I’ve always fancied owning a crystal ball, not just because it would be useful in sidestepping horrible things that were about to befall me — and let’s face it we’ve all had enough of those thank you very much — but also because a genuine fortune teller’s crystal ball is a perfectly spherical, perfectly clear piece of natural rock crystal, not glass as is commonly thought, although it’s hard to tell the difference.
Just how hard was driven home to me this week when fate found me standing beneath a magnificent French chandelier. You can imagine its size when I tell you that the orb suspended from its base, which I could have reached up and touched, was about the same size as a crystal ball and would not have looked out of place in Gypsy Rose Lee’s boudoir!
Above it I counted 24 lights, now converted to electricity, each one held by an elaborate gilt bronze candleholder and the whole thing dripped with what I thought were jewel-like chunks of cut-glass.
“It’s all rock crystal,” said my host, much to my amazement (modesty prevents me from saying who it was and where we were, but suffice it to say he owns one of the North of England’s most charming stately homes).
“I bought in an auction about 10 years ago and everyone including the auctioneer thought it was glass,” he said. “It was filthy dirty and no one paid it much mind, but I did some research before the sale and after I bought, it the owner confirmed it had one hung in a French palace.”
The discovery that the cut crystals were natural and not manmade probably increased its value by a factor of 10. “But the owner didn’t mind, because she knew it was going to a good home,” he added with a wry smile.
The story rather sums up the significance of what is basically a colourless variety of quartz which can be found all over the world. For the scientists among us, it is known today as hyaline quartz and is composed entirely of silica in its purest state which has been crystallised.
Unaffected by intense heat or acid, the crystals are totally clear and perfectly transparent, although when they were formed millions of years ago, they sometimes attracted other minerals, liquids or gases, which became included in their mass as tiny imperfections.
The result of these accidents of nature is that each crystal has its own “personality” and no two are alike. Ancient mystics revered the mineral because of the mists, bubbles and faults it contained, and this, together with the fact that the most beautiful examples came from mountainous regions where it was very cold, led to the belief that they must have been formed by water that had frozen at such extreme temperatures, it was impossible to melt it again — hence its name, from the Greek word krystallos, meaning “ice”.
All sorts of superstitions sprung up around rock crystal: it was thought to contain the memory of the world, the secrets of the mythical Atlantis, the power to heal and, more than any other stone, power is connected to the occult (hence the connection with fortune telling).
Rock crystal jewellery and amulets have been found in Egyptian tombs. Indians in the Americas believed to the mineral could give second sight. When held against the face it could cure toothache, and when served from a rock crystal goblet, poisoned wine was supposedly rendered harmless.
The result of this reverence for rock crystal has meant that objects fashioned from it have been craved and created throughout history. The Romans, the ancient Chinese, the Incas, in fact most civilisations from as early as 2000 BC all crafted treasures that today are priceless museum pieces.
From the 14th to the 17th centuries, the crowned heads of Europe poured their personal fortunes into collecting and commissioning works of art from the mineral. It was then considered essential that every palace should contain a cabinet of curiosities in which the treasures would feature. Often, these cabinets became small rooms stuffed with sometimes hundreds of pieces of rock crystal and other precious objects, made by court-sponsored workshops employing master carvers and other craftsmen who supplied them.
Interestingly, however, the increase in scientific knowledge from the late 18th century onwards caused rock crystal to fall from favour. One demystified and debunked, the magical powers of the mineral fell away and the need to own the finest examples of it fell from fashion.
In contrast, the end of the 19th century saw a complete reversal, much to the delight of today’s collectors. It was probably caused by Europe’s leading jewelers, who rediscovered the qualities and artistic merits of the mineral.
At the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, a group of them collaborated to produce a magnificent rock crystal and gold Chimera vase which was the toast of the event. In 1870, the 24-year-old Carl Fabergé began to exploit the large quantities of rock crystal available in Russia to make a fabulous range of silver-mounted objects to the delight of his Moscow customers.
Fabergé is credited with making arguably the finest 20th century piece of rock crystal ever created when he made the Winter Egg, inspired by the Russian winter, which Czar Nicholas II gave to his mother Maria Feodorovna. The rock crystal egg was decorated with a frosted motif of 1,300 rose-uncut diamonds and stood on base shaped like a block of ice encrusted with diamond icicles. Inside the egg was a little platinum basket, also decorated with diamonds, and containing anemones made of white quartz with leaves of nephrite.
At the other end of the price scale, Fabergé’s workshop produced hundreds of charming rock crystal objets d’art such as small vases apparently full of water in which stand golden stemmed cornflowers, while photograph frames, cigarette boxes and pendants can also still be found (and afforded) today.
Meanwhile, in New York, Lewis Comfort Tiffany had introduced jewellery with rock crystal set alongside diamonds, while Van Clee and Arpels and Cartier were producing so-called mystery clocks, the hands of which appeared to float in the dial and moved apparently independently of the clock movement, which was set in the onyx or jade base.
In the 1930s, jewellers worldwide followed the Art Deco trend and rock crystal was given its head yet again. Stunningly stylish, and today scarily expensive, angular bow brooches, bracelets and clips with the mineral set in platinum alongside sapphires diamonds and black onyx were de rigueur.
They often appear in the catalogues of the top auction houses – at prices to match!
Pictures show Top: The future is rosy: this 1930s bronze figure is by Duvernet and is titled “Oblivion”. It’s worth £800-1,200
Above: This spray of hardstone raspberries and leaves set in a rock crystal vase is catalogued as “in the Fabergé taste”. As a result it’s worth £300-400