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A Brief History of Colorful Gemstones

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

A Brief History of Colored Stones: From Ancient Egypt to the Red Carpet

By David Yurman

Nowadays, a celebrity stylist might choose a certain piece of jewelry for her client simply because of how the color looks with her dress, but in the past, there was more significance to the colored gems women wore. The individual stones have been believed to do everything from warding off meddling gods to aiding in fertility. From the women of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome, to the red-carpet regulars of today, the right stone has long been the perfect accent for those on the cutting edge of style. Here, a brief history.

The Egyptians — and later, the Romans — were among the first to celebrate the power of gemstones. Cleopatra was known for her love of emeralds, which were believed to possess powers of clairvoyance and to defeat spells and enchantments.

Egyptians were also among the first to discover and use Citrine, a light-yellow gem that Romans later associated with the sun god, Apollo. (Try wearing Citrine jewelry to cure your winter S.A.D.!) Popular folklore says citrine encourages individuality and self-confidence, and gives its wearer the courage to love and enjoy life.

In Ancient China, gems were paired with animals on the zodiac, the inspiration for the Western world’s use of birthstones (and an endless tradition of adolescent trips to the mall to have ears pierced with bright, shimmering gems).

During Medieval Times, knights wore Peridot, a light green stone, in the breastplate of their armor because it was believed to have healing properties and help its wearer admit mistakes and forgive (pretty useful on the battlefield, but also in our modern-day lives.)

During the Renaissance in Europe, women began to wear Sapphires as the ultimate sign of truth and commitment, making them the go-to for engagement rings before diamonds became the standard-bearer. When Diamonds over-saturated the market in the 18th and 19th centuries, prices plummeted and more rare stones — Sapphires, Rubies, and Emeralds — became the most sought after and prized.

Originally, Amethyst was also thought to be rarer than they are today. In a range of brilliant purple hues, Amethysts were believed to provoke honesty and bring clarity and calm to the mind. Said to aid its wearer in making strong business decisions, it was also believed to predict the presence of poison by becoming dim or changing color. Today Amethysts are an extremely popular stone and associated with 16th wedding anniversaries.

Found completely colorless, in brilliant blue or even in vibrant orange, Topaz is referenced in biblical texts and gained mass popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries—believed to have mystic properties that encourage self-realization and help one discover their own inner riches to encourage openness and honesty and a fulfilled emotional life.

In France during the early 1800s, jewelers began fashioning jewelry with multiple gemstones each representing a letter and spelling out names and sentiments like friendship and love. At the same time in 19th century France, the woman who owned or ran an estate or chateau and kept its history was called a “châtelaine.” She occupied a lofty position in society and often had a cache of extravagant gemstones.

During the 20th century, the birth of Hollywood awards shows created showcases for actresses to accessorize their designer gowns with colorful, glittering stones.

Today, colored stones are seeing resurgence in popularity with many celebrities wearing vintage designs on red carpets and new styles taking a nod from the colors found in the ’60s and ’70s-era pieces. The freshest and most unique jewelry designs are imbued with the bold colors of the most popular gems.

Wearing colored gems has always been about experimentation. Now available in an endless assortment of settings and designs, they can be worn on just about any occasion. Just take a cue from history.

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