Moss Agates:   Pictures and Power

Despite their name, there was actually no moss within these lovely and fascinating semi-precious gemstones. However, it was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that the true make-up of these stones was fully understood. Therefore, our Regency ancestors were quite certain that real moss had been trapped within these alluring and engaging stones. During the Regency, and for centuries before, many people also thought these unique and exquisite stones had powerful healing and protective properties. Therefore, the superstitions surrounding, and the beauty of, moss agates might prove useful to a plethora of plot points for a Regency romance.

Moss agates through the Regency . . .

Curiously, not only did moss agates not include any real moss, they were also not true agates. True agate is made up of bands of fine silica alternating with quartz, and these visible concentric bands are the most defining feature of this type of rock. Due to this banding, agate can be found in a wide range of colors. The family of stones known as agates is also characterized by a very fine, smooth grain and a relatively high ranking on the hardness scale. True agate was first discovered in what is now Sicily, by the Greek naturalist, Theophrastus, at some time between the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Since he found this colorfully banded stone along the banks of what was then known as the Achates River, he named it agate. Stones known as moss agates are a variety of pale quartz which contains opaque, dark-colored inclusions, typically of manganese and iron oxides. Those inclusions are usually shades of green and brown that branch into lacy shapes which resemble moss, lichens or ferns. The portion of the stone surrounding the inclusions is generally a translucent milky-white to pale greyish color, which admirably sets off the percieved plant shapes of the inclusions. The fine grain and hardness of most moss agates was one of the main reasons they were classed with agates when they were first discovered. Moss agates were found in central Europe, primarily Sicily and Germany, and later in India, up to the nineteenth century. Today, they are also found in Brazil, Uruguay and the western United States.

It is known that in ancient times, moss agates were belived to increase a warrior’s strength and protect them from harm. Moss agates found in Europe during the Middle Ages were often called Gardner’s Stones. People were convinced that the plant shapes which could be seen in those stones meant that they would aid in the healthy growth of real plants. Farmers would hang a moss agate on a tree or a pole, or bury one, in a special place in their fields or orchards, in order to ensure a successful growing season and harvest. Perhaps because of the belief that moss agates aided fruitful crops, polished moss agates were carried by some women as a talisman to aid in conception and/or for a successful pregnancy and childbirth. Many midwives regularly carried a moss agate as a talisman or charm to impartr courage to the women they attended in childbed and to ease their pain. At this time, stone-cutting and polishing was not yet very sophisticated, so most moss agates used by farmers and gardeners were simply raw stones, while those carried as personal talismens were roughly polished to give the surface a slightly glossy patina.

Once Continental trade began with the Levant, another form of moss agate began to be imported into Europe. These stones were known as "mocha stones," named for Al Mukna, the Arabian seaport from which they were exported. Most of these mocha stones were probably originally imported from into the Middle East, since moss agates are not found there. Not all of these moss agates were repackaged and resold just as they came from India. The Arabs had developed a technique by which they could permanently change the color of the stones. Moss agates were steeped in boiling honey, then dipped into sulphuric acid. This process caused the honey which had been absorbed by the stone to become a deep brown to black color, depending upon how much honey had been absorbed. However, this process did not obscure the plant-shaped inclusions in the stones, it simply darkened the background which surrounded them. Throughout Arabia and the Levant, moss agates and mocha stones were worn as talismans which were believed to have the power to protect the wearer and ensure them a long life.

From at least the seventeenth century, some of the finest moss agates were found in India. They were exported to Europe, primarily into Holland and Britain, both of which had their own East India Companies, from where they were disseminated across the Continent. At about the same time, the lapidary arts, that is, the techniques of gemstone cutting and polishing, were becoming ever more sophisticated. These improved techniques made it possible to get more value out of the very fine moss agates imported from India, many of which had quite complex images formed by the mineral inclusions. In addition to images of various delicate and lacy plants, some of these moss agate inclusions appeared to depict human and animal figures, trees and even full landscapes. These more complex moss agates soon became desirable curiosities which were highly valued for their appearance alone. Even before the turn of the eighteenth century, moss agates had come to be considered a semi-precious gemstone and they were routinely set into a host of jewelery items.

By the eighteenth century, moss agates could be cut into thin sheets, by which the value of a complex moss agate would be multiplied, since each thin sheet cut from a single stone would bear essentially the same image. These thin sheets might be dyed to improve their color, then they would be polished and set into various pieces of jewelry. In France, Lazare Duvaux, a prominent dealer in luxury goods, is known to have sold several polished moss agates to Madame du Pompadour, who had them set into rings and other jewelery. From the mid-eighteenth century, polished moss agate sheets or cabochons, were set, like pictures, into small frames, often encircled with tiny diamonds, pearls or other gemstones. These miniature framed natural "pictures" were very popular for brooches and pendants. Smaller moss agates were set into bracelets and rings, in many cases, also encircled with diamonds, pearls or other stones, again giving the impression of a tiny framed picture. In addition to jewelry, these thin moss agates were also set into the lids of snuff boxes, vinaigrettes, and even a few comfit boxes. Moss agates with simple inclusions were also cut and polished into beads of various sizes which could be strung for necklaces and bracelets.

Moss agates were used in jewelry in Britain in much the same way they were in France during the second half of the eighteenth century, being set into all manner of jewelry and personal items. Most of these objects were extremely costly and only the affluent could afford them. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, rings set with moss agates were widely believed to ensure good luck for the person who wore them. Some of these good luck rings were set with very fine, complex moss agates, which were surrounded with frames of gemstones. However, even more rings were set with more simple and less costly moss agates, without the surrounding gemstones, making them more affordable to a wider range of people. [Author’s Note: A selection of pictures of moss agates can be seen on this results page of a search on the key phrase "moss agates" on Google Images. ]

As the trade with India increased, moss agates were imported in even larger numbers into Britain. Though the stones with very complex inclusions which depicted large scenes remained very expensive, the stones which depicted simple sprays of moss or other plants were much less costly. By the Regency, jewelery and personal items set with moss agates were available in a broad array of prices. The most expensive items were set with moss agates with very complex inclusions which appeared to depict scenes such as landscapes. The less costly items were typically set with moss agates that had inclusions which depicted simpler, more basic images, usually of moss, lichens or ferns. From the early nineteenth century, it became popular to pair moss agates in jewelry settings with green semi-precious gemstones, either chrysoprase, which was imported from Poland, or malachite, which was imported from Russia. Such multi-stone jewelry items were, of course, more expensive than simpler items, because they were typically more elaborate.

During the Regency, most of the superstitions and ancient lore about moss agates were known by many people in Britain. Moss agates were thought to bring good luck, even long life, to the person who wore one. They were also believed to ensure conception and a healthy, successful pregnancy for a woman who kept one close to her. Moss agates were still also considered to be an aid to growing sturdy plants and there were at least a few gardeners and farmers who used moss agates to ensure healthy crops. There were some people who believed that a moss agate’s power and energy would be lost with use, but it could be replenished by placing it near a healthy plant overnight at least once within the monthly cycle of the moon, though it is not clear whether the night chosen had to be the night of the full moon or the new moon. It is likely that most people in the Regency were aware that one of the oldest superstitions attached to moss agates was their power to protect soldiers.

Dear Regency Authors, could a moss agate be just the thing to ornament an upcoming tale of romance? Will the heroine, a new wife, wear a moss agate in the hope it will help her to conceive a much-wanted child? Another heroine might give her beloved a large moss agate talisman before he goes off to war, to keep him safe. While fighting in a battle on the Peninsula, or at Waterloo, might his talisman deflect a bullet and save his life? Perhaps the heroine treasures a moss agate pendant, given to her by her mother or grandmother, which depicts a landscape that reminds her of her favorite place on her family’s estate. How will she respond to the hero, who finds her precious pendant when it is lost? Then again, the heroine is the companion of an elderly and superstitious lady of whom she is very fond. Commanded by this lady to put her moss agate talisman beneath a healthy plant to replenish its energy, mayhap on a moonlit night, what will happen if the heroine encounters the hero? Are there other ways in which a moss agate might find a place in an upcoming Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to Moss Agates:   Pictures and Power

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I’m afraid the plot bunnies which sprang to mind were for Harry Potter fanfiction ….

  2. gordon759 says:

    Reading your fascinating article I immediately thought of a visually similar (but geologically distinct) stone – Landscape or Cotham Marble. Discovered at Cotham House near Bristol in the 1750’s, when it is sliced and polished it can look like a landscape with hills and trees. I have seen one example that was fitted into a (stone) picture frame and, from one end of the room, looked like a landscape painting, only when I got really close did I realise what it was.
    Pieces of Cotham Marble can still be found in stream beds in the Bristol and Bath area, and are still prized.I leave it to others to think of how a valuable stone that could be found near Regency Bath, and where it could easily be sold, could be used in a tale.

  3. I am writing a scene where I need to describe how a middle-aged General’s widow of limited means is dressed. I knew she would wear some jewellry – now I know what!
    Thanks very much for this and all your other brilliant articles – all greatly appreciated.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am very glad you found the information of use. In case you do not know, I have an open offer here for any author who uses information from one of my articles in a story that they are welcome to post a link to that book in a comment to the article when the book is published. You are welcome to post a link to your book in a comment here when it is published.

      Regards,

      Kat

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