Jewelry

The A-Z of Jewelry: O is for... Onyx

By Sarah Jordan
Continuing our series exploring the history of jewelry trends, Sarah Jordan looks at the history of onyx.

A s the Art Deco design style swept through the 1930s, highly-polished onyx emerged as a go-to gemstone for bold contrasts and creative carvings. Although commonly recognised for its deep black colour, onyx is actually a banded variety of the mineral chalcedony with parallel lines of colour that can be white and grey, but also green, red and orangey-brown. These earthy and flesh-tone colour varieties help to explain why the name onyx derives from the Ancient Greek word for ‘fingernail’ or ‘claw’.

Onyx has been used as a decorative carving material for thousands of years. It can be traced back to the Second Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (c. 2890 – c. 2686 BC), where it was used to make pottery, as well as the Ancient Greeks and Romans who valued the gem as a hardstone for cameos, intaglios and talismans.

A particularly well-known example is the Gemma Augustea (or Gem of Augustus), an ancient Roman low-relief cameo cut from a single piece of onyx with two banded layers, one white and the other bluish-brown. At 7.5 inches tall, the cameo is commonly attributed to the sculptor Dioscurides, who was favoured by Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire. It’s incredibly detailed and dynamic figures can now be seen in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Onyx is found in a number of places across the globe, including Uruguay, Argentina, India, Germany, Pakistan, the United States, Canada and Brazil. It is typically fashioned into smooth cabochons that make the most of its characteristic lustre, but it can also be fashioned into beads, sleek discs for cufflinks and faceted shapes for pendants and earrings.

Onyx is found in a number of places across the globe, including Uruguay, Argentina, India, Germany, Pakistan, the United States, Canada and Brazil. It is typically fashioned into smooth cabochons that make the most of its characteristic lustre, but it can also be fashioned into beads, sleek discs for cufflinks and faceted shapes for pendants and earrings.

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