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Carnelian: Formation, Characteristics, and Folklore

Jaime is a geology enthusiast who has studied earth science at Wayne State University

Carnelian naturally occurs in a variety of colors, including light pastel oranges and deep, rich crimsons

Carnelian naturally occurs in a variety of colors, including light pastel oranges and deep, rich crimsons

Varied, Vibrant, Vexing

Carnelian is a type of chalcedony, distinguished from other chalcedony by its vivid, fiery hues. When chalcedony forms with impurities of iron, a reddish metal, the chalcedony takes on the signature warm tint of carnelian. Carnelian ranges in color from a light milky orange to dark, rich crimson colors which appear almost black. The color of the specimen is determined by it's iron concentration, a higher concentration of iron particles will result in a darker, redder carnelian. Lower amounts of iron will produce a pastel orange specimen. Carnelian (SiO₂) is a silicate, a common mineral group which makes up 95% of the Earth’s crust.

Luster and Translucency

Luster is used by geologists to categorize and classify minerals. The luster of a mineral refers to the way light reacts with the mineral. The luster of carnelian is described as greasy or silky, meaning that it shines in the light to appear greased.

Minerals are often categorized as translucent or opaque, meaning that they are tested to see if light can travel through the substance. Carnelian is a translucent mineral, meaning that light can travel through it like it might a stained-glass window. Some specimens may be cloudier, and almost opaque. An opaque mineral blocks any light from passing through it.

Rough Carnelian

When carnelian is unpolished, the luster and translucency characteristics are still apparent. You can see clearly in this image that the carnelian pieces are not opaque.

When carnelian is unpolished, the luster and translucency characteristics are still apparent. You can see clearly in this image that the carnelian pieces are not opaque.

A Powerful Grecian Talisman

Many ancient cultures put stock in the mystical properties of carnelian, including the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that carnelian was a stone of true love; small talisman carvings of deities such as Cupid and Psyche have been found carved from the stone. They also prescribed the use of carnelian for strengthening the teeth, curing diseases the nervous system, and reducing fevers.

This Grecian portrait ring is set with a carved carnelian stone, which depicts a woman who was likely a Ptolemaic queen, according to experts.

This Grecian portrait ring is set with a carved carnelian stone, which depicts a woman who was likely a Ptolemaic queen, according to experts.

An Important Stone in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, carnelian was considered a stone of power and vitality. It was thought to be especially powerful for warding off evil, and was carved into amulets and talisman jewelry for this reason. Semiprecious stones were a luxury commodity in ancient Egypt, accessible mostly by the pharaohs and very rich upper echelons of society. The common people could not afford jewelry made with carnelian or other semiprecious stones, so they soon became a status symbol for the wealthy and powerful.

The iconic burial mask of pharaoh Tutankhamen contains inlays of carnelian in the wide collar of the mask.

The iconic burial mask of pharaoh Tutankhamen contains inlays of carnelian in the wide collar of the mask.

Excavation and Etching in India

Through excavations in India and Iran, archaeologists have found ancient etched carnelian beads dating back to the middle of the third millennium, BCE. These beads show some of the first signs of humans etching designs into materials. The beads would be etched by drawing designs on the carnelian using an alkali solution, then heating the beads to allow the alkali to seep into the rock.

These beads are thought to have been used as an important status symbol in Sumerian society, and were traded between Indus and Mesopotamian civilizations. India continues to be a major exporter of carnelian to this day.

Ancient carnelian beads excavated from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, estimated to be from 2600 - 2500 BCE

Ancient carnelian beads excavated from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, estimated to be from 2600 - 2500 BCE

Carnelian beads from the Indus Valley Civilization

Carnelian beads from the Indus Valley Civilization

Modern Mystic and Pagan Beliefs

Modern mystics believe carnelian can inspire confidence, courage, and vitality. Like the ancient Arabs, some people believe a good luck charm made from carnelian will help the wearer succeed at public speaking. Others agree with ancient Greek beliefs, using the stone as a talisman to attract true love. In Wiccan circles, it is said to promote happiness, peace, and protection.

A handcrafted carnelian pendant made for contemporary pagans, depicting the god Pan

A handcrafted carnelian pendant made for contemporary pagans, depicting the god Pan

No matter what you love most about the charming chalcedony called carnelian, none can deny that it is a beautiful stone and well worth having in any geologist's collection.

Sources

© 2020 Jaime Fitzgerald

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