When I celebrated my 12th birthday, my parents gave me a bracelet that I had seen in our shop window (my father was a jeweler) for a long time. I thought it was beautiful. This bracelet was made of black shiny black gemstones set in silver. Those black stones turned out to be onyx.
My grandmother thought it was a strange gift for a young girl. After all, onyx was the symbol of mourning and sadness. I didn’t notice anything, because I was very happy with it and wore the bracelet proudly. By the way, I still have it!!!
That contrast of mourning and happiness characterizes the onyx. It is a ‘complicated’ stone, full of contradictions, and legends, with a long history. In short, a gemstone that needs some explanation.
This blog is intended to provide that explanation so that you can make an informed choice whether you are going to wear this stone or not. You already know my opinion, but now the facts, or the stories that were accepted as fact for years.
What exactly is Onyx?
Onyx is a quartz, a variant of chalcedony, and is characterized by the colors that are interwoven in bands or layers. There are different types, the most known type has a black color with white layers or bands and is also called the Arabian onyx. Seen by some experts as the ‘real’ onyx.
Another species is the orange carnelian with white layers, the sardonyx with reddish brown and white layers, and the Niccolo onyx, which has a black base but the bands are almost light blue or slightly translucent gray. However, I have also used green and blue onyx gemstones in my collection.
Real or unreal
The black variant is especially popular with my customers, but the plain black onyx is very rare. Moreover, the amount of natural supply is lower than demand. The result is that onyx is ‘made’.
Most black-treated onyx (i.e. without the white bands) are painted agates. Or obsidian that is cut in a certain way, or gray chalcedony that is treated in an acid bath. Some agates also turn a color other than black, such as blue and green, and are then called onyx. In addition to dyeing, onyx can also be subjected to heat treatments, which remove the bands and turn it into a solid black gemstone.
The Roman philosopher and writer Pliny the Elder described a method to improve or change the color by boiling the stone in sour honey.
It is very difficult to tell the treated and untreated copy apart and the value of the two is almost the same. The stone cutters, who also know that pure black onyx sells better, can also cut the stones in such a way that mainly the black part is visible.
Let’s take a closer look
There are two categories within the quartz family, namely macrocrystalline quartz, of which amethyst and citrine are well-known examples. The microcrystalline quartz is represented by onyx, but also carnelian, bloodstone, and jasper.
And now it gets a bit more complicated. Because the microcrystalline stones are also called chalcedony or chalcedonian quartz. And now the experts can’t agree.
Onyx or agate
Onyx is considered to be related to the agate, with the explanation that if chalcedony has curved colorful bands, it is called agate. But if the bands are flat and white, black, or dark brown, it is called onyx.
The disagreement among experts is that one group accepts the above difference between agate and onyx as fact, while experts from the IGS (International Gem Society) believe that both are separate gemstones. In other words, they are related, or they are 2 different families.
The fine-grained microcrystalline quartz stones are formed in the open spaces or veins of rocks, in which specific solutions of minerals can cool. This same process is seen in volcanic rock, where when minerals are deposited here, they cool and become onyx.
The untreated variety is found in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, Madagascar, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Uruguay, and the US (California, Oregon and Utah).
The name onyx
The name originally comes from Latin and means ‘fingernail’ or ‘claw’. There is a Greek word ‘onux’, which comes from that Latin term, but also means onyx. In 77 AD, the philosopher/writer Pliny the Elder was the first to call the stone onyx.
This black beauty is so-called because of its appearance. According to Sudines, a philosopher/mathematician/astrologer from Babylonia around 240 BC associated the whitish bands of onyx with the white of a fingernail. I think that’s far-fetched.
But this explanation fits in nicely with a story from Greek mythology, which tells the black gem was formed from the fingernail of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty.
She was sleeping by a river when her son Eros (or Cupid in Latin) cut off one of her nails, which then fell into the River Indus. But in mythology, bodies of gods and goddesses or parts thereof cannot die. So they had to do something with that nail and so they turned it into onyx.
Another version is that three Fates, who are responsible for the fate of man, put Aphrodite’s nail into an onyx.
The stone of contradictions
If you look at history, this gem is a stone with many contradictions. This is not due to the stone itself, but to the properties that people attribute to this stone. The best example of these contradictions can be found in China.
According to tradition, the Chinese should not wear or own onyx because the stone is said to bring bad luck. A manuscript from 1875 states that in China only slaves and subordinates worked in the mines because no one else would willingly touch it, fearing nightmares, bad luck, or loss of strength and energy.
The black gemstones from those Chinese mines were unsellable on the Chinese market. But the Chinese were traders and they traded the onyx to the West, where it sold well. In any case, the fact that the stone would bring bad luck did not apply to the onyx trade.
On the other hand, the Feng Shui philosophy, which aimed to release energy blockages, used this stone for protection and to increase resilience. Don’t ask me how the two traditions can be reconciled, but it proves the great contrast that Onyx can bring about.
Even more contradictions
According to tradition, the black variety of this gem was the best material for making magical amulets, which have been used for thousands of years in divination. Still, it seems useful and positive to me to be able to predict the future with it.
But in the Middle Ages in Europe, the onyx was considered an evil stone, bringing bad luck, and symbolizing mourning and misfortune. He can make you vulnerable to nightmares, arguments, and demons. On the other hand, it was also used as a healing stone during this time, especially if you had problems with nails, hair, and skin.
The black and white copies in particular have a somewhat obscure name, which has to do with the belief that this stone brought bad luck. This was also believed in Arabia. Black onyx is known there as ‘el jaza, which also means sadness.
In England during the Victorian Era, the gem was seen as a symbol of sadness and mourning. When Prince Albert died in 1861, his wife Queen Victoria wore black clothes with onyx and jet (black).
According to mineralogist George F. Kunz, members of the Bghai tribe in Myanmar/Burma had statues of gods made of onyx in their homes. They honored these statues by placing food next to them, in the hope that the spirits would not feed on members of their family.
In other cultures, this gemstone had a positive association. For example, the ancient Indians believed that the stone had a positive effect and it was considered a symbol of a romantic partnership.
Related to depression?
Wise mystics and alchemists knew over the centuries that all negativity attributed to the stone did not come from the stone itself, but came from the minds of the users. Yet she had no doubts about the depressive properties the stone would have.
But you have different degrees of depression. The mathematician and astrologer Girolamo Cardano wrote the story in 1560 that onyx was used in India to temper passion (in love).
The writer Scott Cunningham (1956-1993) described that it could reduce sex drive or spirit energy! Over the centuries the gem has indeed been associated with captured demons or even devils. But if the gem were combined with diamonds the depression could be circumvented.
After all the negativity about one of my favorite gemstones, something positive was noted. Even throughout history, you can find examples of cultures and people who have used it to create something beautiful.
One of the most famous pieces, which dates back thousands of years, is the breastplate of a Jewish high priest from the 14th century BC. On that ceremonial breastplate are placed 12 gemstones, which symbolize the tribes of Israel. One of the gemstones is the onyx. Then the Great Cameo of France from 23 AD, was made of sardonyx and is the largest surviving cameo from antiquity.
Another example is the Amber Room. This room, consisting of amber and marble combined with onyx, was built in 1701 for Charlottenburg in Berlin. In 1716 the room was given by the King of Prussia to Tsar Peter of Russia and was installed in the Palace of Catherine the Great. During WWII the room was taken as war booty by the Allies and somehow ‘lost’.
Cameos and intaglios
In ancient Greece, all-colored chalcedony was called ‘onyx’, while the Romans only used that term for the colors black and dark brown. The black stone with the colored (brown, white, and gray) bands was often used to make a cameo or intaglio. The art of cutting stone is very old. There are known cameos dating from the time of the Ptolemaic (3rd century BC).
The idea is that an effigy or other image was cut from a stone in such a way that the ground had a different color than the top ground. You could achieve this by making good use of the bands.
The difference between a cameo and intaglio is that with the cameo the image was cut from the white layer and the black layer served as the background. So that the image is ‘on top’. With the intaglio, the image is cut out in-depth, with the upper part emerging from the bands and the image from the black part of the stone. Cameos and intaglios were mainly made for rings and brooches.
Taking care of
If you wear a piece of jewelry with onyx in it a lot, or even if you leave such a piece of jewelry on your bedside table for too long and let it collect dust, the onyx can become dirty. And how do you clean it again?
In principle, you can clean the stone with water (best) or use a steam cleaner. Pay attention to the material in which the stone is set and which type of cleaning is best for it.
But in principle (because the stone is fairly hard: 7 on the Moh’s scale) you can go a long way with a soft brush or toothbrush and some water. Take the piece of jewelry in your hand, polish off the dirt with some warm water, dry it completely with a microfiber cloth and you’re done!
Some damage is much more difficult or impossible to remove, so avoid aggressive household polishes, ultrasonic cleaners, and harder gemstones.
The use of soap is neither necessary nor wise. Your onyx may have undergone a treatment that makes it a bit more porous. Soap then penetrates the stone, which dulls the onyx or changes its color.
A birthstone and zodiac sign
Humanity does not even agree on the constellation that should be associated with this gem. One says that the onyx belongs to the zodiac sign Capricorn (Dec-Jan) and the other calls the lion (Aug). There is quite a bit in between!
With the birthstones, it is a bit more clear. It is one of the birthstones (modern list) for February. A variant of the gem is the birthstone for August, the sardonyx.
For those who attribute special powers to gemstones:
This gem can help prevent nausea (stomach and intestinal complaints) and hypersensitivity to the weather. And you might get problems.
Some people think that the color becomes darker as it absorbs more negative energy. Furthermore, the onyx is seen as the stone for the spirit. It symbolizes self-control and mental strength.
The possible shapes of this gemstone
Although onyx is a fairly hard stone (7 on the Moh’s scale), it is still easy to work with.
They are made into cabochons. These are smooth round stones with a flat back, which are used in rings and pendants (set in precious metal, such as gold and silver). But you can also make round beads or facet cut beads, which are used to make necklaces bracelets, or earrings.
Now the question remains whether the onyx bracelet that I received for my 12th birthday was a good choice. Apart from, of course, that I simply found and still find the stone very beautiful.
The contradictions of the onyx are not my piece of cake and that also applies to the negative image that this beauty has received over the centuries. For me, the glass is always half full.
Anyway… see the onyx as a beautiful, special stone and wear it if it makes you feel good. Especially now that fashion has a lot of black colors, this stone fits in perfectly.
If you want to know more about birthstones and other gemstones, you can request my free PDF, which contains many stories about these stones. It is also a good idea to give this PDF as a gift together with a piece of jewelry containing a birthstone.
You can access the free download via the form below.
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