Pliny moved on from categorising gemstones as valued by women and men to grouping gemstones by colour – red, green, blue, purple, yellow, white and multi-coloured. He describes the best red stones as ‘carbunculi’ because they have a fiery appearance. It is assumed that Pliny is including garnets, rubies, spinels and tourmalines in his description here. He states that there are male and female stones with the former being more brilliant and the latter having a weaker lustre. The male stones are clearer in colour as well as being a dark rich red. He considers that the best male stone is one where the fiery red shade edges in amethyst-violet.

Antique garnet cabochon set into a heart surround

Pliny states there are 12 varieties of carbunculi but most of the names he mentions are not known or used today.

The next colour discussed is green and Pliny refers to topazus (or topozos). Translators of the History consider he was talking about peridot and some of the green agates. Topazuz was mined on the Red Sea island known by the Greeks and Romans as ‘Topazios’. It is the Island of Zabargad, now known as St John’s Island.

Unset peridots

Pliny also refers to prase (chalcedony), malachite and possibly bloodstone and jaspers in his summary of green stones.

He then talks about two blue stones  – lapis lazuli and, possibly, turquoise – both of which had male and female varieties.

The next colour category is amethyst. Pliny lists some varieties that are all transparent and which have a handsome violet tint. He then lists similar stones which are paler in colour.

Antique amethyst set flower

Yellow, white and colourless stones are discussed next, but appear to overlap a bit. It is thought that the main stones being described in this category are yellow sapphires and topaz, and possibly crystal opals.

After discussing the colours, Pliny then moves onto listing gemstones alphabetically, starting with agate, but generally describing stones that have not been identified by scholars. He concludes his Book by summarizing the most valuable gems (and other valuable items like gold and silver, purple dyes, animal pelts, plumes and goose grease). He states that the most costly product of the sea is pearls; of the earth’s surface, rock crystal; of the earth’s interior, adamas (diamonds), smaragdus (emeralds) and other gemstones and murrhine vessels (possibly feldspar).

Next week, I will discuss Pliny’s descriptions of the methods to enhance, counterfeit and copy gemstones.