Sabrina Cusson

Artisane joaillière

Precious stones and their role in the exchange system

Sabrina Cusson

Did you know that precious stones have been so valued that they have even functioned as a form of exchange currency?

Since the dawn of time, humankind, by nature creative and inventive, has found ways in which to take part in transactions and exchange items of worth in order to survive or even to make a profit. Indeed, modern historians have observed that the barter exchange network has always been large. Among others, Arab lords, monarchs, heads of states and merchants freely exchanged pearls, cacao beans, seashells, salt, amber, precious stones, feathers and tobacco for years. It’s easy to see that the talent of exchange is natural among us human beings.

Gems have always fascinated the eye. As the years sped by, jewelers began to interest themselves more and more to the rigidity of stones and to the ways used to cut, crimp and imitate them. During the Middle Age, a particularly devout era, precious stones were valued for their medicinal and magical properties. For instance, the diamond was favored for its ability to render one invincible, the amethyst was chosen to protect oneself from drunkenness, and the emerald was prized because it healed vision problems.

From a theoretical standpoint, the act of exchange is a purely symbolic one. During the Middle Ages, it was not infrequent for heads of states to offer pearl necklaces to their enemies in order to appease them and to keep the peace. In this regard, such gifts were peace-offerings. As such, it is tempting to argue that commerce helps people to improve their relationships and to build strong alliances.

Let’s talk about the Aboriginal context for a moment. Wampums are an assortment of weaving made of white and purple seashells which circulated among many diverse tribes. When the Europeans arrived, they quickly jumped upon the occasion of using wampums to their full advantage, taken as they were by their beauty. As such, Europeans quickly used the pearls of wampums as a form of barter exchange. Wampums did not merely serve an aesthetic or sentimental reason: on the contrary, they fulfilled an important economic role, especially for Aboriginals living in the North-Eastern part of the country. Jade was another important precious stone that was particularly loved by Aboriginals living in the North-West of British Columbia. In a similar vein, 500 to 700 years ago, the Inuit people cut and decorated amber nodules in order to create round or oval pearls which circulated freely on the exchange market.

Today, naturally, precious stones are purchased with money. But there was a time when it was not so. We have presented you, dear reader, with a brief but well-rounded historical profile of the exchange market of precious stones, gems which remain to this day mysterious and fascinating items of worth and value.