The custom of wearing rings was popular amongst the Romans, and was probably introduced by the Sabines, who are described in early legends as wearing gold rings with precious stones. During the Roman Republic it became customary for all the senators, chief magistrates, and at last for the equites also, to wear gold rings.
The name ‘carnelian’ derives from the Latin word ‘carneus’, which means ‘fleshy’ – a reference to the colour of the semi-precious stone. Over 4500 years ago, Sumerian and Egyptian craftsmen were making jewellery set with carnelian, and ancient Greeks and Romans also valued the stone, using it for intaglios and as a part of signet rings. Carnelian is a translucent variant of chalcedony, and ranges in colour from light orange to dark brown. It is slightly softer than the likes of sard, and so is ideal for carving. The colour of stones was important in antiquity, with some varieties considered, through sympathetic magic, to increase fertility, ease childbirth, and provide relief and protection from afflictions (such as scorpion bites, stomach ailments, and eye disease). Written sources list a host of powers attributed to stones, for instance protection against the evil eye, the guarantee of safe travel, a better understanding of rhetoric, and even victory in court. In ancient Greece and Rome, carnelian in particular was believed to enhance passion, love, and desire.
To find out more about intaglios, please visit our relevant blog post: Engraved Gemstones in Ancient Rome.