Gems and the New Science

Gems and the New Science: Jewellers, Travellers and Natural Philosophers from Gassendi to Dufay

Michael Bycroft


Diagram of diamond cuts, from Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville, Oryctologie (Paris, 1755)

This project explores the role of gems in defining and advancing some of the many varieties of new science that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Gems are defined broadly to include coral, pearls and mineral crystals as well as precious and semi-precious stones. Three contexts are of particular interest. The first is the development of the mechanical philosophy by men such as Pierre Gassendi, René Descartes, Erasmus Bartholin, Nicolas Steno and Christiaan Huygens. The second is the emergence of experimental philosophy in England in the second half of the seventeenth century, especially in the work of Robert Boyle. The third is the utilitarian research carried out by members of the Paris Académie des Sciences, especially Charles Dufay and René Réaumur, in the first half of the eighteenth century.

These cases instantiate three themes that help to motivate this project. The first theme is the entanglement of the epistemic roles of gems and their aesthetic and commercial roles. Experiments on gems owed much the operations of jewellers and diamond-cutters; the classification of gems was tied to the detection of counterfeits; the flow of gems from mine to mineral cabinet relied on a global network of merchants, travellers, collectors and connoisseurs; and the properties that made gems valuable commodities, such as their colour, form and hardness, were often the properties that intrigued natural philosophers.

The second theme is the interconnectedness of different branches of science when seen from the point of view of the materials they involved. Boyle used diamonds to study both the formation of minerals and the causes of phosphorescence; Dufay’s gem collection was a starting point for his research on electricity, luminescence, and double refraction; rock crystal and Iceland spar were of equal interest to students of optics and mineralogy. Gems linked natural history to natural philosophy, mineral cabinets to laboratories, and old sciences (such as optics) to new ones (such as electricity).

The third theme is the continuity between the study of gems at the beginning and end of the early modern period. At one extreme lies Anselmus Boetius de Boodt’s Gemmarum et lapidum historia (1609); at the other extreme lies René-Just Haüy’s Traité des caractères physiques des pierres précieuses (1817). All of the figures considered in this project shared themes and sources with Boodt, whose work they often cited. Yet they also introduced ideas, objects and phenomena that looked forward to Haüy. They link the lapidaries of the Renaissance to the physics and crystallography of Age of Revolutions.