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Jewellers, travellers and the classification of gems, c. 1600–1800

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Precious stones were widely studied by early modern naturalists, experimenters, and natural philosophers in Europe. Yet historians of early modern science have written much less about gems than they have about related kinds such as minerals, fossils and crystals. In this talk I argue that the notion of ‘pierre précieuse’ had a meaningful role in mineral classification in France well into the eighteenth century. In other words, precious stones survived as a natural kind long after the decline of the literary genre devoted to them (the lapidary). I go on to describe two ways in which early modern mineral schemes reflected the interaction between naturalists on the one hand and jewellers and travellers on the other. Jewellers were partly responsible for the early modern shift from colour to hardness as the dominant criterion for classifying minerals. And it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that naturalists began to make systematic use of ‘oriental’ and ‘occidental’ as taxonomic terms for gems.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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