The reader is referred to the separate articles, such as AGATE, CARBUNCLE, SARDONYX, etc., for such information as it has been possible to obtain on the various gems mentioned in the Bible. The identification of many of the Hebrew names of precious stones is a task of considerable difficulty. Sometimes we have no further clue to aid us in the determination of a name than the mere derivation of the word, which derivation is always to vague to be of any service, as it merely expresses some quality often common to many precious stones. As far, however, as regards the stones, of the high priest's breastplate, it must be remembered that the authority of Josephus, who had frequent opportunities of seeing it worn, is preferable to any other. The vulg. agrees with his nomenclature, and in Jerome's time the breastplate was still to be inspected in the Temple of Concord; hence this agreement of the two is of great weight. The Sept., Vulg., and Josephus are all agreed as to the names of the stones; there is, however, some little difference as to their relative positions in the breastplate; thus the ἴασπις, which, according to Josephus, occupies the second place in the third row, is by the Sept. and Vulg. put in the third place. A similar transposition occurs with respect to the ἀμέθυστος and the ἀχάτης in the third row. The modern Arabic names of the more usual gems, which have probably remained fixed the last two thousand years, afford us also some approximations to the Hebrew nomenclature; still, as intimated above, there is much that can only be regarded as conjecture in attempts at identification. Precious stones are frequently alluded to in the Holy Scriptures; they were known and very highly valued in the earliest times. The onyx stone, fine specimens of which are still of great value, is expressly mentioned by Moses as being found in the land of Havilah. The sard and sardonyx, the amethyst or rose quartz, with many agates and other varieties of quartz, were doubtless the best known and most readily procured. "Onyx stones, and stones to be set, glistering stones and of divers colors, and all manner of precious stones," were among the articles collected by David for the Temple (1Ch 29:2). The Tyrians traded in precious stones supplied by Syria (Eze 27:16), and the robes of their king were covered with the most brilliant gems. The merchants of Sheba and Raamah in South Arabia, and doubtless India and Ceylon, supplied the markets of Tyre with various precious stones.
The art of engraving on precious stones was known from the very earliest times. Sir G. Wilkinson says (Anc. Egypt. [Lond. 1854], 2, 67), "The Israelites learned the art of cutting and engraving stones from the Egyptians." There can be no doubt that they did learn much of the art from this skilful nation, but it is probable that it was known to them long before their sojourn in Egypt; for we read in Ge 38:18, that when Tamar desired a pledge Judah gave her his signet, which we may safely conclude was engraved with some device. The twelve stones of the breastplate were engraved each one with the name of one of the tribes (Ex 28:17-21). The two onyx (or sardonyx) stones which formed the high priest's shoulder pieces were engraved with the names of the twelve tribes — six on one stone and six on the other — "with the work of an engraver in stone like the engravings of a signet." See also Ex 28:36, "like the engravings of a signet." It is an undecided question whether the diamond was known to the early nations of antiquity. The A.V. gives it as the rendering of the Heb. Yahalom, (יִהֲלֹם), but it is probable that the jasper is intended. Sir G. Wilkinson is of opinion that the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with the diamond, and used it for engraving (2, 67). Beckmann, on the other hand, maintains that the use of the diamond was unknown even to the Greeks and Romans: "I must confess that I have found no proofs that the ancients cut glass with a diamond" (Hist. of Inventions, 2, 87, Bohn's ed.). The substance used for polishing precious stones by the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians was emery powder or the emery stone (corundum), a mineral inferior only to the diamond in hardness. SEE ADAMANT. There is no proof that the diamond was known to the ancient Orientals, and it certainly must be banished from the list of engraved stones which made the sacerdotal breastplate; for the diamond can be cut only by abrasion with its own powder, or by friction with another diamond; and this, even in the hands of a well-practiced artist, is a work of most patient labor and of considerable difficulty; and it is not likely that the Hebrews, or any other Oriental people, were able to engrave a name upon a diamond as upon a signet ring. Again, Josephus tells us (Ant. 3, 7, 5) that the twelve stones of the breastplate were of great size and extraordinary beauty. We have no means of ascertaining their size; probably they were nearly an inch square; at any rate, a diamond only half that size, with the five letters of זבולן (Zebulun) engraved on it A for, as he was the sixth son of Jacob (Ge 20:18), his name would occupy the third place in the second row is quite out of the question, and cannot possibly be thee Yahaoim of the breastplate. Perhaps the stone called "ligure" by the A.V. has been the subject of more discussion than any other of the precious stones mentioned in the Bible. In our article on that subject we were of opinion that the stone denoted was probably tourmaline. We objected to the "hyacinth stone" representing the lyncurium of the ancients, because of its not possessing attractive powers in any marked degree, as were supposed and had been informed by a well- known jeweler. It appears, however, from a communication recently made by Mr. King, that the hyacinth (zircon) is highly electric when rubbed. He states he is practically convinced of this fact, although he allows that highly electric powers are not usually attributed to it by mineralogists. Mr. King asserts that our hyacinth (jacinth, zircon) was greatly used for engraving on by Greeks, Romans, and Persians, and that numerous intaglios in it exist offs the age of Theophrastus. The ancient hyacinthus was our sapphire, as Solinus shows.
Precious stones are used in Scripture in a figurative sense to signify value, beauty, durability, etc., in those objects with which they are compared (see Song 5:14; Isa 54:11-12; La 4:7; Re 4:3; Re 21:10-21). As to the precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest, see Josephus, Ant. 3, 7, 5; Epiphanius, Περὶ τῶν ιβ῎ λίθων ὄντων ἐν τ. στολ.τ. Α᾿αρών, in Epiphanii Opusc. ed. Petavius (Cologne, 1682), 2, 225-232, this treatise has been edited separately by Gesner [Conr.], De Omni Rerum Fossil. Genere, etc. (Tiguri, 1565), and by Hiller, the author of the Hierophyticon, in his Syntagmata Hermeneutica (Tübing. 1711), p. 83; Braun, De Vestitu Sacerdotum Hebroeorum (Amstel. 1680; 2d ed. 1698), lib. 2, c. 7 and 8; Bellermann, Die Urim und Thummim die altesten Gemmen (Berlin, 1824); Rosenmüller, The Mineralogy of the Bible, in Biblical Cabinet, vol. 27. SEE GEM.