The Magpie's Jewel Box

A treasure trove of sparkly bits and pieces

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Perfectly purple: February’s birthstone – Amethyst

Purple is one of my favourite colours so it’s fitting that beautiful amethyst, February’s birthstone, happens to be my birthstone and the stone for my star sign, Pisces. I own quite a few pieces of amethyst jewellery, from necklaces to rings, in every shade from deep purple to soft lilac. I love the darker hue – there’s something rather mysterious and exotic about it.

Amethyst is a variety of the mineral quartz and gets its purple colour from iron. It is dichroic i.e. it displays two colours – a bluish or reddish purple tinge – when viewed from different angles. Large quantities of the stone are produced in Brazil and it is also found in Africa (Madagascar) the United States, Canada, Australia and Siberia, in alluvial deposits or in geodes (hollow stone often lined with crystals). The quality of amethyst varies according to its source. Deep purple gemstones with red flashes are the best quality and can be found in Siberia and Uruguay. Since Amethyst is widely available, it is one of the more affordable gem stones.

Amethyst scores 7 on the Mohs Hardness scale, below topaz (8), rubies and sapphires (9) and diamonds (the hardest stones at 10). It is sometimes heat treated to change the colour to yellow when it becomes citrine. Crystals that are part amethyst and part citrine are called ametrine and I have seen some stunning examples of ametrine jewellery.

Myths and legends

The word amethyst is derived from the Greek word ‘amethustos’ meaning ‘not intoxicated’ and the Ancient Greeks and Romans made drinking goblets of the gemstone, believing that it would prevent drunkenness. Over time, the amethyst also came to symbolise piety.  In the Middle Ages Catholic churches were often decorated with amethysts; Bishops today wear amethyst rings.

According to one legend, Dionysus, the god of intoxication, grapes and winemaking was pursuing the beautiful maiden, Amethystos, who rejected his attentions. She prayed to the gods to help her remain chaste and her prayer was answered by the goddess Artemis who turned her into a white stone. The remorseful Dionysus poured wine over the stone as an offering, causing it to turn purple.


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NEWS: Brussels airport $50m diamond haul was ‘one of biggest ever’

A huge haul of diamonds, valued at around $50m, was stolen during a daring and well-planned raid at Brussels airport on Monday night.

Disguised as police, armed robbers broke through part of the airport fencing, drove up to a Zurich-bound plane and removed around 120 packages of rough and polished diamonds that had been loaded onto the aircraft.

It was all over in minutes and the robbers escaped back through the fence. No-one was injured.

The diamonds were being transported from Antwerp, the world’s diamond trading hub, to Zurich in Switzerland. According to a spokesperson at the Antwerp World Diamond Centre Monday’s robbery was ‘one of the biggest ever’.

Over 100m euros’ of diamonds move in and out of Antwerp daily and the city has developed a reputation as a secure and discreet diamond centre over many years.

Watch the BBC video report.

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Popping the question: how do men buy engagement rings?

It’s probably one of the most nerve-wracking occasions in a man’s life – the day he proposes to his dearly beloved. I’ve often wondered how men go about choosing an engagement ring for their wife-to-be so I’ve conducted some rather unscientific research amongst a few male colleagues, family and friends to find out how they bought this most symbolic of all jewellery items.

Here’s what I found out … (and, yes, it would seem that diamonds are still a girl’s best friend!).

Gentleman #1: Mr T

Where and when did you pop the question?  The magical Charles Bridge in Prague 2003 – 2 years almost to the minute from the day we met

Did you choose the ring or did your fiancée? She did – I had it in mind that she might like to choose the ring while we were having a romantic weekend in Prague and I was right!

Describe the ring: Blue topaz set in gold

How much did you spend?  Below my budget of £500 but it was the ring she wanted so I was happy!

Gentleman #2: Mr G

Where and when did you pop the question? I proposed whilst walking around Virginia Waters between Christmas and New Year. It is a place we visit fairly often, so I chose this particular location as not to rouse suspicion as I wanted it to be a surprise but at the same time scenic.

Did you choose the ring or did your fiancée? It was a joint decision, made after the proposal. The ring of choice for my initial proposal was a haribo friendship ring (a type of chewy sweet for all you non-Brits!) as I was not willing to spend a significant amount on jewellery a). I knew nothing about b). She might not like. A few hours after the proposal we chose and bought the ring. That’s when it felt official.

Describe the ring. Brilliant cut 0.33 carat solitaire diamond surrounded by smaller diamonds and set in platinum.

Where did you buy the ring? Mappin & Webb

How much did you spend? £2500, which was within budget

Was your fiancée pleased with the ring? Yes, definitely …  She gets to marry me, so of course she was (I hope)!

Gentleman #3: Mr A

Where and when did you pop the question? I proposed on Christmas morning, when I had a 2 minute window due to an excitable 2 year old and a 9 month baby. I advised my fiancée, N, that I had one small surprise left and made her close her eyes. When she opened them I was down on one knee, amidst wrapping paper and toys galore, both in our dressing gowns at approx 5.30am.

Did you choose the ring or did your fiancee? A female friend of mine, K, is really good friends with my fiancée. Therefore she was able to give me a very specific idea of what was required. I researched lots of different options and quickly realised I could take significant cost out by going direct to the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. I managed the whole process online via pictures, briefed the jewellery designer and they did the rest.

Describe the ring: A single diamond set in yellow gold. I purchased the diamond and had it set in the Jewellery Quarter. I was very impressed with the service and savings I was able to make by buying the diamond separately and having it made up.

Did you have the ring ready for when you proposed or did you choose it after the proposal? After applying quite a lot of pressure, the ring arrived at my place of work on the 20th December, my last day at work before the Christmas break.

How much did you spend? I am not a great believer in being told what society tells me I should be paying for a ring, i.e. 3 months salary… I purchased the ring for £1100, the valuation for insurance purposes states £1850. Therefore my fiancee assumes this is what I paid – ha ha ha ….

Gentleman #4:  Mr P

Where and when did you pop the question? Paris, June 2012. My fiancée had worked out that I was going to propose and I knew she would say Yes. She wasn’t expecting me to have the ring with me when I proposed so she was rather taken aback when I produced it and there a few tears from both of us. Fortunately, she liked it.

Did you choose the ring or did your fiancée? I chose it in advance because I thought she would want a ring at the same time I proposed. I did a lot of research online and went and bought it in Reading. After I bought the ring I sent a picture of it to my sister and some of her friends to see what they thought. Luckily, they approved!

Describe the ring – 0.65 carat brilliant cut diamond set in 18 carat white gold.

How much did you spend? Slightly less than a month’s salary.

Gentleman #5: Mr M

Where and when did  you pop the question? London, Christmas 2012

Did you choose the ring or did your fiancée? I chose it. She hinted that she would like a solitaire diamond on a traditional gold band. I did some window shopping in London and looked at 3 or 4 in Fraser Hart. I chose the one I liked (which was different to what my fiancée had hinted at!), negotiated on the price and purchased it all within half an hour.

Describe the ring. 0.5 carat diamond set in a total of 0.5 carat of round cut brilliant diamonds on a platinum band.

How much did you spend?  £3,000

What was your fiancées reaction? She was very happy and preferred my choice to her original choice of a solitaire diamond set on a traditional yellow gold band.

And finally …

Gentleman #6: Mr K (my dear 84-year old dad!)

Where and when did you propose? Birmingham, March 1956?

Did you choose the ring? Yes, probably, I can’t remember! She must have liked it, though, as she’s still wearing it!

Describe the ring: blue sapphire with two diamonds set on a yellow gold band.

How much did you spend? I can’t remember, it was 56 years ago!

My thanks to all the lovely gents who shared their experiences of buying engagement rings with me. Congratulations to the recently betrothed Messrs P, M, G and A and their fiancees. I hope you have fun purchasing your wedding rings.

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Must-see jewellery at the V&A Museum

I first stumbled across the amazing jewellery collection at the V&A a couple of years ago and could not believe my eyes. I had never seen so much fantastic jewellery all in one place. If you love jewellery and are in London go and check out The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery (Rooms 91-93) at the Museum which displays around 3500 items of jewellery from the V&A’s collection.

The collection has a mainly European focus and includes everything from rings to tiaras and features examples from Ancient Greece to the present day, including several pieces with royal connections. You can see the work of famous jewellers such as Cartier, Lalique and Faberge as well as examples by 140 contemporary designers. Personally, I prefer the older pieces for their historical associations and, in many cases, their total over-the-topness!

The Museum is free to visit. Opening times are 10.00 to 17.45 daily and 10.00 to 22.00 Friday. I recommend getting there early because the jewellery gallery is very popular, is not particularly spacious and gets very crowded. Give yourself plenty of time to view the exhibits – they are stunning and deserve a good look! And don’t miss the beautiful gemstone ‘wheel’ near the gallery entrance – it includes examples of just about every gemstone you can think of and it’s worth visiting just to see that.

Finally, before you leave, take a look at the V&A shop where you can buy costume and designer jewellery.  Enjoy!

Photo by: Steve and Sara 

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Getting to like garnet: January’s birthstone

Until fairly recently, I was never very interested in garnets (January’s birthstone and the Zodiac gemstone for Aquarians), thinking of them as rather insignificant and dull – I don’t know why!

I started to change my mind when I visited Prague 12 years ago. The Czech Republic is rich in the familiar blood red variety of garnet known as pyrope (often referred to as Bohemian garnet). In the jewellery and antique shops of Prague I saw so many large, fine examples of these gemstones set into classical and contemporary style jewellery that I was forced to take notice.  I didn’t succumb on that trip but I did come to appreciate the lustre of this fiery red stone.

What really made me change my mind about garnet (by which I really mean pyrope) was seeing the Anglo Saxon Staffordshire Hoard at the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum just weeks after it was discovered and brought up out of the ground. Many of the beautiful gold finds such as this sword hilt fitting were inlaid with pyrope which was used by the Anglo Saxons in jewellery, religious artefacts, such as crosses, and to decorate weaponry.

The Staffordshire Hoard examples, which include this beautiful sword pyramid, are work of very high quality and stunning in their detail; I now fully appreciate the beauty and impact of pyrope. The 7th century Anglo Saxon ship burial found at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk also contained fine gold and garnet fittings which can be seen at the British Museum in London.

Not just red

Like many people, I had always assumed that all garnets were red and it wasn’t until long after my return from Prague that I learned that garnet can be found in every colour except blue; the grossular variety appears in a wide range of colours, while demantoid, the most valuable variety, is emerald green. The iron and chromium content of pyrope are what give it its deep red hue. Unlike many gemstones, garnets are not artificially treated to enhance their colour.

Garnet myths

The word ‘garnet’ is derived from the Latin ‘granatus’ meaning ‘seed-like’. Garnet has long been associated with pomegranates since the pyrope variety is similar in colour to pomegranate seeds.  Traditionally, Bohemian garnets are set close together in clusters to ressemble the seeds.

The Garnet is also linked to fire and it was once believed that the gem had the power to light up the night sky. Travellers liked to carry a garnet with them as an amulet or talisman on their journeys in the belief that the stone would offer protection against danger. In the Far East garnets were used as missiles because it was thought the stone would cause mortal wounds.

Enduring popularity

Perhaps because of their clarity, durability and availability, garnets have been appreciated for thousands of years. The Eygptians, Romans and Anglo Saxons used garnets in jewellery and the gem’s popularity endured over the centuries, with pyrope jewellery becoming a ‘must-have’ fashion item in the 18th and 19th centuries; when the late Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis’ estate was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1996, a 19th century cabochon garnet flower brooch sold for $145,000 and a heart shaped garnet carbuncle ring sold for $33,350. Garnet jewellery is still popular and is available everywhere from high street jewellers to the jewellery TV channels.

If I were thinking of buying pryope, I’d be very tempted to revisit Prague as there’s probably no better place to find this rich red stone displayed in all its fiery glory.

For more information on garnets, check out the International Colored Gemstone Association.

Next month’s birthstone: Amethyst

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Tantalising tanzanite – December’s beautiful blue/violet birthstone

A very popular gemstone, and one of my favourites, Tanzanite is the blue/purple variety of the mineral zoisite. It is a rare gem, being found only in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania where it was discovered in 1967. Tiffany & Co named the gem tanzanite and the stone has been marketed under this name ever since.

Tanzanite is strongly trichroic which means that the crystals reflect three different colours: blue, violet and burgundy. Artificial heat treatment to 600 °C brings out the blue violet of the stone. Different colours become more evident in different lights, with the blues being particularly strong in daylight and the purples appearing stronger by candlelight. You can usually see both colours at the same time, particularly in larger carats.

I have several pieces of tanzanite jewellery ranging in colour from pale lilac to a wonderful deep blue and I love them all. It is the blue version that I have seen most often seen in jewellery shop windows.

Tanzanite has become increasingly popular in recent years, so much so that in 2002 the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) announced that tanzanite had joined zircon and turquoise in the traditional list of birthstones for the month of December.

Tanzanite is marketed heavily on its rarity – it is only found in one place, is said to be a thousand times rarer than diamonds and supplies will eventually run out, with opinions on exactly when ranging from 10 to 30 years!

So is it affordable?  As with any gem stone, you should assess a tanzanite on the 4Cs: colour, carat, clarity and cut.  Tanzanite rarely contains flaws and it is colour that is key.  Generally a tanzanite that is more blue than violet with a rich, deep colour will be most valuable.  The best advice seems to be to go for the colour, then carat and purchase according to your budget.

Whether you choose the deepest blue or the lighter lavender, tanzanite is a beautiful stone that deserves to be treasured.

Further information on tanzanite can be found at:

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Glittering goldstone

Glittering goldstone makes high impact jewellery

It’s been a damp, cloudy and chilly here in the Midlands recently. Everything seems rather brown, the glorious colour variations of autumn having been rendered very dull by a distinct lack of sunlight. The world could do with a little sparkle right now so here are a few words about a favourite ‘stone’ of mine that glitters like gold and can look quite spectacular when made up into jewellery.

It’s called Goldstone. While many people assume it’s a gemstone, it isn’t a stone at all which is why you won’t find it mentioned in any books about gemstones. In fact, it’s man-made: a type of glass first manufactured by the Venetian Miotti family under licence from the Doge in the sixteenth century.

At bead fairs, you will usually see the reddish-brown version of Goldstone. It’s very unusual and really stands out under artificial lighting due to its amazing ‘sparkIe’. Goldstone is created by melting silica, copper oxide and other metal oxides and then sealing the liquid ‘mix’ in a low oxygen environment. The glass is kept hot enough to remain liquid while the copper precipitates into sparkling crystal clusters. When the Goldstone cools, it can be polished smooth into spectacular, glittering pebbles and beads, making it ideal for jewellery making.

While I love goldstone and am sitting looking at a lovely string of small oval stones that I absolutely must make up into something very soon, I prefer blue goldstone. This is made in the same way but cobalt is used instead of copper. Looking at blue goldstone is like looking up into a summer night sky full of stars – it’s quite spectacular and it makes truly stunning and eye-catching jewellery.

Blue goldstone

Blue goldstone pebbles and silver spacer beads make a fantastic statement necklace

You can buy goldstone online but with more unusual stones like this, I prefer to see what I’m buying. I bought a superb string of blue goldstone ‘pebbles’ from Ilona Biggins at the Rocks n Gems Show, bought some large silver beads to act as spacers and had the whole lot made up into a fantastic, high-impact necklace which I really love . In my opinion Ilona has one of the best ranges of goldstone – and semi-precious stones – anywhere.  Check out her shop here and scroll down the list to see the goldstone.