crystal carving

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Tourmaline shotglass?

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Carved labradorite bear. The iridescence comes from tiny inclusions of other minerals that exsolve from the plagioclase when it is forming its twinning.

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Roman Rock Crystal Hydria, 1st Century AD

A carved crystal vessel with loop handles and palmette detailing; with later, probably 17th-18th century AD silver-gilt lid and chain. 256 grams, 12.5cm (5").

Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, mentions a number of sources for rock crystal, such as Asia Minor, Cyprus, Portugal and the Alps, though he states the best came from India. The stone was fashioned into vessels in Bronze Age Greece as well as Cyprus, Asia Minor, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The use of rock crystal for vessels fell out of fashion in Classical Greece but was revived in the Hellenistic period where it was associated with the wealthy elite in such cities as Alexandria and Antioch.

In the Roman Empire rock crystal was highly valued and according to Pliny, Livia, the wife of Augustus, dedicated a block weighing one hundred and fifty pounds on the Capitol; he also mentions a wealthy Roman woman paying one hundred and fifty thousand sestertii for a single rock crystal dipper. Suetonius mentions that Nero had two crystal cups carved with Homeric scenes that he broke when he received the news that the Senate had called for his execution. The high value placed by the Romans on rock crystal can be seen in the high degree of carving that the surviving pieces have, and their relative rarity compared to other stone vessels.

Large Gothic Rock Crystal Loop Buckle with Garnets, 5th Century AD

Of gilt-bronze with carved rock crystal loop and inlaid garnets

A small number of belt buckles made from rock crystal have been found and mostly related to the Ostrogoths, the Eastern branch of the Gothic confederacy of tribes; the Western branch being the Visigoths who would go on to settle Southern France, Spain and North Africa. The Ostrogoths traced their origins to the Greutungi – a branch of the Goths who had migrated southward from the Baltic Sea and established a kingdom north of the Black Sea, during the third and fourth centuries, and their name would appear to mean ‘glorified by the rising sun.’

The relative scarcity of rock crystal buckles would indicate that they were reserved for the elite and that they were only used for special occasions, such as religious ceremonies, diplomatic meetings, and other court ceremonial; the fragile nature of the stone would make them unpractical to wear on a daily basis, particularly in warfare. Rock crystal had been regarded as having special qualities since the Neolithic when pebbles of the crystal had been placed in graves. It would go on to be revered by the Romans and manufactured into luxury items, and it is possibly this influence, along with a native belief in the magical power of the stone, that led to it being used for the aristocracy.