ages

The Jewel of Jewels

by Lea Felicitas Döding

A Heavenly Blue

For centuries, the sapphire has ranked among the most valued minerals, along with the diamond, ruby and emerald. Though the sapphire naturally occurs in various colours, it is the blue variant which the name sapphire conjures up before our eyes, and which is primarily discussed even in the lapidaries of old, texts in verse or prose which discuss the physical and amuletic properties ascribed to certain stones. 

Antique starburst brooch with sapphire cabochon and diamonds, c. 1880

All other colour variants of this stone received identifying names of their own, such as the yellow sapphire, which was long referred to as the Oriental topaz, or the purple sapphire, called an Oriental amethyst. This fact bears mentioning as it is from its colour that much of the lore surrounding this gemstone arose: Since the Middle Ages, the sapphire’s blue colour has been linked to that of the sky and thereby to heaven.

To Bishop Marbodus of Rennes, the author of an important 11th century lapidary, the sapphire was the gemmarum gemma, jewel of jewels: “Brilliantly shining, and as pure as the heavens, it is inferior to none in virtue or beauty.” The scholastic Bartholomeus Anglicus, in his 13th century work De proprietatibus rerum (Of the Nature of Things), also described this gemstone as “blue in colour, most like to heaven in fair weather and clear”.2

From the philosophical works of the Middle Ages, this comparison found its way into the poetry of the Early Modern era: Shakespeare, for instance, wrote of “the heaven-hued sapphire” in his 1609 poem A Lover’s Complaint.3

The Stone of Kings and Bishops

From its association with the heavens arose a tradition which placed the sapphire within the ecclesiastical context. In the 12th century, Pope Innocent III decreed that a bishop’s ring be made of gold and a sapphire, for he considered this stone to possess desirable qualities and deemed it “a seal of secrets”, as bishops ought to keep their business hidden from commoners.4

A Belle Époque sapphire ring, c. 1910.

Arthur Herbert Church notes that “Small polished sapphires en cabochon are frequently found set in gold rings of stirrup form, and having a projecting bezel – worn by lay persons as well as by ecclesiastics in the 13th and 14th centuries.” (It should be noted that gem-set gold rings may have been worn by “lay persons” of noble rank, in the sense that they were not clerics, but to almost anyone else they would simply have been unaffordable.) The tradition of ecclesiastical sapphire rings is recorded to have lasted throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.7

For clerics, the sapphire’s connotations of heavenly purity and chastity would have rendered it a suitable gemstone. Since the sapphire, due to its great density, is cold to the touch, it was thought to be able to cool the blood. Therefore, “the Sapphire worn in a ring or in any other manner is able to quench concupiscence [= carnal desires], and for that reason is proper to be worn by the priesthood, and by all persons vowed to perpetual chastity.”8 It has been said of Elisabeth I., the Virgin Queen, that she wore a sapphire to render herself immune to temptation.9

But it was not only the wearer who was thought to be influenced by the sapphire’s occult qualities; indeed, the sapphire’s very appearance was considered to be linked to its wearer. A popular superstition was that a sapphire, worn by an impure or debauched person, would lose its lustre.10

A large sapphire ring of the mid-19th century, possibly ecclesiastical

These connotations of faith and chastity remained embedded in the shared cultural consciousness for centuries. As late as 1922, the celebrated Berlin goldsmith Emil Lettré wrote of the sapphire: “Blue is the colour of devoted faith and chastity, blue the standard of Mary, Mother of God.”11

Elisabeth I, however, was not the only ruler to whom the sapphire appealed. Indeed, Bartholomaeus Anglicus considered it “most apt and able to fingers of kings”.12 Pope Innocent III, who had founded by decree the tradition of sapphire bishop’s rings, also made a gift of jeweled rings to John, King of England, in 1207. In the accompanying letter, he informed the King that “By the gold, which is the metal of the ring, is denoted wisdom, which excels among the gifts of heaven, as gold does among metals. […] As to the colour of the stones, […] the purity of the sapphire [denotes] hope.”13

Besides these implications of moral purity, chastity and restraint, there were also other alleged qualities which rendered the sapphire so desirable a stone for those in positions of power. For one thing, it was believed to protect its wearer from the influence of falsity. As wrote Marbodus of Rennes, “he who carries it cannot be harmed by any fraud”.14 Likewise, because of its supposedly purifying effect upon the wearer’s mind, it was thought to dispel the influences of evil forces, witchcraft and sorcery.15

A sapphire button from the sapphire suite of August the Strong, created by Johann Melchior Dinglinger c. 1720, converted to a ring c. 1920

For another, the sapphire – as so many other gemstones and materials – was considered to neutralize poisons and venoms, specifically those of insects and reptiles: “Its virtue is contrary to venom and quencheth it every deal. And if thou put an addercop [= a spider] in a box, and hold a very sapphire of Ind[ia] at the mouth of the box any while, by virtue thereof the addercop is overcome and dieth, as it were suddenly. And this same I have seen proved oft in many and divers places.”16

A Remedy for Worldly Pains

There were also other, worldlier troubles for which the sapphire was considered an apt remedy. It was believed to be able to heal ailments of the eyes, of the digestive system, mental illness and headaches. Again, Marbodus informs us that “it also takes the dirt from the eyes, the pain from the forehead”.17

Victorian sapphire ring and sapphire earrings with diamonds, both c. 1890

This belief seems to have been rather widespread. Sometimes it was advised to pulverize the sapphire so that it may be ingested with drink, sometimes it was considered more apt to touch the eye with the stone. In 1391, London citizen Richard Preston gave a sapphire to the shrine of St. Erkinwald in Old Saint Pauls, so that the stone may be kept there to cure diseased eyes.18 In the 15th century, Mary, Queen of Scots, owned a sapphire set in gold “which serves to rub the eyes”19, as did Charles V.20

In light of this belief, it appears as a witty twist of fate that sapphires began to be used “as lenses for microscopes with great success” around the middle of the nineteenth century.21

In less palpable terms, the sapphire was also thought to cure diseases of the mind, especially melancholy – a historical, outdated term for something akin to depression. Thus wrote Robert Burton in his important work The Anatomy of Melancholy: “the Saphyre, which is the fairest of all pretious stones of sky colour, and a great enemy to black choler, frees the minde, mends manners.”22

In the context of temperament theory, diseases such as melancholy were believed to be the product of an imbalance of bodily fluids, the so-called four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow and black choler resp. bile. Melancholy was thought to be caused by an excess of black bile. Since these humors in turn were thought to be produced during the digestive process, one might assume a historical link between the sapphire as remedy for melancholy, and the sapphire as a remedy for digestive problems.

The Sapphire in Modern Gem Lore

Belle Époque pendant necklace set with a sapphire cabochon, c. 1905

By the 18th century, with the advance of the natural sciences and enlightenment thinking, centuries-old beliefs pertaining to the occult powers of gemstones were challenged and discarded. Thus it is in a rather condescending tone that a 1774 treatise on precious stones informs us: “To withstand poisons, to delight the heart, and – so that nothing may be lacking – to heal ailments of the eyes because of its blue colour, to heal ulcers of the innards, these virtues one has ascribed to the sapphire. […] But how inapt these [remedies] are, any reasonable person can see.”23

By the 19th century, beliefs about the sapphire as a moral aid and physical remedy had been mostly dispelled even among the general public. That is not to say, however, that no superstitions remained at all. A passage from an 1886 issue of the German ladies’ magazine Bazar reveals, for instance, a link to the age-old beliefs which had rendered the sapphire a stone apt for bishops: “And still today, as I mentioned, superstition glistens within the gemstones. A sapphire ring is supposed to hold great moral powers; whoever wears it is said to never seek out bad company”.24

An assortment of early 20th century rings

On a grander scale, however, gemstones were no longer thought to hold intrinsic powers, be they spiritual or curative. Instead, one began to assign meanings to them, usually with the goal to express something about oneself as the wearer, or about one’s intentions towards the recipient. A language of gemstones was created, just as one also communicated by way of floral bouquets, the position of stamps on an envelope or the placement of a handheld fan.

As with many gemstones, the sapphire’s symbolic properties in Victorian culture were loosely rooted in the lore of old. Where the sapphire had once been believed to further moral purity and protect from falsity, it now symbolized truth; and where it had once been thought to cool its wearer's ardour and suppress carnal desires, it now denoted fidelity.

The references are too numerous to list here in full. Victorian painter Edward-Burne Jones, for instance, stated that “Sapphire is truth, and I am never without it. […] Sapphires I make my totem of!”25

An Art Déco blue and purplish sapphire bracelet, c. 1930.

That these symbolic meanings were known well into the early twentieth century is evident in this passage from George Kunz’s famous Curious Lore of Precious Stones, which also references the sapphire’s place as a birthstone of September: “The sapphire – the gem of autumn, the blue of the autumn sky – is a symbol of truth, sincerity, and constancy. Less vivid than its sister gem, the ruby, it typifies calm and tried affection, not ardent passion; it is therefore appropriate to the autumn season, when the declining sun no longer sends forth the fiery rays of summer but shines with a tempered brilliancy.”26

1”Egregium fulgens, puroque simillima coelo, / Vilior est nullo virtutibus arque decore.” – Marbodi Liber lapidum seu De gemmis varietate lectionis et perpetua annotatione illustratus a Iohanne Beckmanno, ed. by Johann Beckmann (Göttingen: J. C. Dieterich, 1799), p. 21.

2Medieval Lore: An Epitome of the Science, Geography, Animal and Plant Folk-Lore and Myth of the Middle Age: Being Classified Gleanings from the Encyclopaedia of Bartholomew Anglicus On the Properties of Things, ed. by Robert Steele, (London: Elliot Stock, 1893), p. 36.

3William Shakespeare, A Lover’s Complaint, l. 215.

4Cf. Kate Pavitt/William Thomas Pavitt, The Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodiacal Gems, (London: William Ride & Son, 1922), p. 154-5.

5Arthur Herbert Church, Precious Stones Considered in their Scientific and Artistic Relationp. A Guide to the Townshend Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum Handbookp. Precious Stones, überarbeitete Ausgabe, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1913), p. 80.

6Cf. Edward Clapton, The Precious Stones of the Bible, (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1899), p. 79.

7Cf. Francis Stopford, The Romance of the Jewel, (London: Mappin & Webb, 1920), p. 67.

8Isaac Vossius as cited in: Charles King, The Natural History, Ancient and Modern, of Precious Stones and Gems, and of the Precious Metals, (London: Bell & Daldy; Cambridge: Deighton, Bell & Co, 1865), p. 201.

9Cf. Emil Lettré, Kleinodien, (Berlin: Reiss, 1922), p. 21.

10Cf. Anita de Barrera, Gems and Jewels, (London: Richard Bentley, 1860), p. 244.

11Lettré, p. 21.

12Medieval Lore, p. 36.

13Pope Innozenz III as cited in: Henry Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, Bd. I, (Edinburgh: William Creech, 1813), p. 160.

14”Et qui portat eum nequit vlla fraude noceri.” – Marbodi Liber lapidum, p. 22.

15Cf. Isidore Kozminsky, The Magic & Science of Jewels & Stones, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922), p. 359.

16Medieval Lore, p. 36.

17”Tollit ex oculis sordes, ex fronte dolorem.” – Marbodi Liber lapidum, p. 22.

18Cf. George Frederick Kunz, The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, (Philadelphia & London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1913), p. 387.

19Joseph Robertson, Inventaires de la Royne Descosse Douairiere de France, (Edinburgh: [n. pub.], 1863), p. 101.

20Kunz, p. 388.

21Lewis Feuchtwanger, A Popular Treatise on Gems..., 3rd edn, (New York: the author, 1867), p. 219.

22Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy..., 5th rev. edn, (Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1638), p. 367.

23D. Johann Wilhelm Baumers,Naturgeschichte aller Edelsteine..., trans. by Karl Meidinger (Vienna: [n. pub.], 1774), p. 91.

24Max Lortzing, ”Allerlei über Edelsteine”, Der Bazar, 32 (1886), No. 43, p. 463.

25As cited in: Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite. Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 321.

26Kunz, p. 324.

Lea Felicitas Döding

As an art historian, I am primarily interested in the material culture of jewellery. Who would have worn a piece, when and why? What was the cultural significance of certain gemstones and jewellery designs? These are the questions I attempt to solve for the Hofer Magazine, and which often lead me into the depths of jewellery history.

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