Part of my initial fascination with gems was purely sensory —loving the play of colors in my grandmother’s opal earrings or the rainbows cast by mother’s diamond engagement ring. But in retrospect, I think my true seduction by the stones, my surety that they contained magic and mystery and power, goes back to my love of fairy tales. Specifically, I can trace it to The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, the stories collected and translated from the French by Marie Ponsot and illustrated by Adrienne Ségur. In those stories, mostly but not exclusively European in origin, jewels decorated nearly every illustration and were woven into the fabric of many of the stories.In Charles Perrault’s "Donkey Skin," the princess, who is fleeing from her father, disguises herself in the skin of a donkey and hires herself out to a pig farmer. But Ségur’s luminous illustration shows that beneath the donkey skin the princess wears a dress decked with jewels from collar to waist,as well as jeweled rings and bracelets. Even the delicate mirror she holds is framed with gems. What the world sees is a peasant wearing a crude animal skin, but what the reader identifies with, and knows to be the truth, is a royal spirit unbowed, appropriately signified by her gems.
In Madame d’Aulnoy’s "Queen Cat," a young prince sets out on a quest to please his father, becomes lost in a storm, and finds most unexpected shelter in a castle with crystal walls, coral doors, and diamond doorknockers. The table where he finally dines with Queen Cat is set with jeweled dishes. Ségur shows us Queen Cat in full Renaissance splendor, wearing a jeweled crown, strands of pearls with a jeweled pendant and, of course, lifting a gem-encrusted goblet to her guest. In these stories jewels are not only the traditional mark of royalty and great wealth but they signify that the hero or heroine has entered the Other Realm, the place of magic where he or she will find what they need in order to fulfill their destiny.
Most of Ségur’s protagonists and the animal helpers they encounter are decked out in the sort of exquisite and extravagant jewelry that currently resides in the Tower of London, but the illustration that transfixed me as a child was from the Russian tale "Silvershod," the story of a magic stag who strikes the ground with a silver hoof, causing sparks to fly into air and fall to the ground as gems: blue sparks to sapphires, red to rubies, white to diamonds. In the illustration Silvershod is painted at an angle so that he appears to be leaping toward the skies. The orphan girl Dara stands in front of him, her gaze sad despite the cascade of gorgeous faceted stones falling toward her. Her sadness can be explained by the third figure in the painting,her beloved cat Moura, who is mounted atop the stag’s haunches and looking quite pleased. Silvershod has appeared to Dara who wished so desperately to see him, and he leaves a cache of jewels that covers the ground around the hut she shares with the kindly hunter Vanya who adopted her. It snows after Silvershod’s visit, and when Dara and Vanya wake the next morning, the only gems left are those that Vanya scooped into his hat. They’re riches enough to keep both Dara and Vanya for the rest of their days, but Silvershod, a creature of true, ephemeral magic, has extracted a price. Moura has gone with him, never to return.
The story of Silvershod — and Ségur’s glorious illustration which mixed childhood innocence with the beauty of the wild, the magic of gems, and the sorrow of loss — haunted me for years. I wound up retelling and expanding on it in A Rumor of Gems, and as I continued with my research I looked for more on the story. What I found was The Malachite Casket: Tales from the Urals by Pavel Bazhov, which consists of folktales Bazhov heard as boy in the 1890s when the copper smelting industry in the Urals was shutting down. The stories form a cycle of loosely connected tales centering on impoverished miners at the mercy of cruel bailiffs and greedy landlords. Although the stories are filled with magic, they have a dark, oppressive air to them.This isn’t the glittering world of Ponsot’s French court stories, but a homely, hard-scrabble world where the characters lead arduous lives only occasionally brightened by dreams of earthly miracles. Those miracles, of course, come from the stones.
The miraculous or faery element in these stories often takes the form of the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, also known as Stone Girl and the Malachite Girl. A guardian of the riches of the earth, she rewards and protects some, tricks and punishes others. In general, she is offended by violence in her domain, is hostile to the gentry and government officials, and has no great fondness for the church. She’s part of an older world and most often manifests to those who work the earth, leading one lucky worker to find huge chunks of malachite or showing an ailing prospector where to pan for gold. Wearing robes of malachite, she resides in underground chambers with walls of malachite and lapis lazuli and gardens where the trees and even the grass are made of stone and the light comes from golden serpents.In one story, she keeps Danilo the Master Craftsman in her domain, much as the Queen of Faery kept Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer; in another story she entombs a wicked bailiff in stone. Bazhov’s foreward in the Hutchinson & Co. edition explains that these stories were believed by both the workers and their corrupt employers. While the workers gave the Mistress credit for their finds, they also used her to escape floggings by keeping the illiterate mine officials in fear of angering her.
As for "Silvershod," that story, too, appears in the Bazhov tales, though in a somewhat homelier version, called "Silver Hoof." In it, the old hunter is named Kokovanya, the girl Darionka, and her cat Murionka. The basic outline of the story remains the same except for one rather major detail: Silver Hoof himself is no stag but a forest goat.
Fairy tales are what I consider a gem-happy body of literature, simply because jewels are so much a part of so many of the stories. In Charles Perrault’s "Toads and Diamonds" (found in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book) two sisters encounter an old woman while they are drawing water. The woman begs a drink of water from them. The good sister gladly gives her the water and is rewarded with a faery gift: When she speaks roses, pearls, and diamonds, fall from her lips. The second, bad-tempered sister who, of course, does none of the housework, immediately sets off for the fountain, but when she encounters the old woman, she refuses her a drink, and so in her come–uppance when she speaks toads and snakes fall from her mouth. The gems in this story seem to me to be not only a reward and gift of divine favor but the physical manifestation of goodness.