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Black Onyx

Now that the term “semiprecious” has become politically incorrect in gem dealer circles, it is being replaced by a more subtly derogatory term, “ornamental.” While the term means “decorative,” its prevailing connotation is of something bauble-like that is both showy and valueless. No wonder the adjective is heard mostly in conjunction with chalcedony quartzes such as carnelian and, above all, black onyx.

Unless used for sculptural purposes, black onyx never costs more than a few dollars per carat. That’s why it rarely inspires rapture or scholarship. So while jewelers are aware that it was a mainstay gem of the art deco period and is widely used today in men’s jewelry, few know that black onyx was more celebrated before our century or that it boasts a millennial history with long stretches of veneration.

The earliest and possibly grandest highlight of that history dates from around 250 B.C. when a large onyx (probably banded rather than uniformly colored) was chosen as the sixth stone in the 12-stone breastplate of Aaron, unquestionably the most famous gem vestment in Judeo-Christian history.

In addition, black onyx merits attention as one of the first known and most popular treated gems, its color the result of a staining process recorded by Roman soldier-scientist Pliny the Elder in the gem section of his vast treatise, “Natural History.” Indeed, it is onyx’s status as a treated stone that poses one of the quartz world’s nagging mysteries; the exact period when “onyx” shifted meaning to refer exclusively to solid-color rather than patterned agates.

In our time, certainly, the word “onyx” conjures up gems with lacquer-like single colors, whether black, green, blue or red. But that’s not what the word originally evoked when the ancient Greeks coined onychion, from their word for “fingernail,” as “a generic term for onyx, sardonyx and agate,” explains quartz expert Sy Frazier. Shortened nearer our age to onyx, but still referring, in essence, to banded agates, the original association with fingernail makes good philological sense, but only if you think of non-treated agate. Look at a fingernail and you’ll see three alternating bands of light and dark curving across the cuticle, similar to the curved light-and-dark banding of agate.

But did the Greeks even know of dyed onyx? Or did, as many suspect, the process begin with the Romans? If so, did the Romans practice staining widely enough for it to be considered as much of a norm for this gem as it is today? Or, more likely, was the word associated equally with natural banded and treated solid-color gems?

One thing is for sure: During the Victorian era, the name began to stand almost entirely for solid-color gems. And it was then, notes period jewelry specialist Jeanenne Bell, that black onyx wrote the oddest chapter in its history by playing the role of a black-gem stand-in: similar to that of red spinel in the ruby market.

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Black Onyx