What sort of emotions are elicited by the word “emerald?” A stunningly saturated color of green could be envisioned. Perhaps the precious gems, commonly held to be among the most valuable in the world, could be called to mind…or one may even be transported to the “Emerald Isle” of Ireland and hear a distant melody of “Danny Boy” playing wistfully in their ears. The emerald is held in such high regard for the serenity that it can bring that Roman historian Pliny the Elder even spoke of the healing power that the gem held for ancient lapidaries who “[had] no better method of restoring their eyes than by looking at the emerald, its soft, green color comforting and removing their weariness and lassitude.”
For such a tranquil stone, it is amazing how it can still hold such power to excite powerful emotion! This gorgeous, green-hued variety of beryl caused quite a stir, for instance, when the notorious conquistador Cortez brought home a supply of emeralds from the ‘New World’ where they existed in abundance. The most magnificent emerald of the hoard was engraved with the words “among those born of women, a greater has not arisen,” which he intended to give to his bride as a fitting wedding present. This fortune, however, was perhaps not so fortuitous; historians maintain that the Spanish Queen was so disappointed that she was not the recipient of these gems that she became his enemy for life! The historian Brantôme even claimed that it was a sacrilege to engrave upon the face of any material so beautiful, and Cortez’ perceived comeuppance for this atrocity included the loss of a pearl of unparalleled magnificence, so lovely that he composed “A Beautiful and Incomparable Pearl” in its honor, the loss of this entire horde in a shipwreck, and even the death of King Charles IX of France.
Despite this loss of wealth for Cortez, earlier sources had made the obvious mental jump between emeralds and the verdant green of wealth…According to one ancient recipe for tinctura smaragdi, or ‘tincture of emerald,’ “the occult power of the gem was supposed to be greatly increased by engraving on it a proper astrological device. Ancient ‘authorities’ state that ‘men like a merchant, carrying wares to sell, or men seated under a centurian engraved on an emerald, gives wealth and victory, and delivers from evil.’ For any pagan practitioners less interested in the material world and more in the spiritual, simply applying “a hoopoe with the herb-dragon in front, upon beryl, hath the power to summon the water-spirits and force them to speak. It will also call up the dead of your acquaintance, and oblige them to respond to your questions.”
For those of you who are comfortable keeping more of a long-distance friendship with the deceased, but just want to look like Angelina Jolie strutting down the red carpet in magnificent emeralds (her favorite), never fear! Emeralds can come from just about anyplace in the world, with the ironic exception of Ireland. A famous Egyptian source known as “Cleopatra’s Mines,” though only slim pickings of emeralds remain there today, were known to have once produced a generous abundance of emeralds that lasted over three thousand years! These mines were likely responsible for the bulk of Rome’s abundance of emeralds during the height of its opulent reign. But, dear reader, rather than turn green with envy at all of these famous gems of the past…why not simply carry home a precious little (or big) emerald of your own?
Still want to know more about emeralds? We hear you! Click over to Eve’s previous post on the May birthstone, Romancing the Stone, to get your gemstone fix!
Have you ever left something in the oven for a little too long? Maybe you and your toaster don’t always exactly agree on what “well done” entails. If you were a homeowner in Pompeii of 79 A.D., an oven accidentally left on would certainly be the least of your problems…but the results produced are surprisingly familiar!
Almost 2,000 years following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which left the vacation-town of Pompeii buried beneath a mass of volcanic detritus, an extremely burned, charred, and blackened, yet perfectly preserved loaf of bread was discovered. Against all odds, it had “survived” right where it had been carefully laid inside a Pompeiian oven by a doomed baker centuries before. Frozen in time as a completely cooked-through lump of carbon, the intricate details of the bread dough have been preserved for the amazement and inspection of future generations of glutenphiles. Modern visitors to Pompeii can see the intricate knots of dough, which still display such details as indentations running round the circumference of each loaf– these have been hypothesized by modern bakers to mark the location of a string tied round the bread before baking in order to make it easier to carry home.
A bread stamp also marks the surface of each bread loaf, commonly marking both who baked it, as well as to which hungry citizen it was assigned. At this point in history, a baker was a very prestigious and peculiar position: unlike most trades, they were freemen and recognized as Roman citizens, and had to be government-recognized members of a bakers’ guild in order to produce and sell their trade. The upside of being a recognized Collegium baker was that it meant you were a baker for life, but on the other side of the same token, were also forbidden for unknown reasons from fraternizing with “comedians and gladiators,” and were not permitted to attend the amphitheater.
An entire 81 loaves of this kind were discovered in a bakery of the neighboring town Herculaneum, which was also decimated by the volcanic blast. Roman bread such as this was created en masse using animal-powered machinery for kneading the yeasty, delicious bread, out of what would likely have been buckwheat flour. Only the lucky got to enjoy this bread however, as leaven was only for the upper classes, and the lower classes would likely have made do with a pita-like-bread of the unleavened sort: an unfortunate visual embodiment of where they stood on the totem pole.
Fortunately, you do not need to be an upper-class Roman citizen to enjoy these bread loaves today. You can either go to Pompeii, as Eve did, and witness these bread formations for yourself. You can follow the recipe, recreated by pastry chef Giorgio Locatelli, and attempt to create your very own (pre-volcano) Pompeiian bread to enjoy…or, you can carry the memory of Pompeii around with you throughout the day by taking home a pair of captivating Pompeii-inspired earrings crafted by Eve Alfillé upon her return from the destroyed city of yesteryear. Regardless of whether your bread is made of sterling silver, blond gold, or a block of pure carbon, you will never have to worry about it getting moldy again!
Over the course of human history, many famous and illustrious minds have been drawn in by the hypnotic allure of diamonds. Something in the sparkle of this April birthstone just casts an irreversible spell over the imagination, regardless of social station or place in time…But before Kim and Kanye ever showed off their 15 carats of commitment, before Elizabeth Taylor decided “big girls need big diamonds,” and before they were Marilyn’s best friend, there was Pliny the Elder.
Though perhaps not as flashy as some of today’s divas this ancient Roman scholar was not shy when it came to demanding some diamonds. A man of stunning intellect, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, wrote of him:
“The only time he took from his work was for his bath, and by bath I mean his actual immersion, for while he was being rubbed down and dried he had a book read to him or dictated notes.”
In fact, during his lifetime, the elder Pliny set about the task of describing no less than the entire known natural universe. His writings, known as the “Naturalis Historia,” were the first model for the modern encyclopedia.
Fortunately for us, is not necessary to leaf through all 37 volumes of his epically-proportioned tome to see that, just like the fashionistas of today, the diamond’s mischievous sparkle was just as potent to the mind of this erudite scholar. In his 37th and final volume, he introduced diamonds as the Jupiter of all gemstones:
“Diamond is the most valuable, not only of precious stones, but of all things in this world.”
In a glowing, and even overexaggerated account, Pliny goes on to proclaim that:
“All these stones can be tested upon the anvil and they repel blows so that an iron hammer head may be split into two and even the anvil unseated. Indeed the hardness of the diamond is not able to be described.”
Following all this praise of diamond, it comes as almost a surprise that he went on to heap disdain on those who dared to dress themselves in what he considered too many gems. Whether intentional or not, his contempt for the Roman “excess” in fashion can even border on the humorous, in such accounts as that of his description of the affect pearls had on the ladies of the empire:
“Our ladies quite glory in having these suspended from their fingers, or two or three of them dangling from their ears. For the purpose of ministering to these luxurious tastes, there are various names and wearisome refinements which have been devised by profuseness and prodigality; for after inventing these ear-rings, they have given them the name of ‘crotalia,’ or castanet pendants, as though quite delighted even with the rattling of the pearls as they knock against each other!”
Unfortunately, in the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius of Pompeii, this great mind met his untimely end. There the younger Pliny took up the torch of historian, and is the only remaining source today of the great tragedy which struck Pompeii. He described the characteristic virtue and boldness of his uncle in this final description, in which Pliny decided to rush into danger’s way to respond to the plea of a friend:
“He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero…Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter.” (Pliny, to Tacitus)
Following a visit to the ancient ruins of Pompeii, Eve Alfillé returned home to create a stunning new jewelry collection, opening May 2 at the gallery, from 1 to 7pm. Read on to hear her thoughts on the series...
Q: How did your trip to Pompeii make you feel?
A: There’s no other place in the world where 2,000 years doesn’t seem to matter. Through the tragic occurrence of a volcanic eruption and the miraculous discovery of a buried city 1,700 years later, we’re able to see and feel what life there was like. When you’re there you can actually see it very easily…suddenly, something happens, and second sight occurs. A dogs’ dish on the floor, a lost sandal, humble things of everyday…things you immediately recognize, that become very real. Pompeii does that for you.
Q: How did these feelings motivate you to create this series?
A: If you want to evoke it…how do we do that?
One way is to appropriate: to reproduce what people had or did in those days. But obviously, there’s no point doing it exactly alike. It’s going to be tinged with ‘today’ in some way. So, it has to be filtered through my impression, my sensibility…but my intent is to give you some jewelry that you would have worn if you had been Claudia or Flavia or someone in Pompeii at the time.
But the other thing that occurs to you there is that you become really gripped by what time has done, and it’s especially poignant there because things are so well preserved…and yet, with two thousand years and the elements…they’ve had some effects. So what you see, the sum total, is very, very strongly emotional. You see the first part: a tempus fugit.
The carpe diem, that’s the other conclusion. You feel happy for those people, that they had such wonderful lives. Pompeii was actually a resort; that’s where rich Romans went. They were relaxed.
Q: What do these two themes mean to ‘Pompeii?’
A: So these two Latin sayings are actually the two sides of the collection. They will look different. One is the carpe diem, the part about “seizing the day,” about “living the life.” And life in Pompeii was a very rich life. People were there to relax, to enjoy life, to show off. They built magnificent houses; the frescoes were amazing, and the mosaics were incredible. So we have a picture of life lived to the utmost– and that’s the carpe diem.
But over 2,000 years have passed, and what time has created is different. It’s not so much the fact that many things are ruined…it’s the beauty in how time has affected things, how time has ruined them. It’s how we are affected by seeing this decay. I think it’s a very powerful thing: it’s the flag of time, the tempus fugit.
Q: What can we expect to see stylistically in this series? Any stones of note?
A: There will be some things that perhaps Pompeii would not have seen. Maybe black diamonds were very rare, or occasional there, more than they are now. But in the second part, one of the pieces of shorthand that I’ve used (as the Romans did) are intaglios and carved figures. For these, the designs will often be negatives, not positives. They will be shown in reverse, because we are going backwards through time from the present. They will be seen through other gems, because that is what one sees: you see things through a glass. There will be a number of pieces like this: where antiquity is present, but not directly. You’ll see it a remove or two…one remove is by seeing only the reverse of the scenes, the other one is in seeing them through a barrier.
There will be the gems of antiquity, the emeralds and the rubies. There will be moonstones, which I chose because they are like a crystal ball…you can see into them, but you’re not sure what you see, and I like them for that. There will be some gems in the tempus fugit half which we did not discover until modern times…opals, tourmalines…they were later gems. We’ll use those to mark the time that has elapsed since then. I like opals because the colors are evanescent: they change with your point of view.
Q: How does this series fit into your work as a whole?
A: Something I’ve dealt with in a lot of my series is the fact of our mortality and how we choose to see that time is fleeting: that the hourglass is not going to reverse itself.
I’m very conscious of being just a speck on the march of the ants through history, and I think there’s a great beauty in fulfilling that role, in being part of destiny, in actually watching time flow with our own eyes. That is something I like to celebrate rather than fear. And so, maybe half of the jewels you will see in the serie s are about tempus fugit. They are meant to be somewhat nostalgic, to evoke perhaps faded colors, but colors of great poetry, of great sensitivity. And that is the difficulty: how do you reconcile the two?…You can only do it by keeping them separate.
So, the series will actually have two components, and I would very much like for people to understand that the first ones, the ones that recreate ancient life, will be perhaps easier to comprehend. But please: stay and watch the others, and I think after a time, that their beauty will seize you as well.
This April, don’t let all of the showers before the May flowers get you down. Instead, take comfort in the fact you were blessed with that most luxurious of birthstones, the diamond! Besides being the hardest rock in existence (the only stone to merit a 10 on the Mohs hardness scale), the diamond is in fact 58 times harder than any other natural substance on earth. The ancients could discern diamonds because only another diamond could scratch a diamond, and according to Pliny the Elder, they were “the most valuable, not only of precious stones, but of all things in this world.” But what is it that makes the diamond so unique? Though diamonds are composed of over 99.95% carbon, so is the graphite in your pencil. What sets them apart is the fantastically intense heat and pressure under which diamonds comes into being, located about 100 miles underground. Within these conditions, carbon atoms are able to align into an isometric structure, or one in which the atoms are all bonded the same way in each direction.
Though this fascinating structure gives them the highest possible level of luster and shine out of any other transparent gemstone, making diamonds the most naturally luminous of stones, these tiny miracles are not always colorless and white. Diamonds also come in a vast array of “fancy” colors brought about through other mineral atoms in the stone. Typically the most valuable of these are, as in all stones, also the most rare; vivid shades of pink, blue, and green, for instance. The diamond is also the stone of the 60th and 75th wedding anniversaries, and more than that, it is a gift that is sure to please. Only the act of gifting could make this most luminous stone even brighter– according to the indomitable Mae West “I have always felt a gift diamond shines so much better than one you buy for yourself.” As such a solid investment, these incredibly hardy little stones are sure to be enjoyed for a lifetime, and are not infrequently passed on through generations…so be sure and pick a good one (with the help of your local Eve!)