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Until 1912, the year a Jewelers of America forerunner revised this country’s birthstone list, chalcedony boasted five, and at earlier times, six, spots on that enduring roster, making this broad branch of the quartz family the most heavily represented of any in the gem kingdom.. Today agate, carnelian, chysoprase and jasper are missing from the birthstone roll. Only bloodstone and sardonyx remain, but these chalcedonies function as alternates.

In the case of bloodstone, March’s sole gem since the list was first codified, receiving second billing in the 20th century was a real slap in the face, part of our culture’s shift away from what are now called “ornamental” gems toward crystalline gems. That’s a nice way of saying these opaque stones are second-rate because they’re not transparent and so not facetable. Ironically, of the few ornamental stones found in jewelry stores today, black onyx, a dyed chalcedony, is one of the most familiar.

As for the dozens of other ornamental stones which play big roles in jewelry history, most today are considered anachronisms, of significance mainly to hobbyists, rock hounds and practitioners of ancient jewelry arts such as carving and engraving—arts that were once mainstay gemstone fashioning processes. That’s what makes the presence, although it is largely token, of bloodstone on the modern birthstone list so important. It is a last link to a sacramental tradition which views gems more as amulets than adornments, talismans than trinkets.

Sealed in Stone

Chalcedony’s key role in the jewelry industry of antiquity is easy to understand when one realizes that the primary use of gems in early civilizations such as those of Babylonia and Assyria was as seals usually set in rings—de rigueur items for prominent men.

This admiration was contagious. According to the Bible, King Solomon wore such a seal-ring and Moses ordered only seal-stones used in the 12-gem breastplate made circa 1300 B.C. for his brother Aaron when he was installed as chief rabbi at the temple in Jerusalem. In his book “The Curious Lore of Precious Stones,” famed gemologist George F. Kunz conjectured that six of the gems in that most celebrated of vestments were likely chalcedonies: three of them jaspers, two agates, and one onyx.

Big deal, say modern cynics, these quartzes were used because they were the most available gems. Not so. Some accounts of lapidary history suggest that early carvers could just as well have used garnet, lapis lazuli and serpentine. In time, cutters expanded their repertoire of items to include beryl, malachite, turquoise and zircon, among other species. Yet the search for carvable quartzes continued too.

This is where bloodstone enters the picture. A hybrid of two chalcedonies, dark-green plasma and deep-red jasper, this gem at its best exhibits a filed of forest green that is either speckled or spotted with full blooded red. A gem with this combination of colors was bound to fire the extremely mythopoeic imaginations of the ancients.

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