Continuing our series exploring the history of jewelry trends, Sarah Jordan looks at the ancient history of haematite.
A s the oldest-known iron oxide mineral, haematite is intertwined with the history of the earth. It is responsible for a rusty-red pigment that has been used for centuries in ancient cave paintings, decorative tomb friezes, body adornment and even makeup. Haematite is recognised for its opaque black or silvery grey colour with a shiny metallic lustre. When sliced into thin layers, however, it has a reddish-brown colour and flecks of this hue can often appear speckled across the surface of deep black. This explains its name, which derives from the Greek word ‘haema’ for blood.
When the Vikings invaded the British Isles, haematite was said to preserve the blood of fallen soldiers and protect villagers by offering a burst of energy. Seen as protection against bleeding, haematite was also popular with the Ancient Egyptians, who carved it onto talismans and medallions. Later, in the Victorian era, the properties of haematite made it the ideal choice for carving into cameos, intaglios for rings and individual beads, as well as decorative objects like figurines. It was especially preferred for Victorian mourning jewellery – macabre pieces designed to commemorate the death of a loved one.
Contemporary haematite jewelry moves away from carved cabochons and steps towards faceted gems with a silver-like lustre. Its grey-black colour and metallic sheen also makes haematite a popular choice for men’s accessories, including cufflinks, tie pins and watch bezels.
To discover the best-quality haematite for jewelry, modern-day gem miners look to Switzerland, Italy and Brazil. It has also been found in Britain, specifically Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria and the Forest of Dean. Historically, it was Alabama, in the United States, that was world-renowned for its haematite deposits, producing some 375 million tons between 1840 and 1975.
Haematite’s significance on earth is perhaps only surpassed by its significance on Mars, where it is responsible for the planet’s distinctive colour. It was discovered on the ‘Red Planet’ by NASA in 2001, signalling that water must have been present at some point in the distant past.