An A – Z of gemstones

Brightly coloured and highly polished stones, sometimes called gems, have been used for devotion and decoration for millennia. Extracted from the earth, cut into blocks, carved into sculptural forms or inlaid in furniture – decorative art objects are encrusted with the stuff. Discover some highlights from our collection with this alphabetical rundown.


Necklace, designer unknown, about 1840 – about 1851, France. Museum no. M.135-1951. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This striking grape-motif necklace and earring set is made of purple amethyst and contrasting green enamel, set into gold. The carved spheres of amethyst, a purple-hued quartz with partially opaque and partially translucent qualities, perfectly evoke the fruit's natural forms. Romantic style jewellery that drew on shapes from nature was very popular during the 19th century, and may reflect a continuing appetite for botany that originated centuries earlier.

In Pliny's hugely influential Natural History (a key first-century text that compiled vast naturalist information from other ancient sources), the philosopher mentions a widespread belief that amethyst provided an antidote for intoxication. This idea that amethyst was an effective cure for drunkenness has been repeated over the centuries. It's tempting to make a link between this history and the perhaps tongue-in-cheek use of purple amethyst to represent grape vines here.

Bohemian jaspers

Cabinet (with detail), by Castrucci Workshop, about 1610, Prague. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.72-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This cabinet was made in Prague, at the court workshops of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552 – 1612). Highly polished slices of minerals, mined mostly in what was the 17th-century territory of Bohemia, have been assembled into stone mosaic panels depicting town and country scenes. Bohemian jaspers have distinctive green and brown hues, used here to evoke lush landscapes, glittering caves, leafy trees and cloudy skies, as well as buildings and townsfolk. The use of local Bohemian stones for this royal object might be seen as a political statement – the identity of the stones represent the powerful wealth of Rudolph II's empire.

Luxurious collector's cabinets with drawers and hidden compartments were popular for storing precious keepsakes, or 'curiosities', both man-made and natural. They provided a theatrical opportunity to captivate guests by revealing prized treasures within.


Venus rising from the sea (Venus Anadyomene), cameo, made by William and Charles Brown, 1770 – 1800, England. Museum no. 7913-1862. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Measuring just three centimetres long, this tiny cameo is an intricate sculptural object which uses bands of green and white chalcedony (a silica type of mineral composed mainly of quartz) to create a two-tone picture. The carver has skilfully depicted the goddess Venus rising from the deep, with green waves tipped with white at their crest, and a deep green dolphin contrasting with the brown and white hues of the goddess's body. The fine details of her hair are green too, showing an outer layer of the stone block that has been all but carved away to reveal the white.

Cameos cut from colourful and rare stones have been prized in decorative objects and jewellery since antiquity. This example was probably made by either William or Charles Brown, brothers who specialised in the craft in 18th-century London.

Dynasty spinel

The Carew Spinel, designer unknown, 17th century (Mughal empire). Museum no. IM.243-1922. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Historically in Europe, spinels, also known as 'balas rubies', were often confused with rubies due to their similar colour profile, although they are mineralogically distinct. In Mughal India (about 1580 to 1650), the difference between the two red precious stones was well understood by those that mined and worked them. In the 17th-century Mughal court, spinels were more highly prized than diamonds, and some of the Mughal emperors, like Akbar the Great (1542 – 1605), wore spinels touching their skin as protective talismans. This one has been drilled vertically and has a diamond and gold pin running through it, connecting it to a silk cord.

Naturally larger than rubies, spinels could be engraved with inscriptions. Large spinels from the Mughal treasuries are inscribed with the names or titles of the successive Mughal emperors who wore them. This one bears the names: Jahangir (reigned 1605 – 27), Shah Jahan (reigned 1628 – 58) and Alamgir (reigned 1658 – 1707, the former Mughal prince Aurangzeb). In order to attain a flow of jewels for the Mughal treasury, rulers had to deal shrewdly with foreign traders and ambassadors from all over the world. Through their intimidating beauty and colour, the jewels become an emblem of the Mughal legitamacy to rule, and symbols of dynastic continuity and power.


Necklace, made by Castellani, before 1925 with Etruscan scarabs from 500 – 300BC, Rome, Italy. Museum no. M.34-2001. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Archaelogical treasures were unearthed during the excavation of ancient sites across southern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Scarabs, or beetle-shaped amulets cut from carnelian – a type of translucent, orangey-red chalcedony – were thought to have been made by stone workers in the ancient Italian Estruscan period (500 – 300 BC), and were newly set into creative pieces of jewellery. The idea behind this necklace was to capitalise on the fashion for archaeological motifs, inspired by ancient finds and techniques for working precious metals. This example exploits the availability of scarabs with Estruscan provenance in Italy at the time.

Castellani, a jewellery firm founded by Fortunato Pio Castellani in early 19th-century Rome, were adept at creating commercially successful 'archaeological styles', as well historically accurate jewellery. The power of ancient heritage and the sense of wonder inspired by these carved stones appealed to their wealthy clientele for three successive generations of the Castellani family. The firm made use of an impressive stock of antique carved hardstones to recreate their successful designs from earlier periods. This necklace and bracelet set, featuring 21 carnelian scarabs, was purchased in 1925 at Castellani's shop in Rome.

Fossilised fish?

'Life Began in Water', necklace, designed by Sah Oved, about 1950, England. Museum no. M.138-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Agates (a type of translucent chalcedony with bands of different colours) and aquamarines have been mounted to create this asymmetircal necklace, titled, 'Life Began in Water'. The clever use of patterned agate make the stones appear to contain small fossilised creatures, like fish suspended in water. In reality the markings are naturally formed patterns within the stone. These pictoral properties point to the origins of life on earth, in the seas.

Sah Oved (1900 – 83) was a renowned London jewellery designer of the interwar and early post-war years. She is known for her pioneering use of uncut, or 'raw' stones, in jewellery. Her use of gemstones was likely inspired by the shop she owned with her husband, Cameo Corner on Museum Street opposite the British Museum. The shop dealt in antique jewellery, cameos and gems and served an international clientele of artists, collectors and royalty. Oved's 1953 publication, The Book of Necklaces, asks the question: 'In what strange twilight did Man create the first necklace?' It gives us a sense of her desire to use jewellery to examine a human instinct to wear objects of beauty that persists throughout time and place.


Amulet, designer unknown, 1700 – 1799, Germany. Museum no. 910:1 to 4-1872. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When used in amulets, the distinctive patterns or bright colours of certain stones functioned as a protective force, and to promote health and well-being. Richly patterned stones supposedly warded off evil by creating a net of protection to impede or trap supernatural forces. Sources suggest that in the early modern period in Europe, when this green malachite heart-shaped amulet was made, jewellers drew on ideas around the virtues of stones when advising their clients.

This tiny piece of stone, measuring less than two centimetres, suggests that no piece of revered natural material was too small to have some kind of talismanic power. The sliver of green rock has been encased in silver, so that the maximum surface area of the stone can be seen and touched. The silver setting also remains open at the back, allowing for skin contact when worn, to ensure the charm is effective.

Hei Tiki

Hei Tiki, designer unknown, about 1800 – 1900, New Zealand. Museum no. C.503-1919. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In Māori language the word 'hei' means 'adorn the neck' and 'tiki' means 'image in human form'. Put together, a hei tiki is a carved image in human form suspended around the neck. In Māori culture hei tiki are considered taonga (treasured possessions) and can range in meaning and purpose. Made and worn in New Zealand since ancient times, they still have an enduring cultural power for the Māori people of Aotearoa (mainland New Zealand). Different historical periods, tribal localities, social occasions and circumstances might dictate differing uses and meanings of hei tiki worn by both men and women through this long history.

Though some are made from bone, the majority of hei tiki are carved from pounamu – a type of nephrite jade also commonly known in New Zealand as 'greenstone'. Pounamu is a rare and beautiful stone. Its green colour of varying opacity and translucency, as well as its hardness, contribute to its highly prized status. While the stone's hardness means incredible technical skill is required to carve it, its durability means carved hei tiki survive for thousands of years and make long-lasting ancestral treasures.

Indian agate

Book cover, designer unknown, about 1880, India. Museum no. 1543-1882. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Agate and jasper (a type of opaque chalcedony) specimens from India have been highly prized since antiquity for their varied colours and patterns. This book or album cover is made of silver and set with a variety of large, cut and polished agates and jaspers. Hardstones like this were abundantly available in areas like Khambhat in western Gujarat in the 19th century, and crafting them was a specialised skill. The stones have been cut and polished using abrasive powders to display their different levels of translucency, distinctive markings and colours that range from red to orange, deep green to pale cream.

The book was given to the museum by Arthur Wells, an amateur geologist and Fellow of the Geographical Society. Wells' collection of Chinese jade and other hardstone objects from South Asia were donated to the V&A on his death in 1882.


Amulet, designer unknown, about 664 BC – 30 BC, Egypt. Museum no. CIRC.28Y-1935. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In ancient Egyptian civilisations the wedjat eye or 'eye of Horus' is a symbol used to avert evil influences or bad luck. Wedjat means 'the sound one' and represents the eye of the god Horus, believed to have self-healed after injury. Wearing the watchful eye of Horus as protection is one of the most common examples of sacred amulets used at this time. Eyes like these can be found in many forms of decoration, but here the stone amulet has been pierced longitudinally to be worn as a necklace or a ring. The link between red stones and the sun cults of ancient Egyptian culture offer might explain the widespread use of red jasper and carnelian at this time.

Korean headdress

Jokduri, ceremonial headdress, designed by Young Hee, 1992, Korea. Museum no. FE.431:7-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London;

Several gemstones adorn the black silk of this jokduri, a Korean bridal headdress. The side panels are decorated with carnelian, jadeite and quartzite, cut in the shape of auspicious symbols. The forms and combination of the colourful gemstones symbolise purity, loyalty and marital bliss. Precious materials like coral and keshi pearls have been integrated alongside red, yellow and green plastic to sensational effect.

Four colourful enamelled parrots even perch atop springs so that they would quiver with the movement of the wearer, a reminder that accessories like these were designed to be experienced as part of an event. The jokduri is an accessory that has been part of the ceremonial dress of Korea since the late 13th century. This example was made and given to the museum in 1992 by the Lee Young Hee Korean Traditional Dress Shop.


Specimen table, by Raffaelli, 1805, Milan, Italy. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.1-2023. © Sotheby’s Picture Library

This circular marble tabletop is inlaid with 148 stone specimens, including jaspers, agates, porphyries, lapis lazuli, and labradorite. Iridescent labradorite, the primary stone here, was newly imported from Siberia. When skilfully cut and polished, the greyish opaque stone's shimmering green-blue properties add novelty to the traditional specimen table – a common souvenir for visitors touring Italy.

The table was made by Giacomo Raffaelli (1753 – 1836), who was best known for his skilful micromosaics. Raffaelli started using labradorite in his stone inlay productions from the early 19th-century, as he seems to have been in a unique position to buy a large quantity of the rare mineral with his contacts in the Russian royal court. The geometric shapes used in Raffaelli's design also enhance the colour and patterns of the stones. Sources indicate that Raffaelli would lay his stones on pieces of paper to test out different striking layouts.

Raffaelli had a passion for stones and over the years accumulated his own extensive collection of traditional ancient Roman marbles and Egyptian porphyries as well as Sicilian jaspers and semi-precious stones like malachite and amethyst (in 1821 he had over 2000 specimens). Many of these types of stones can be seen in the tabletop.


Magpie, necklace, designed by Charlotte de Syllas, 1988, England. Museum no. M.29:1to3-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The two magpies of the old rhyme 'One for sorrow/Two for joy...', meet at the centre of this winged necklace, flying in opposite directions. It has been expertly carved from black wyoming nephrite jade, labradorite and white jadeite, with the sheen of the labradorite tail feathers and wings sensuously catching the light. Jewellery artist Charlotte de Syllas is inspired by the contours and the colours of organic life, especially birds, insects, river and sea plants. Her designs are usually bespoke commissions inspired by the people they were intended for, reflecting their personality, style, complexion and contours. The original owner of the 'Magpie Necklace' for example, liked to wear blue, black and white.

The relative hardness of different stones dictates how they can be cut. De Syllas' mastery of hardstone and gemstone carving is evident in this necklace – as well as technical skill, a knowledge of the way the different materials behave under pressure is required. She has been honing her practice since 1966 and is now widely recognised for her innovative lapidary (stone carver) creations, several of which, including other examples in our collection, make use of different types of jade and jadeite.

Neapolitan necklace

Necklace, by Real Laboratorio or by Opificio delle Pietre Dure, about 1808, Naples or Florence, Italy. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.165-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Deep blue lapis lazuli is rare and beautiful. The mineral has golden flecks that catch the light, due to the presence of iron pyrite in the stone. Prized for its rarity since ancient times, lapis lazuli was exported from the Badakhshan mines (an area in modern day Tajiksan and north-eastern Afghanistan) since 3,500 BCE.

This gold necklace is part of a jewellery set (including tiara, earrings and hair comb) that once belonged to Caroline Murat (1782 – 1839), Queen of Naples. The blue of the lapis lazuli provides a striking ocean-themed background in the stone mosaic picture panels. They are made of thinly cut, sliced and polished stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, or commesso di pietre dure, a Florentine stone mosaic technique meaning literally 'an assembly of hardstones'. Red, yellow and brown jaspers have been selected for the shells and coral, their tonal patterns creating a naturalistic effect of light and shadows. The necklace comes with matching earrings, comb and tiara, all in our collections.


Rattle, by John Ray and James Montague, 1811 – 1812, England. Museum no. M.18-1973. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Historically coral and other organic materials (like pearls) were classified as gemstones. However, coral is formed through a biological process, whereas most coloured stones are minerals with a crystalline structure. Vibrant red and pink branches of coral from the Mediterranean have been used as a form of protection since ancient times.

In the early modern period, coral fashioned into children's toys and jewellery was used to soothe teething and believed to ward off illness. The practice of giving coral amulets with silver bells continued among wealthy European and American families into the 19th century, when infant mortality was still high. This precious gold whistle with bells uses a bright red polished piece of coral as the central component. The eye-catching colour and jingling sound of the bells make a pretty toy. The association between coral and infancy persists today as a traditional christening gift, although there is more awareness about endangered species and sustainability.


Head of a Boy, possibly by Francesco del Tadda, 1550 – 1580, Italy. Museum no. A.1-1924. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Porphyry is a volcanic type of rock that was revered in ancient times for its recognisable purple colour, associated with imperial power. It is exceptionally hard to carve but incredibly durable. This resistance to deterioration in the face of the elements meant that it was used frequently throughout the Roman empire for architectural monuments to rulers, from funerary statuary to palaces. The type of porphyry used for these monuments was only found in the mountainous areas in east Egypt bordering the Red Sea. The rulers of later European kingdoms used porphyry to convey a sense of imperial prestige, hoping to emulate the ancient empires of Rome and Greece.

To create a large porphyry sculpture or relief would have taken months, if not years. The artist Francesco del Tadda (1497 – 1585), who probably made this sculpture, was a specialist porphyry carver at the court of the Medici in 16th-century Florence. He is credited with developing new techniques for working porphyry, which is too hard to be cut with metal tools in the same way as softer marbles.

Queen Victoria

Bracelet, designer unknown, about 1855, Scotland. Museum no. M.311-1975. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Banded and patterned agate in shades of blue, orange, red and pink can be found across Scotland, from Ayrshire to Angus. Queen Victoria was a fan of national jewellery made from indigenous hardstones of the British Isles, such as so-called 'Scotch pebble' jewellery. The Victorian craze for Scottish semi-precious and hardstones developed along with Scottish tourism. This bracelet was made in Scotland where souvenirs were produced for visitors passing through Edinburgh, showcasing the banded patterning of the stone, as well as the highly desirable smoky blue-grey varieties.

The orange gem at the centre of the bracelet is a citrine, often known in Scotland as a 'Cairngorm', as this amber-coloured citrine quartz variety was mined in the Cairngorm mountains. During the Victorian period, they were used extensively in traditional Scottish jewellery such as kilt ornaments. However, the mining of indigenous stones could not keep up with demand and 'scotch pebble' jewellery was often made in England from imported agates from Germany.

Rock crystal

(Left to right:) Vase in the shape of a dragon or caquesseitão, Workshop of the Miseroni, 1550 – 1600, Italy. © Museo Nacional del Prado; Photograph of a cup in form of a dragon, by Jane Clifford, 1863, Spain. Museum no. 42273. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This incredible cup in the shape of a dragon is made from rock crystal, a transparent monocrystalline mineral. Made by Milanese crystal carvers, rock crystal cups in the form of fantastical beasts and birds were popular diplomatic gifts in the 16th century. Some of these objects were intended for display only, in the treasuries and collections of the most powerful people in Europe. Others were used for feasts and banquets – table fountains, bread carts, cups, dishes and ewers carved from rock into elaborate marine and mythical creatures that made for dazzling interactive dining.

Spectacular amongst collections of carved crystal vessels are the 'Treasures of the Dauphin', comprising the hardstone collection of Louis XIV King of France (1638 – 1715). Inherited by his grandson Phillip V of Spain (1683 – 1746), the collection has been housed at the Prado Museum in Madrid since 1839, and this photograph of the dragon cup was taken by V&A photographer Jane Clifford in 1863.


Chinchilla, by Faberge, about 1910, Russia. Museum no. M.3-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This carved chalcedony chinchilla, nibbling a gold ear of corn, is set with sapphire eyes. The mineral resources available in Russia where this was made were a source of national pride and wealth. Businesses like Fabergé employed lapidaries (stone carvers) and other highly skilled craftspeople like goldsmiths and enamellers to produce exquisite stone pieces for the luxury market. The carver who transformed this piece of chalcedony into a chinchilla has used the pinker areas of the grey stone to pick out the details of the animal's ears and tiny paws.

The lively depictions of animals were particularly popular with aristocractic clientele in Fabergé's London branch at this time (they sold around 250 models of animals between 1907 and 1917). Carl Fabergé also had a personal collection of Japanese netsuke, small figures including animals that could be held in the hand, which probably heavily influenced the tactile and often humorous creatures.


Ring, designer unknow, about 1550, Europe. Museum no. 955-1871. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A number of small turquoise rings made in Europe in the medieval and Renaissance period survive today. The bright stone was believed to have properties that could protect the wearer from harm. As infant mortality rates were high at the time, children would often wear certain stones as amulets (see 'O for Organic' and 'G for Green'). Turquoise was especially popular for rings in this period for its rarity, preciousness and piercing colour.

Turquoise was not just popular for children's jewellery though, as the stone had a number of other connotations.There was a belief that if the stone changed colour it indicated a decline in the health of the wearer, leading the poet John Donne (1572 – 1631) to write: "The compassionate turquoise, that doth tell/ By looking pale the wearer is not well". It was also touted as a helpful aid in reconciling married couples in dispute, and strengthening the bond between husband and wife. The symbolic use of turquoise in jewellery as a sign of love and fidelity persisted into the 18th and 19th centuries. In this context, the gemstone was a popular gift to bridesmaids, often in the form of turquoise doves. Its bright colour was also often associated with the blue of forget-me-nots – a symbol of true love according to the 'language of flowers' – popular at the time.

Ural mountains

Paperweight, manufactured by Ivan Stebakov, about 1866 – 1867, Russia. Museum no. 1001-1869. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The juicy fruits of this grey marble paperweight are actually carved and polished stones, mined in the Ural Mountains in Russia. You can see raspberries of purple rhodolite and red carnelian berries. The translucency and polish of the stones makes the fruit look life-like and delectable, while their tough mineral structures means they could be carved into intricate shapes without breaking. The stalks of the green jasper raspberry leaves, for example, are especially fine and delicate. Special effects have even been used to make the fruits hyper-realistic. The spherical whitecurrants have been intricately hollowed out and filed with a silvery substance to give the lustre of the fruit's distinctive internal veins.

Produced by the Stebakov Factory in the mining city Ekaterinburg in 1866 – 67, the paperweight celebrates the mineral wealth of Russia by displaying the variety of decorative stones found there.


Valchirie (valkyrie), stone mosaic picture, designed by Renato Bittoni, about 1954, Italy. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.915:1-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The early 20th century saw a renewed interest in preserving traditional Italian craft. Artists and Florentine stoneworkers worked together to design stone mosaic pictures that both responded to the natural markings in the stone and new abstract forms of Surrealist art. This example depicts two valkyrie – the mythical horseriders of Nordic legend. The picture uses marbles, limestones and granite to create atmospheric effects: brooding purple skies, dark cragged mountains and sandy ground. Seeing images in natural phenomena like clouds was part of the Surrealist artists' toolkit. Here the artist Renato Bittoni was inspired by the natural markings of the stone pieces to create the picture.

Whitby jet

(Left to right:) Necklace, designer unknown, about 1870, Whitby, England. Museum no. M.944-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Brooch, designer unknown, about 1875, North Yorkshire, England. Museum no. M.63-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jet has been extracted from the shale beds near Whitby, a coastal town in North Yorkshire, at least since ancient Roman times. In structure jet is a particularly dense type of coal, which can be carved and polished. Victorian 'Mourning' jewellery became incredibly fashionable in the 19th century, during Queen Victoria's long period of mourning for her late husband Prince Albert. The different stages of mourning could be conveyed through jewellery by the different levels of polish on the jet. The duller, matte surface of the flower brooch, for example, indicates that it would have been worn in an early stage of bereavement, compared to the shinier necklace.

Coinciding with this fashion, tourism flourished in Whitby in the 19th century, supported by the newly opened railways. A new influx of tourists sustained a burgeoning souvenir culture and the Whitby jet industry boomed. Distinctive stones like jet have the power to take you back to a specific place that you've been, or spark the memory of a particular person.


Snuffbox, designer unknown, 1765, Berlin, Germany. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.413:1 to 2-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Xanthic means 'yellow-coloured' and xanthopetal means a flower with yellow petals, which is appropriate for this jewel encrusted mother-of-pearl snuffbox, with yellow stones coloured by both natural and artificial means. The yellow-petalled flowers are carved from a yellow gemstone called citrine. When this box was made, yellow and pink diamonds were incredibly rare. Close inspection of the coloured diamonds under magnification reveals that they are in fact colourless diamonds backed with a yellow, pink and green tinted silver foils. We know from 18th-century books that the yellow tint here would have been created with an organic pigment like saffron, and the pink with red carmine. These tricks of the trade enhance the dazzling show of precious materials in this box, encrusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, spinel, emeralds, bloodstone, turquoise, amethyst and paste gems.

This box originally belonged to King Frederick II of Prussia who was a supporter of the arts and in particular the craft of the goldsmith. He had a passion for gold boxes and even designed some himself. The decorative scrolling swirling forms on the gold elements, and the 'cartouche' shape of the box itself are iconic rococo motifs.


Bonbonniere, designer unknown, about 1800, Rome, Italy. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.397:1-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum

This box is carved from granite (a volcanic rock) and embellished with a micromosaic scene of a popular Italian tourist site, the Ponte Lucano, a historically significant ancient Roman bridge located between Tivoli and Rome. This type of object was a desirable memento for wealthy travellers following the Grand Tour route, who wished to buy easily transportable luxury souvenirs. Examples of 'ancient' stones, like granites and porphyries, were chosen because they were highly revered and widely used as building materials in antiquity. The owner of this box took home, not only a memorable image of the tourist site, but also a physical chunk of the matter that civilisations like ancient Rome were built from.


Ring set with a Roman intaglio of a scorpion, designer unknown, 1400 – 1425, Italy. Museum no. 724-1871. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A piece of ribbon onyx (dark with a layer of white running through it) has been carved with a scorpion; a symbol long associated with protection. Intaglio carvings with ancient provenance have been highly valued and reset in jewellery throughout the ages. This silver ring was made in the early 15th century and, while we can't decipher the inscription, we assume that the scorpion's reputation as a protector would have been well known to its owner. Scorpions are doubly auspicious as protective amulets. They were thought to provide defence from poisoning, which is why ancient stone intaglios with scorpions are often found mounted on drinking cups. Furthermore, the association of the animal with the 'water' zodiac sign 'scorpio' meant that it was attributed healing powers, particularly to cool the symptoms of a fever.

Header image:

Specimen table, by Raffaelli, 1805, Milan, Italy. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.1-2023. © Sotheby’s Picture Library