Tuesday 21 November 2017

Treasures: Romancing the stones

Blue topaz and diamond pendant earrings
Blue topaz and diamond pendant earrings
1930s peridot pendant.
Victorian sapphire and old brilliant cut diamond bangle
Chiffonier at Adam's Attic Sale

Ireland's fine arts, collectables and antiques column.

What's Your Birthstone?

The February born may find,

Sincerity and peace of mind,

Freedom from passion and from care,

If they an amethyst will wear.

The verse was published by Tiffany & Co around 1870 in a pamphlet extolling the virtues of birthstones. The full poem, grandly entitled Gregorian Birthstone Poems, is a flagrant bit of 19th century marketing.

"There can be no doubt," wrote George F Kunz in The Curious Lore Of Precious Stones (1913), "that the owner of a ring or an ornament set with a natal stone is impressed by the idea of possessing something more intimately associated with his or her personality than any other stone, however beautiful or costly it may be."

"People are still interested in birthstones," says Grainne Pearse of Courtville Antiques, a specialist in antique jewellery. "The belief in the symbolism of gemstones was very much a Victorian thing.

"They believed certain stones had a talismanic effect in warding off evil."

The verse for August in the Tiffany pamphlet contains a thinly-veiled threat:

"Wear a carnelian or for thee,

No conjugal felicity,

The August-born without this stone,

'Tis said, must live unloved, alone."

Currently, the list of birthstones is as follows: garnets for January; amethysts for February; aquamarine for March; diamonds for April; emeralds for May; pearls for June; rubies for July; peridot for August; sapphire for September; opals for October; topaz for November; and turquoise for December.

The American Gemstone Society adds further options: alexandrite for June; tourmaline for October; citrine for November; and zircon or tanzanite for December.

The tradition of birthstones is often dismissed as a marketing ploy invented by 19th century jewellers. There's a certain amount of truth in this but, according to Kunz, the belief in natal stones relates to an ancient tradition.

He argues that the dedication of a special stone to each month dates back to Josephus in the first century AD, and Saint Jerome in the fifth. Both these writers make a connection between the 12 stones in the high priest's breastplate (as described in Exodus) and the 12 signs of the zodiac.

The order in which the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem were given in The Book Of Revelation determined the succession of natal stones for the months.

Fast forward to 18th century Poland where the custom of wearing one's birthstone emerged, possibly as a sales pitch devised by Jewish gemstone traders. The list of stones had changed slightly from that in The Book Of Revelation, but there's enough similarity to assume this is where the tradition comes from. Prior to the 18th century, people were more interested in the magical powers of particular stones than in a mystic link between the stone of the month and the birthday of its wearer.

The list of birthstones allocated to each month has altered over time, but some months are more consistent than others. The association of the garnet with January seems to be pretty universal, as does the topaz with November.

Others have changed radically. In the 18th century, turquoise was the birthstone for July and the ruby for December. By 1870 the two stones had swapped places. The July birthstone had become the ruby and December was linked to the turquoise.

The diamond, which was not on the ancient lists, became the birthstone for April.

In 1912 the American National Association of Jewellers met in Kansas City to create a definitive list of birthstones. The committee not only standardised the list, but also made additions.

Kunz was outraged: "Once we allow the spirit of commercialism pure and simple to dictate the choice of such stones according to the monetary interest of dealers, there is grave danger that the only true incentive to acquire birthstones will be weakened and people will lose interest in them."

Because the list includes both precious and semi-precious stones, some birthstones are more affordable than others. If your loved one is born in April, be prepared to fork out for diamonds.

Emeralds are almost as expensive, although the price depends hugely on the size, quality and condition of the stone. Rubies and sapphires are only slightly cheaper.

Opals can also command high prices, depending on quality. Of all the birthstones, opals are the most burdened with superstition and many people refuse to wear them unless they have an October birthday. Pearls vary from next-to-nothing to tens of thousands of euro.

Semi-precious stones can also be valuable, especially if they are part of a piece of antique jewellery.

"Aquamarines can be expensive," says Lola Hynes of O'Reilly's Auction rooms, "although it depends a lot on colour. Amethysts were very popular in Victorian times and they come in wonderful settings."

An antique amethyst riviere necklace with graduated stones might fetch up to €5,000 but, in general, amethysts are more likely to sell for hundreds, rather than thousands. Hynes puts topaz and peridot in a similar price bracket, although some colours of topaz are more popular than others.

Garnets and turquoises tend to be less expensive, unless part of a very fine setting, such as the antique gold turquoise pearl bracelet, available from Courtville Antiques for €1,395.

"Garnet is a wonderful stone too," says Grainne Pearse. "You see such beautiful settings. Victorian goldsmithing was superb and they used to go for whole suites of jewellery, not just single rings."

As always, whether you're buying or selling, go to a trustworthy dealer, preferably a member of the IADA, or a reputable auctioneer.

For more information, see oreillysfineart.com, courtvilleantiques.com, iada.ie.

In the salerooms


The word 'attic' on an auctioneer's calendar generally indicates a clearing of the decks and the auction, often with a low reserve, of items that have lingered in the dusty corners of former sales.

Where this is the case, and if the vendor is keen to see the back of their item, the bidder can find much of value. Adam's Attic Sale, which takes place on Monday, has many lots estimated to sell at less than €1,000.

Many of these are fine pieces of furniture whose estimated selling price puts the high street to shame. These include an Edwardian rosewood and marquetry inlaid chiffonier (right), c.1900, which is estimated between €300 and €400.

Similarly accessible, an Edwardian oak-cased canteen chest with three drawers containing a miscellaneous collection of silver plated and bone-handle flatware is estimated at €80 to €120. This, if it sells within the estimated, contains a lot of cutlery for your money.

A set of six Victorian style mahogany dining chairs are estimated between €200 and €400. Wall-hung pieces include a hand-tinted engraving by Thomas Morris after William Marlow, dating from the late 18th century and showing Ludgate Street from Ludgate Hill. The guide price is between €100 and €150. The sale takes place on Monday at 11.30am with full details on adams.ie.


The Cork National Antiques Art & Vintage Fair will take place at the Silver Springs Hotel Tivoli tomorrow and Sunday, featuring many of Ireland's antique shops, antique dealers, art galleries, and vintage dealers.

Items for sale will range from jewellery and silver to vintage fashion and accessories; and from fire irons and fenders to tin plate toys and oriental rugs. Admission is €3.50 for adults, including a raffle ticket, and children go free.

For further information call Robin O'Donnell on 087 6933602.

In Dublin, an antiques and collectors fair will take place on Sunday, 11am-6pm, in Terenure Parish Hall, Saint Joseph's Church grounds. For further information, call 087 9864678.


The most recent auction of jewellery at O'Reilly's Auction Rooms in Dublin took place on January 27. The top lot was a diamond solitaire ring with old cut diamond to diamond shoulders, mounted in white gold.

It fetched €10,000. Not far behind, a diamond solitaire ring by Tiffany reached €9,700.

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