Old Souls: Petrified Wood Gemstones Add Mystery to Jewelry Designs

One of my favorite pieces of jewelry is my petrified pine cone pendant. I like the splashes of orange and white against the creamy tan. I like the asymmetry of how the pattern lies on the cabochon. And I love-love-love the reaction I get to this necklace — whether it’s a knowing “Nice piece of Araucaria” or an astonished “I didn’t know such a thing existed!” We’re all attracted to the idea that a good-looking gemstone can also be a remnant of ancient life.

ABOVE: Pair of opalized wood cabochons from Indonesia, cut from the same slab; photo: Lexi Erickson

Fossils are record keepers, and often about as showy as that suggests. But some are vividly colored, mysteriously patterned, or well mineralized by quartz, that jewelry standard of ring-stone durability. Sometimes petrified wood is all three.

Petrified Araucaria pine cone, showing details of seeds, in a simple silver bezel; photo: M. White

Petrified Araucaria pine cone, showing details of seeds, in a simple silver bezel; photo: M. White

Strangely Familiar

How old was this tree? These petrified wood cabochons clearly show tree rings; photo: Lexi Erickson

How old was this tree? These petrified wood cabochons clearly show tree rings; photo: Lexi Erickson

Even when its colors are dark and earthy, petrified wood catches your eye. The cell structures visible in cross section are eerily intimate. The wood grain is so convincing. And the bark! Your fingers assure you it was once a tree even though it’s just as clearly not exactly one now. If in adulthood our childhood wonder has wandered away, petrified wood brings it back in a heartbeat.

Conical Petrified Wood Pendant by Lexi Erickson, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, February 2010; photo: Jim Lawson

Conical Petrified Wood Pendant by Lexi Erickson, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, February 2010; photo: Jim Lawson

Long before I ever saw a “pet wood” cabochon or gave any thought to its use in jewelry, I was mesmerized by the section of petrified tree trunk in the natural history museum where I grew up, and vaguely considered that trunk “mine.” I understood it was theirs, but it had a claim on me, and in return I felt I had a claim on it, too.

How Can Petrified Wood Exist?

The rock/wood split personality had me repeatedly asking How could that be? — a question scientists still puzzle over. The concept of “replacement” sounds good. In just the right conditions involving burial and hot solutions, quartz or another mineral precipitates out, replacing the original organic material while preserving its form. But the precise mechanism that would make this happen in such fine detail is a lot more elusive. If that tree grew on earth so long ago and the earth was so different then, was it even the same planet? I also wondered as a kid. Yes and no, I thought then. Yes and no, I still think today.

Petrified Palm Wood

Roger Halas offered his Petrified Palm Palm Pendant in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2012; photo: Jim Lawson

Roger Halas offered his Petrified Palm Palm Pendant in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2012; photo: Jim Lawson

Roger Halas also contemplates the planet as it was and as it has become when he picks up a piece of petrified wood. For his pendant featuring petrified palm, Roger suggested an entire paleo-environment and its relationship to our current living earth.

“The stone has that same pithy, spongy look you’d find in a modern-day palm cutting, which we see a lot of in Southern California. In this project, I’ll show you how to incorporate bonelike structures and earthy textures into something that evokes the lost world of the dinosaurs. That’s a world this specimen shared not only with those magnificent beasts, but also with the earliest mammals, and so in a sense with a tiny, primordial cousin of our own species. The piece is a reminder of the ingenious beauty of biological diversity, a symbol of the cycle of life, and the wonders of genetics that continue to operate in the modern world.”

Lexi Erickson’s Scenic Woods Pendant project, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, September/October 2018; photo: Jim Lawson

Lexi Erickson’s Scenic Woods Pendant project, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, September/October 2018; photo: Jim Lawson

Romance of Petrified Wood

She may be known as the “queen of soldering,” but I also think of Lexi Erickson as the “princess of petrified wood.” I didn’t believe it was quite true that half the projects she’s done for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist showcase petrified wood, but listen to this. Introducing her Scenic Woods pendant project, she remarks: “Looking over my stash of stones and recently made jewelry, I was shocked to realize that most of the pieces were petrified wood or incorporated petrified wood in some aspect. I shouldn’t have been surprised. From strong and dynamic earth tones to gentle pastels, petrified wood is found in so many colors that form so many interesting patterns, and the patterns are what always catch my attention.”

Indonesian opalized wood cabochons; photo: Lexi Erickson

Indonesian opalized wood cabochons; photo: Lexi Erickson

But there is more to her fascination than the fact that “Mother Earth is the best artist ever!” as Lexi put it. When I asked her about this love affair with petrified wood, she began with an early memory and a sense of enchantment.

Easy Colla Wood Pendant project by Lexi Erickson, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, May/June 2017; photo: Jim Lawson

Easy Colla Wood Pendant project by Lexi Erickson, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, May/June 2017; photo: Jim Lawson

“‘This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, / Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, / Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic . . .’

“As a young child,” Lexi explains, “my father used to quote Longfellow’s famous poem Evangeline to me as a bedtime story. As I drifted off to sleep, shadows of the large oaks outside my window, romantically draped in Spanish moss, cast shadows onto the peaceful dreams of a child. The woods were full of mystery and magic, and decades later, the woods still mesmerize me. My love of ancient forests, and their now petrified woods, stir my imagination. Petrified wood tells stories.”

Lexi Erickson’s Partial Bezel Set Channel Wood Pendant with Keum Boo project, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, August 2017; photo: Jim Lawson

Lexi Erickson’s Partial Bezel Set Channel Wood Pendant with Keum Boo project, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, August 2017; photo: Jim Lawson

Lexi not only champions petrified wood in her own jewelry designs, she’s inspired other artists to work with it as well.

Petrified Sequoia

Kathy James’s Petrified Sequoia Pendant project, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2013; photo: Jim Lawson

Kathy James’s Petrified Sequoia Pendant project, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2013; photo: Jim Lawson

What was the spark for her petrified sequoia pendant, we asked Kathy James. “Petrified sequoia!” is her answer. “I fell in love with a cab featured in the video Setting Stones with Bezels with Lexi Erickson, found a slab, and had a cab cut from it.” Kathy also wanted to learn to make a partial bezel, and decided that was the perfect setting for the sequoia piece, exposing its naturally uneven edge while still protecting the stone.

Perfectly Petrified

Linda Larsen features petrified wood in her Cold Connected Pendant project in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2012; photo: Jim Lawson

Linda Larsen features petrified wood in her Cold Connected Pendant project in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2012; photo: Jim Lawson

About a polished but rough-hewn-looking stone, Linda Larsen says, “I came across this piece of petrified wood and felt that it was perfect.” She was working on a pendant incorporating a richly colored piece of rusty metal. The stone’s “smooth and shiny surface was a good counter to the rust, and its irregular shape looks strong in the design.

“I also love petrified wood as it’s a stone from my childhood,” adds Linda. Isn’t it for most of us?

In her Fossilized Red Oak and Silver Pendant, Lexi Erickson features a shaman; Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2012; photo: Jim Lawson

In her Fossilized Red Oak and Silver Pendant, Lexi Erickson features a shaman; Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2012; photo: Jim Lawson

— Merle White is Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

Learn to build custom bezels so you can set the stones that inspire you in Setting Stones with Bezels with Lexi Erickson. That’s petrified sequoia in the center of the picture, by the way.

Take a Look at Petrified Wood

Enjoy a romp through ancient forests and a contemporary botanical garden in “Petrified Wood in a Nutshell” by Terri Haag in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, April 2012.

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