The Language of Gemstones: Acrostic Jewelry Says It All, In Diamonds, Rubies, Emeralds, Sapphires…

Have you heard about acrostic jewelry? I learned about it watching an old episode of Antiques Roadshow UK a couple of weeks ago, and now I'm fascinated by it. Just what I needed–a new reason to be hooked on gemstones!

  acrostic gemstone jewelry
The lovely old acrostic key brooch I saw on Antiques Roadshow. Can you read the message in these gems?

What is Acrostic Jewelry?

Acrostic jewelry is jewelry set with gemstones that spell out a message. Each gemstone represents a letter–the first letter of their name–and they were used like a sparkly alphabet to create messages of love and romance in jewelry. For example, popular gemstones such as diamond would serve as a D, rubies as an R, emeralds as an E, and so on. So if you wanted to spell out "dear," you'd create a piece of gemstone jewelry that featured a diamond, an emerald, an amethyst, and a ruby, in that order. Sweet, isn't it?

Acrostic Jewelry History

Believed to have been created in 18th century Paris by Jean-Baptiste Mellerio, jeweler to Empress Josephine and Marie Antoinette, acrostic jewelry soon became a hit in nearby England. Those Victorians, they had all the cool sentimental jewelry–acrostic gemstone jewelry as well as jet mourning jewelry, hair jewelry, friendship bracelets, and lockets. They were also all about romance, secrecy, amusements, hidden meanings, games of the heart.

Most acrostic jewelry at the time was rings set with stones that spelled out the names of loved ones. According to the expert on Antiques Roadshow, in addition to names and romantic words like "dear," other popular words in English acrostic jewelry were "regards" (ruby-emerald-garnet-amethyst-ruby-diamond-sapphire) and "dearest" (diamond-emerald-amethyst/aquamarine-ruby-emerald-sapphire-tourmaline/topaz), and "friend" (fluorite-ruby-indicolite*-emerald-nephrite-diamond). Two popular terms in French acrostic jewelry were "souvenir" (French for "remembrance") and "amitié" (French for "friendship").

*My research tells me that the I gemstone is iris (in French), but I can't find out what that was.

acrostic gemstone message
Can you guess what word I've spelled here in gems? It's a tough one!
acrostic gemstone message  
How about this one? It's one I've written about . . .
acrostic gemstone message
And this one? Here's a hint: My beloved guy might wear stones like these in his ring . . .

Oddly enough, I can't think of a gemstone way to spell "love." Lapis lazuli (or labradorite), opal, something that starts with a V, and then emerald . . . but what common gemstone starts with a V? Having started in France, however, early acrostic jewelry used the word "amour"–much easier to spell out in gems than the English "love." But then you have to consider that the French words were spelled using gemstones that also had French names, which adds a whole new layer of complexity to it, even though many gemstone names were the same or nearly the same in both languages. It does make that V easier, however, as hessonite garnet was known as vermeille in French back then.

The Language of Gemstones

Naturally being the pearl lover that I am, I've started thinking of all the sweet words that have a P in them. Peace, of course . . . precious, though that one seems a bit difficult . . . lips, maybe? That's probably a little too racy for those Victorians. The name of one's beloved was a popular choice in rings, so much so that a gentleman (who by then had nearly stopped wearing flamboyant jewelry) might give his special girl a nickname if her name was too long to be worn on a ring, as bracelets and brooches for men had fallen out of fashion. I call my favorite guy Prince Charming (aww), so I could spell out "prince" with a pearl, ruby, indicolite, nephrite, citrine, and emerald. Not the prettiest collection of stones, though, hmm?

Some folks might have a hard time figuring out the indicolite and nephrite, but I'd know what they were and what the gemstones meant; isn't that the important thing? How important do you suppose it was to the Victorians that the average observer knew what the gemstones in their jewelry spelled? Would it be important to you, or would it be more fun to have your own little secret? For the letters that had no associated gemstone at the time, industrious English jewelers resorted to using colors of other gems to fill in the gaps (fire opal for F, for example). If a piece of acrostic jewelry ended up with too many such substitutions, it could be nearly impossible for average onlookers to decipher the jewelry's meaning–the secrecy of which only added to the popularity of acrostic jewelry.

The Gemstone Alphabet

Here's a list of gemstones for the alphabet, off the top of my head–there are others that are less common. Some of them are a stretch, and I can't think of a thing for some letters (X? Y?). Can you think of others? Share in the comments below! (Update: Thanks for all of your comments! I've filled in the list below with your help, though some of these stones can be difficult to find and/or not suited for jewelry because of their softness or crystal structure.)

A – amethyst, aquamarine, agate, alexandrite, amber, ametrine, apatite, aventurine
B- benitoite, bixbite, black opal, boulder opal, beryl
C- citrine, carnelian, chrysoprase, coral, chalcedony, chrome diopside, chrysoberyl
D- diamond, demantoid garnet, diopside, dioptase
E- emerald
F- fluorite, faustite
G- garnet, goshenite, girasol
H- hessonite garnet, hematite, hawk's-eye, heliodor, hiddenite, hauyne, heliotrope
I- indicolite, iolite
J- jasper, jade, jet
K- kyanite, kunzite
L- lapis lazuli, labradorite, lepidolite, larimar
M- moonstone, morganite, malachite, magnesite, moukaite
N- nephrite
O- opal, onyx
P- pearl, peridot, pyrite, pietersite, prasiolite, prehnite
Q- quartz
R- ruby, rose quartz, rhodochrosite, rubellite
S- spinel, sapphire, sunstone, South Sea pearl, smoky quartz, sodalite
T- tourmaline, tanzanite, topaz, turquoise, tiger's-eye, Tahitian pearl, tsavorite
U- unakite
V- variscite, vessonite, vesuvianite, verdite, vandanite
W- watermelon tourmaline
X- xenotime, xonotlite (a new favorite!)
Y- yttrium fluorite, YAG, yuksporite
Z- zircon, zoisite, zebra stone

You'd think Z would be hard, but in this case, it's easy, and V, X, and Y leave me blank! There are some, of course–mostly collector's stones that are too rare or too soft and not suitable for jewelry. Thank goodness for all the kinds of garnet. Am I forgetting any gems? Help me out in the comments below!

Isn't that fun? To learn more clever ways to incorporate gemstones into your jewelry designs, check out our most popular gemstone and gem-setting resources, like the 2005-2006 Colored Stone Collection CD, the 2009-2010 Colored Stone Collection CD, Metalsmith Essentials: Introduction to Gemstone Setting: Prong, Flush and Bezel Setting with Ann Cahoon video workshop, and Gemstone Settings: The Jewelry Maker's Guide to Styles & Techniques book by Anastasia Young.

In them, you'll find dozens of gemstone jewelry projects and tutorials as well as gemstone information, including how to set gem cabochons and faceted stones–even cut your own faceted gemstones and cabs–as well as how to make gemstone jewelry using wire, metal, and more.

Learn More About Acrostic Jewelry

Acrostic jewelry was also used to spell out political messages as well as romantic ones. Learn more about that and other delightful details about acrostic jewelry from the blog Alphabet of Gems: The Language of Stones During the Regency. Also, the blog Making Silent Stones Speak: Understanding Acrostic Jewelry has many photos acrostic jewelry pieces, including Napoleon's elaborate commissioned bracelets.

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