You may not remember much high school science, and it’s unlikely you remember much from the boring class that focused on minerals and rocks. If you can still picture anything from that class, though, it’s probably the often-clear, oddly-shaped crystal which is the most common mineral found on earth: quartz. Believe it or not, that same mineral is found in one of the most popular types of gemstone jewelry on earth – gorgeous violet amethyst rings.
Amethyst has been revered since the days of the ancient Greeks, and today’s jewelry buyers have made it one of the top-selling semi-precious gemstones. Whether it’s used to create earrings, pendants, necklaces, bracelets or even a stunning amethyst engagement ring, the purple stone makes a dramatic statement, attracting the eye immediately.
Some people view an amethyst ring as simply a pretty bauble, because it’s easy to find amethyst jewelry and it’s priced much more reasonably than precious pieces with diamonds, sapphires or rubies. However, the most desirable amethysts are much more than a garden variety semi-precious stone. In today’s society, where many women are looking for a beautiful yet very different ring to wear on their wedding day, they’re choosing amethyst wedding rings or amethyst engagement rings to make the impression they’re seeking.
Let’s take a look at the long and storied background of amethyst, and the ways it can be used to create spectacular, modern jewelry.
The History of Amethyst
The Greeks are commonly given credit for the first widespread use of amethyst, but its history really dates back to Biblical times. The Jewish high priest Aaron wore an amethyst stone as one of the twelve gemstones on his breastplate, amethyst was used to adorn Catholic crosses and was known as the “stone of bishops” representing the loyalty of Christ, and it was one of the stones said to have been important to Buddha (which is why you often see amethyst included in Buddhist prayer beads). There is still religious symbolism to the stone today; in both Buddhism and Catholicism amethyst is a symbol of celibacy, and many Catholic and Episcopal bishops wear amethyst rings either to show fidelity to the church or as a reference to the Apostles.
The Greek civilization, though, actually gave a name to the beautiful gemstone. The word “amethyst” derives from the Greek “amethystus”, literally meaning “not drunk”. The Greeks believed that the stone protected the body from inebriation, so it was quite common in those days to see cups decorated with the stones or imbibers wearing amethysts. It also had special meaning to the ancient Egyptians, as their pharaohs (or kings) often were buried in tombs decorated with the stones. Cleopatra was said to have had an amethyst ring which captivated both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, spreading the tradition of wearing amethyst rings to Rome (where women believed the stone would guarantee the fidelity of their husbands). Many Egyptian working class citizens were even given gifts of amethyst by their rulers as a way to publicly share the civilization’s great wealth. Later, medieval soldiers often wore amethyst amulets into battle, believing the stones had great healing powers.
Over the following centuries amethyst was valued as highly as precious stones like emeralds and sapphires, and the gemstone became associated with royalty in many societies. For example, an amethyst is the oldest stone in the British crown jewels, and it was a favorite of the Russian empress Catherine the Great who was seldom seen in public without amethyst jewelry, and often sent large numbers of Russian workers into the Ural Mountains to mine it for her use.
It was early in the 19th century that everything changed. Huge new deposits of the stone were discovered in two areas which had previously supplied limited amounts, Brazil and the Urals. That brought down the price of amethyst dramatically and turned the stone of royalty into one accessible to the masses at a reasonable cost.
What is Amethyst?
We’ve already mentioned that amethyst is a semi-precious stone which is a variety of quartz. It naturally occurs in a number of shades from very light violet with pink overtones to a very deep purple, with secondary colors of blue and/or red sometimes seen as well. The best stones are a color known as “Siberian amethyst” and have hues of about 80% purple and 20% blue, along with secondary red tones (seen only in certain types of light) and great transparency; these deposits have largely been exhausted, so the stones are extremely expensive. Other sources known for their deeply colored stone are Uruguay and the American Southwest, primarily Arizona. Amethysts mined in African nations are also often deep in color, so dark stones are often incorrectly referred to as African or Siberian amethyst, even though they may have originated elsewhere.
The natural purple color in amethyst is believed to come from the combination of iron traces in its crystal structure and exposure to radiation. Today’s amethysts are sometimes heat treated (they’re not damaged by the treatment, but it should be disclosed by the vendor) to deepen the violet color of the stone. If you’ve seen a green amethyst ring and wondered if it was genuine because of its color, it probably is; some forms of amethyst do turn light green when treated with heat. Those stones are properly called prasiolite. Other forms of amethyst turn to a color ranging from orange to yellow when heated, and this stone is known as “heated citrine”.
You’ll also sometimes see very inexpensive beads or cabochons (stones cut without facets) labeled amethyst quartz, which are a mix of amethyst and either clear or milky quartz. These will typically show alternating bands or purple and white, or one color on top and the other on the bottom, and are quite commonly used to make necklaces, bracelets or inexpensive rings.
It’s not necessary to “resort” to this hybrid stone if you’re trying to keep the price of your amethyst ring down, though. There are abundant sources of good-to-decent amethyst around the world from Brazil to South Korea, Canada to Russia, Austria to Zambia. At least ten U.S. states have decent-sized amethyst deposits as well. There’s one thing to be wary of, however; there’s a good amount of synthetic amethyst on the market, with much of it produced in Russia. It’s possible to test a stone for authenticity, but since the test costs about $1 and is only done overseas for large quantities of gemstones, testing isn’t worth the cost for American jewelers selling the stone for relatively cheap prices. The best defense against synthetic amethyst is to patronize reputable jewelers who use only reliable sources, and can tell the difference between real and fake through close inspection of a stone.
Amethyst is a relatively hard gemstone, with a rating of 7 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. However, it will wear over time and may need occasional repolishing. An amethyst ring should not be subjected to long-term exposure to the sun, because the ultraviolet rays can affect its color.
How to Judge an Amethyst
Amethyst, as a colored gemstone, is not graded in quite the same way as a diamond. However, the “4 C’s” of color, clarity, cut and carats do still come into play in judging a stone’s value when you’re looking at amethyst rings.
- Color: This is always the most important consideration in a colored stone, and as you’ve already learned, the most valuable amethysts have a strong purple or reddish-purple color. While color saturation is important, the stone should not be so saturated that it loses its brightness and appears black in low light. Lighter-colored stones are still pretty and hold some value as long as they’re not completely weak in color. If you can see “zones” of color within an amethyst, or there are yellow or brown tones visible, the stone is also less valuable. You can usually see these zones if you hold the table of the amethyst against a white sheet of paper.
- Clarity: It’s easy to find eye-clean amethysts and you should expect to find plenty of them when shopping for an amethyst ring. Quality stones are transparent and any inclusions can be seen easily, so eye-clean is something you can determine just by a quick examination. A stone is usually most valuable when there are no visible inclusions in it, although there are times when compromising makes sense. For example, Zambian amethysts often have a striking, beautiful raspberry color but do have some inclusions; many buyers would rather have one of these stones with a few very minor inclusions mostly obscured by facets, than a Brazilian eye-clean stone with less impressive color. You’ll often find that stones with inclusions are sold as beads or cabochons at low prices, and they can be a good deal.
- Cut: You’ll find high-quality amethyst in almost all of the traditional shapes used for center stones in rings, but the most common are brilliant round or ovals. Cutters rely on amethyst with strong color characteristics to produce fancy cuts so you can expect to find a very good stone whenever you opt for them. You’ll find plenty of marquise, cushion and emerald cuts for striking amethyst engagement rings, as well as the trendy trillion, pear and heart shapes. Freeform cuts are also quite common. Cut is graded depending on the shape of the stone, but is not as much a factor as color and clarity unless an amethyst has been butchered by the cutter. The gemstone should exhibit good brilliance and sparkle, with light reflected evenly across the stone.
- Carats: Because amethyst is so plentiful, the price per carat doesn’t normally increase as you shop for larger stones. As with all colored stones, you should purchase by size rather than by carat weight because colored stones like amethyst vary greatly in their size to weight ratio. You will typically pay anywhere from $5-$40 per carat for the gemstone, depending primarily on color and clarity (with the typical sized stone for an amethyst ring anywhere from ten to 25 carats). However, there are exceptions; very large and custom cut stones can cost much more, as can true Siberian amethyst which has brought prices as high as $50,000 per carat.
Types of Rings: Non-Traditional Choices
We have mentioned amethyst engagement rings several times in this article, because they’ve become popular as beautiful, non-traditional pieces which can look striking on a bride’s hand due to their unusual purple color, without breaking the bank. An amethyst and diamond ring is another option chosen more often by brides-to-be these days, either with the amethyst featured as the center stone and diamond accent stones, or the other way around. The color variation, play and sparkle exhibited by an amethyst and diamond ring are among the most striking you’ll see.
Amethyst wedding rings are also finding favor in the 2010s, as they add an unusual flash of color to what’s often a relatively simple band. Since the stone is a perfect match for any type of precious metal (even yellow or rose gold, which give the piece more of an antique appearance), the choices are endless.
We’ve already mentioned this stone as somewhat lower in quality, but you might be surprised at how many brides-to-be choose a green amethyst engagement ring. A green amethyst ring is inexpensive compared to its purple cousin, and downright cheap next to more traditional choices like diamonds. It can match with either white or yellow gold (or platinum) for totally different and unusual looks, making a green amethyst engagement ring a great option for couples just starting out in life.
Finally, there’s one other variation on this jewelry we haven’t discussed, but you may see advertised: a pink amethyst ring. These are usually very pale lilac or lavender in color, somewhat resembling rose quartz but transparent rather than opaque. They’re really pieces made from lower-quality light-colored amethyst, which jewelers may be trying to inflate in price by calling them “pink amethyst rings”. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with buying one, if you’re drawn to it. Just be aware that it’s pretty far down the scale of quality amethyst rings.