Although we think of most gemstones as being minerals and crystals, jewellery is also created out of what are called organic gems, that is, materials that were once part of a living organism, either animal or plant. The most common of these are pearls, amber, coral, jet, shell, bone and ivory. I have discussed the use of jet in antique jewellery in earlier posts.

The use of some of these materials is now not permitted as it meant the killing of a living thing and has led to extinction or near extinction of some species. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has about 160 member countries who comply with its regulations banning the trade in a variety of species. Appendix I of the CITES includes species threatened with extinction and trade is only allowed in very limited circumstances. Appendix II list species  that may be threatened with extinction if the trade in them is not strictly controlled. Ivory, and tortoiseshell fall under Appendix I and corals fall under Appendix 2. I will discuss what this means with regard to antique jewellery in later posts.

A popular organic gem is amber, a gold coloured transparent gem.The most plentiful site for amber, dating from about 45 to 30 million years ago, is in the Baltic, while other deposits are located in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. An even older amber is Burmite from Myanmar but only small amounts are mined. A number of other sites containing ancient ambers have been found but they also have small outputs. Copal, which is a young version of amber, is also found in a number of sites. Copal dates from between 100 years of age up to 33,000 years. It is usually paler than amber and is less stable.

Amber necklace

Some organic gems we probably wouldn’t use now, say, using beetle shells, but we still have antique examples. The Egyptians created scarabs which were moulded ceramic or carved hardstone amulets and seals in the form of scarab beetle shells. In the 1870s and 80s, there was a surge of interest in the ancient Egyptians as royal tombs were located and excavated. However, this time round, real scarab beetle shells were used in jewellery, as well as ceramic and hardstones ones. There was another revival in Egyptian jewellery in the 192os, when Tutankhamen’s tomb and others was discovered.

Victorian scarab gold brooch (coming soon to Navette on Ruby Lane)

The Victorians used beetle shells, fish scales, sea shells, butterfly wings, feathers, teeth and claws in their jewellery. Probably the most gruesome item were birds: the hummingcreeper from Central and South Africa which had gorgeous blue and green plumage and the hummingbird which also had an iridescent plumage. In 1865, the jeweller Harry Emanuel registered a patent to protect his method of displaying hummingbird feathers in jewellery. But not only feathers were used, heads and whole birds were used in earrings and necklaces and for fans. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria by Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe has an excellent section of these types of jewellery at pp226 to 247. You can also see a photo of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s bird earrings here at

Over the next few weeks, I am going to discuss ivory, coral, pearls, and tortoisehell jewelley.

A good reference book for organic gems is Gems and Ornamental Materials of Organic Origin by Maggie Campbell Pederdsen. Maggie also has a good website at