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The Color Purple

One of the world's most popular gemstones, Amethyst is classified today as a semi-precious gem. However, from the pre-biblical times of ancient Mesopotamia right up to the European Middle Ages, Amethyst was regarded as a precious gem. During this period Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby and Amethyst were attributed the joint title of the five 'Cardinal Gems.' Amethysts inclusion into the 'Cardinal Gem' set was due to the association made by Pharaohs, Kings, and of course Cardinals, who all held Amethyst's purple color representative of the highest echelons of society.
By today's standards the color purple is commonplace, and is easily bought as tincture and paint from any local hardware store. However, prior to the wonders of modern science purple dye was the single most rarest nuance available in nature. According to the Greek philosopher and tutor of 'Alexander The Great,' Aristotle: "In it's purest form it possesses a value ten to twenty times its weight in gold!"

Legend has it that the first purple dye was discovered by Herakle-Melqart (city god of Tyr) who was walking along the Levantine shoreline with the nymph Tyrus. His dog found a Murex snail and devoured it, which left a beautiful purple color around the dog's mouth. Tyrus saw the color and told Herakle-Melqart she would not accept his courtship until he brought her a robe of the same color. So he collected the Murex shells, extracted the dye, and tinted the first garment purple.

The Levantine coast where they walked was an area that today encapsulates the city of Sur in modern Lebanon, known in pre-biblical times as Tyr. For thousands of years, this part of Lebanon was known as Canaan or Phoenicia, which literally translated meant 'The Land Of Purple.'

Although the earliest purple dyes were found in Minoan pottery glazes on the island of Crete, circa 1900 B.C., Phoenicia and its principal city of Tyr were the first to exploit the Murex's purple dye commercially. Tyrian texts mention the Murex's dye as early as 1600 B.C., from where it became Tyr's principal source of income for 100's of years. It is from this geographical origin that we get the name 'Tyrian Purple.' It should be noted that by today's standards the ancient purples (porpora) were more red than purple, varying from a fiery red, to viola and an almost red-black.

The Murex dye industry proved to be so lucrative to the Tyrians that the shell was adopted as a symbol of Tyr, appearing on their earliest coinage alongside their city god, Melqart. Over the course of time, and through extensive trade networks stretching from Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, and Rome the Murex's highly coveted dye became synonymous with wealth, and an exotic trade rarity reserved for the rich.

Of all countries, that Phoenicia was to trade the Murex dye with, it was Italy who would become her most loyal customer. The Phoenicians first traded in Italy with the Etruscans, a society of artisans particularly skilled in the art of jewelry fabrication. However, it was with the creation of Imperial Rome by Romulus in 753 B.C. that the Murex's purple dye began to be synonymous with power, wealth and position.

Pliny the Elder, author of the world's first Encyclopedia in the 1st century A.D. wrote: "I find that, from the very first, purple has been in use at Rome, but that Romulus employed it for the trabea." The trabea was similar to the toga, and decorated with purple stripes. There were various kinds of trabea; one was completely purple and sacred to the gods, another was purple and white and was the royal robe worn by kings such as Romulus and later Tullus Hostilius. Pliny continues: "As to the toga praetexta (a toga bordered with purple, worn by magistrates and free-born children) and the laticlave vestment (a purple badge of the senatorial order), it is a fact well ascertained, that Tullus Hostilius was the first king who made use of them." From this use as a status symbol in early Imperial Rome it was a matter of time until purple assumed another moniker, 'Imperial Purple.'

Hundreds of years later, with the demise of the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, the usage of 'Imperial Purple' and 'Tyrian Purple' had been strictly reserved for nobility and the church. By the fall of Byzantium in 1453 the Murex shell had all but vanished, and in 1464 the Pope Paul II introduced the 'Cardinal's Purple,' authorizing the use of cochineal insect to dye cardinals' and archbishops' robes instead. The 'Cardinal Purple' of the cochineal was much closer to what we call purple than the Murex's 'Tyrian' or 'Imperial' variety, and led to our modern interpretation of purple being a mixture of red and blue.

From this point in time onwards Amethyst, echoing the same purple coloration, became a regular feature in the ornamentation of Rome's holy men, worn as rings and amulets as a sign of pious virtue. It is from these various associations that Amethyst, with its emblematic colors of the Roman Catholic Church, took its place amongst diamond, sapphire, ruby and emerald as a 'Cardinal Gem.'