All posts by SusanGems

The Three Brethren, the Burgundian Crown Jewel

A rendering of the Three Brethren sometime between 1479-1505.
A rendering of the Three Brethren shoulder clasp / pendant sometime between 1479-1505.

King Henry VIII of England and his daughter, Elizabeth I, were indefatigable jewelry collectors. At the time of his death Henry VIII owned over 100 diamond rings and when Elizabeth I was 54 years old an inventory of her jewelry was tallied at over 600 pieces. And so it’s no surprise they were both in contact with the Three Brethren, the most important jewel of its time. It was owned by dukes, kings, queens, and the richest man who ever lived. To each of them it meant something unique, totemic. Its owner was potent with real power and wealth. After 250 years in existence the jewel vanished. It’s believed to have been dismantled and sold for parts.

The jewel is named for the three very large, rectangular table-cut red spinels arcanely called balas rubies. They matched in color, saturation, and dimension, and were likely sourced from Asia. The rose-red gems were set in a triangular formation with a white, round pearl between each spinel, and a pear-shaped fourth pearl dangling freely at the bottom. The pearls weighed 0.50 ounce each. In the center of the triangle was a flawless, pyramid-cut diamond (with a 5/8” square base) from India weighing 30 carats. It was known as the Heart of the Three Brothers and was once believed to be the largest diamond in Europe.

The Three Brethren was designed as a shoulder clasp and had an estimated 3 inch diameter. It was commissioned in France by John Valois, Duke of Burgundy (also known as John the Fearless after a brave display fighting with Hungry against the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid in 1396).  Velois died wearing the jewel in 1419 at the age of 33 when he was brutally murdered at a parley with his 16 year old cousin, Charles Valois. Charles was the dauphin of France and future king, 1422 – 1462. Their fateful dispute on a bridge in Montereau stems from dynastic turmoil and is part of the Hundred Years War.


The Three Brethren was passed down to John Valois’ grandson, Charles the Bold, who was perceived as the greatest duke in Europe and with the most powerful army. He traveled to battles with enormously valuable objects as talismans: carpets belonging to Alexander the Great, bronze sculptures, gemstones and jewels including the Sancy diamond (55.23 carats), and The Three Brethren. For the second time in its short history, the jewel is about to be parted from its owner in an encounter with an adversary. Charles the Bold lost the Battle of Grandson against the Swiss in 1476. He retreated leaving his tent to be pillaged including his ducal seal and treasure chest. His dead body was found a few days later in a river.

Jacob Fuggar, the wealthiest man of all time.
Jacob Fuggar, the wealthiest man of all time.

The jewel turns up in 1505. It was secretly sold in Basel Switzerland in 1504 and the following year recorded in the inventory of Jacob Fuggar of Ausburg Germany, the richest man who ever lived. Fuggar’s grandfather was a peasant, his father was a common textile trader, and Jacob started working at age 12. He went on to become an international mercantile banker turned venture capitalist and monopolistic mining entrepreneur who loaned money to the rich and royal family members in exchange for silver and copper mining rights throughout Europe.

Jacob Fuggar funded the ascension of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor and successor to his father Maximilian I, who Fuggar had close financial and social ties with. Charles V (a Hapsberg born in the Netherlands) was Charles the Bold’s great grandson and very much aligned himself with his ancestor’s politics. But the jewel, the Burgundian crown jewel, was never to be his. It did circle around Charles V’s Hapsburg heirs, namely his son Phillip II, though out of reach from reclaiming it.

Fuggar purchased the Three Brethren as capital reserves. The Three Brethren was never worn and likely never saw the light of day in the years he owned it. Fuggar’s motto in life was “I want to gain while I can”. In his lifetime he amassed a $400 billion fortune in todays money.

Fuggar died alone in his house at age 66. He was in loveless marriage that resulted in no children. His nephew inherited his fortune and sold the The Three Brethren to King Henry VIII. It took 2 years to close the sale and the king died (at the age of 55) before taking ownership. Henry VIII had 2 daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. His only legitimate son and heir was 9 year old Edward VI who received The Three Brethren during his short reign of 5 years before dying of Tuberculosis. The jewel was kept by the Lord Treasurer for safe keeping.

Mary I wearing the pearl La Peregrina (The Pilgrim). A wedding gift from her husband Philip II of Spain.

Mary I started her reign like a slap in 1553. She beheaded Edward’s chosen successor for the purpose of repealing her father’s Protestant religious edicts and became the first queen ragnant of England; she ruled in her own right and not as wife to a king. Seeking to return the country to the Catholic Church she revived old heresy laws and burned 300 people at the stake earning her the moniker Bloody Mary. In her 5 year reign she became wildly unpopular, even to her husband who was betrothed to her sight unseen for political convenience. She married Prince Philip II of Spain after agreeing with her court that a woman shouldn’t rule alone. (Philip II was never crowned King of England. He became King of Spain three years into Mary’s reign.) Philip was a diplomat about the marriage. The arrangement pacified his father Carlos V of Spain – and Holy Roman Emperor – for Henry VIII’s split from Catherine of Aragon, and subsequent break with the Catholic Church over complications to annul the marriage and wed Anne Boleyn. Mary was 11 years older than Philip, and acted like a silly, giddy school girl around him. He was bored by her and disgusted with her appearance. Over the course of their short marriage Philip spent an increasing amount of time away from her, months, and even a two year stint. The Three Brethren is listed as being delivered to Mary’s Treasury on September 20, 1553 though there’s no mention of her having any interest in it. She ardently preferred the jewelry given to her by Philip before the marriage, before he even met her including a large table-cut diamond ring and a multi-stone diamond necklace. Mary’s most favored jewel from Philip was La Peregrina, a pear-shaped pearl weighing over 11 grams and the topic for another blog. Mary died at age 43, and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I wearing the Three Brethren in the Ermine Portrait, 1585.

Elizabeth I was beautiful, charming, bold, courageous, and she spoke 6 languages. Mary despised her and throughout much of her tenure as queen kept Elizabeth locked up. Philip thought to marry her after Mary’s death, even flirting with her by giving her a diamond worth $23,000,000 in todays market in a private meeting after one of Mary’s false pregnancies. Elizabeth had no interest in marriage or being sidelined by a husband. Immediately after Mary’s death Philip proposes to Elizabeth and she made a very public point of objecting to it. Her strong objection to marriage was likely steeped in from her father. Henry VIII terrorized his friends, wives, and children with his erratic behavior and Elizabeth was determined to follow her own path and not be beholden to anyone.

Tutor clothes were frothy, and the jewelry in court was elaborate, opulent, and important. Elizabeth I, like her father Henry VIII, put her personal prestige on the line and expected those around her to do that same. It is said Elizabeth “only tolerated attractive people in her court. She instituted what she called the Statutes of Apparel, dictating, in detail, who could and should wear what.”

It’s during the reign of Elizabeth I that The Three Brethren is seen for the first time in paintings and its history more fully revealed before going dark in the 1640’s. The Ermine Portrait and Segar Portrait (below) were both painted in 1585.

On the matter of vanity Elizabeth is a somewhat relatable figure. She suffered from smallpox when she was 29 (a few years before the Ermine Portrait) and remarkably survived. To cover the resulting scars on her face she wore white, lead-based makeup, and a mixture of red dye and egg whites as rouge, a concoction that was slowly poisoning her and causing her to age prematurely, including hair loss. She wore a wig and due to poor dental hygiene typical of the time, several of her teeth rotted and had to be pulled. She stuffed cloth in her mouth to keep her cheeks from looking hollow. Sir Francis Bacon once said her jewels drew attention away from her aging.

Elizabeth I wearing The Three Brethren as pendant on pearl necklace. Segar portrait, 1585

Symbolism in Elizabeth’s portraits is not to be discounted. In the Pelican Portrait (1575) she wore a pelican pendant and 2 cherries in her hair possibly representing self-sacrifice in keeping her virginity in tact. In the Phoenix Portrait she wears this mythical bird in hopes of regenerating the Tudor dynasty (1575). The later portraits of her wearing The Three Brethren to me relate to her brute force power. The treasury was empty when she arrived to the throne and she found a way to fill the treasury. She laid out a policy for pirating and in her relentless determination to dominate the seas vanquished Philip II’s Spanish Armada in 1588, the high water mark in her reign. By 1600 the British (and Dutch) were dominating the world in exploration, creating wealth, and empire building.

The Chequers Ring

Elizabeth died in 1603 at age 69. At the time of her death she was wearing the Chequers Ring, a locket ring concealing portraits of her and her mother, Anne Boleyn, beneath rubies, diamonds and pearl. Her mother was beheaded when Elizabeth was 2 years old. Elizabeth named no successor though she was in negotiation with King James VI of Scotland and he was given the ring as proof of her death. Elizabeth I was the last Tudor. (The Chequers Ring is named for the 16th century manor where it is housed, also the residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom)

King James I and The Three Brethren as a hat pin

King James VI of Scotland becomes King James I of England, starting the Stuart line and combining the two thrones for the first time. He moves to London and rules from 1603 – 1625. In 1605 The Three Brethren is listed in the Crown Jewels inventory, and 18 years later it’s on a list of pieces going to his Crown Jeweler, George Heriot, for resetting. In 1623 James I sends his son and heir, Charles, the “newlie sette” Three Brethren to woo the infanta of Spain which was unsuccessful.

Unfortunately it’s during Charles I’s reign that the story of the jewel ends. To raise money and credit for the English Civil Wars Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria, starts selling off precious objects from the Crown. She believed these items belonged solely to the monarch and she could do what she pleased with them. She raised a significant sum at The Hague and what didn’t sell there she tried pawning at street markets. Important works like The Three Brethren were particularly risky and didn’t sell; Parliament may reclaim them, buyers were weary.

A letter dated June 2 1642 from Amsterdam was read to the House of Commons on June 11 1642 by Sir Walter Erle:

That there were Jewels brought to Amsterdam, certain Collars of Pearl; which were sold; and the Product of them is the Sixteen thousand Pounds sent over hither; and the Residue is kept there, to pay for the Arms and Ammunition bespoken there. One great Collar of Rubies. The Jewels called the Three Brethren; Four or Five great Diamonds; with divers other Parcels; but no Money got upon them yet. 

A similar letter was read to the House of Lords on June 11, 1642

I cannot learn that any Jewels more are pawned than I have formerly expressed, neither of the Sale of any jewels, save divers Collars of Pearls. (…) In writing hereof I understand, by an eyewitness, that all the jewels are brought here again to be pawned and amongst them the great collar fetched from Hamb. Also the three Brethren, four or five great diamonds, with divers more; but no money to be had thereupon in this place, as the party imployed therin doth tell me 

In 1643 Henrietta Maria leaves for Holland again, reportedly with the jewel. She returns to London but the trail for The Three Brethren goes cold and its whereabouts unknown. One theory is that Cardinal Mazarin bought it and in doing so acquired all Henrietta Maria’s debt. Another is that it was sold and dismantled for parts. The jewel nor parts of it have been seen again.

Equally fascinating to me as the owners and particular details of the jewel is that The Three Brethren was reset several times…which hardly changed a smidge in its 250 year history.

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Disclaimer: I do not claim all the photos posted on this site. If you see an image that belongs to you, please contact me by leaving a comment below and let me know. I will either give the correct credit or take it down.

Barney Barnato: Boxer, Actor, Diamond Magnate

I’m fascinated by rivalries and there are some good ones at the end of the 19th century. In the USA Social Darwinism dominated and justified the actions of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Their partnership transformed America with the founding of what became US Steel.

Also in the late 1800’s and more than 8,000 miles away in the backdrop of a burgeoning diamond industry, people were traveling to South Africa in search of opportunity and wealth. Most of them were English, including the two that emerged as the dominant figures: Barney Barnato and Cecil Rhodes. They were competitors, friends, and enemies. I have a particular interest in the lesser known Barnato, who started as a penniless street performer in London and became a millionaire mining magnate within ten years of arriving to South Africa. He was the only man Rhodes ever feared. As entrepreneurs Rhodes and Barnato weren’t dependent on each other to achieve success. They created enormous fortunes before amalgamating their interests to co-found De Beers Consolidated Mining Ltd.


Barnato was born Barnett Isaacs. His father taught him how to box as soon as he could walk and at age 13 he dropped out of school and worked miscellaneous jobs, including vaudeville acts with his brother Henry. When it came time for applause Henry would enthusiastically take the limelight and the crowd would shout “Barney too” and so the stagename Barnato stuck and they became Henry and Barney Barnato or the Barnato Brothers. There were other reduplicated names in the family, the father, a clobberer (sold second hand fabrics and clothes)  was a called Isaac Isaacs and there was a cousin called Joel Joel.

Barney and Henry first heard about the diamond rush from a cousin in 1872 and soon Henry left to seek his fortune at the Kimberley mine in South Africa. Barney followed a few months later in the summer of 1873. He traveled by steamship arriving in Cape Town from London after 27 days, and then walked 621 miles for 2 months to the diamond fields. He described this part of the journey as “one of the jolliest time I have ever had. The accommodations consisted of permission to walk alongside a wagon when it moved, and to sleep under it when it stopped. I made my fieriest acquaintance with mealy porridge and biltong (corn cakes and sundered antelope) and have a keen relish for both still. I have not been very well or bright for some months before leaving England, but the wagon journey, or rather tramp over the veld, put me right…”

Barnato was to become one of the most colorful people in Kimberly; much of his success lay in the fact that he was such a character and people simply enjoyed doing business with him. He was short, noisy, brash, near-sighted, and quick-witted. While he was building a reputation for himself as a kopje-wallaper (small time diamond buyer), he took up boxing gigs with Payne’s Traveling Circus and other companies to subsidize his income. Barney was very proud of his boxing skills. He also acted a bit. He earnestly performed the works of Shakespeare, and it amused some audience members that a 5’3 man with a cockney accent should be playing Othello or Hamlet. In one such performance Barney jumped off stage for a moment and knocked out a spectator for laughing. Barnato had sporadic success of buying diamonds from diggers at the lowest possible price (sealing all transactions with a cheap, stale cigar) and selling at the highest possible price. He first collaborated with his brother and later with Louis Cohen, who Barney met a bar in Kimberley after a fly landed on Louis’ nose and in an attempt to swat at it he scattered his bowl of soup across the bar. In these early days Barney made mistakes. He was largely unfamiliar with uncut diamonds or their value. One plan that paid off for a short while was the purchase of an old horse from another kopje-walloper leaving South Africa. The horse followed the route of his previous owner, allowing for new locations and introductions purchase cheap diamonds. His business dealings progressed and failed in undulation and it wasn’t long before Barney realized there needed to be a central body controlling the price of diamonds.

By 1876 Barney purchased four claims at the Kimberly mine, the maximum allotment at the time was 10. It seemed a terrible time to making new purchases because most of the yellow ground was gone.  (Yellow ground is limonite, an iron-rich rock that’s also the host rock of turquoise.) Kimberley natives believed the diamonds were only scattered in yellow ground so when it started running out many claim holders gave up their claims. While it was geologically unknown at the time, Barnato believed the bulk of the diamonds lay below yellow ground in blue ground, an igneous rock now known as kimberlite. Year after year Barnato purchased more claims until in 1887 he owned 40% of the Kimberley mine.

Enter Cecil Rhodes. His friends called him the Colossus which is no doubt in reference to the enormous statue of the Greek sun-god Helios on the island of Rhodos, also known as the Colossus of Rhodes which stood for about 60 years (280-226 BC) at almost 100′ before being destroyed by an earthquake. In fact Cecil felt he was a god and he was described by political theorist, Hannah Arendt as someone who could “do nothing wrong, what he did became right.” Because there is so much written about Cecil Rhodes I’ll only mention the highlights which are that he was one of 12 children born to a poor English vicar, he arrived in South Africa at age 17 in 1870 and within 2 years he was financially independent. He returned to England for an education at Oxford, co-founded the De Beers Consolidated Mining Ltd., years later he was elected Prime Minister to South Africa. He died at 48 years old and left the bulk of his money in an endowment to Oxford to fund scholarships in his name, The Rhodes Scholarships.

Cecil Rhodes
The Colossus of Rhodes

Like Frick and Carnegie, both Rhodes and Barnato have rags-to-riches stories. Both men started their businesses as  kopje-wallapers, both had a head for large financial undertakings, both men wanted to be rich,  both men saw the need for the larger claimholders to dominate the lesser claimholders and ultimately to amalgamate all the mines.

It is on this point of amalgamating the mines and controlling the world’s diamond supply that Rhodes and Barnato became adversarial. In 1887 Rhodes gathered financial partners including Nathaniel Rothschild to fund the purchase of all the claims in the De Beers mine. Meanwhile, Barnato continued buying claims at Kimberley. There was however, another major shareholder at the Kimberley mine, the French Company, and when Rhodes made a bid to purchase all the French Company’s shares, Barnato sensed a take-over and urged the shareholders to hold out for more money. Rhodes encouraged Barnato to abandon his own interests of amalgamation and worked to negotiate a compromise: Rhodes would purchase the French Company’s shares and sell it to Barnato’s company, Kimberley Central, making Barney’s company the dominant holder of the Kimberley mine, and Rhodes would retain 1/5 stake in the purchase of shares. At this point in Barnato’s life it can’t be overstated how desperately he wanted to be taken seriously and accepted in local gentlemanly society, despite his youthful clowning around and propensity to walk in to the Savoy in London on his hands. Knowing this about Barnato, Rhodes combined his financial offer with a promise to secure him a membership to the restricted and exclusive Kimberley Club. Barnato couldn’t refuse the enticement and finally agreed to the amalgamation of the two mines. Unfortunately it took over 2 years for another member of the club to second Barnato’s nomination of membership.

Barney died at the age of 46. The details of the his death are unknown except to say that he fell off or was perhaps pushed off an ocean liner near Madeira, Portugal.


Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of all the photos posted on this site. If you see an image that belongs to you or someone else, please contact me by leaving a comment and I will either give the correct credit or take it down.

Blue Morpho & Biomimicry, Both Social Butterflies


I collect jewelry of all sorts, origins, and materials. One of my favorite pieces is this blue morpho butterfly wing pendant (see Blue Morpho Video below).

Blue Morpho Video

As a gemologist and overall curious person I wanted to know how the wings of this genus of butterfly developed into a metallic, ultra blue color, and to know why the hue changed when viewed from different directions. I’ve had people mistake the pendant for labradorite and when I tell them it’s a butterfly wing, the imminent question is, “How is it blue?” Interestingly the blue on the wing is not a pigment and the wing is not actually blue. In fact nature rarely produces blue in plants & animals. Instead, the blue comes from the wings structure; it’s rows upon rows of scales that overlap on ridges at the nano level. The ridges are Christmas tree-shaped and have interlocking branches. When light hits the wing, it reflects from inside the ridge causing an interference of light waves that cancels out some colors and re-enforces others, specifically and mostly vibrantly is the broad color  range of blues and also some green.

Light is measured in nanometers (nm) and visible light is 390-700nm, which is the full spectrum of colors. Blue light is in the 400-480nm range. Research indicates the blue morpho butterfly scales are 200nm apart and because the distance between the scales is half the wavelength of blue light, the broad blue range of color prevails. Adding to its dominance is melanin, which is the base of the Christmas tree. It absorbs all other light.

Blue morpho butterflies are found in the tropics and it’s the males who exhibit the most brilliant hues and sheen. The  lifespan of a blue morpho is about 4 months after which time their wings are often collected, sold, and made into beautiful and favored pieces of jewelry or pinned as part of a collection and framed. Butterfly specimens and jewelry, such as my pendant, can last indefinitely.


Nature often inspires science. The microscopic structure of the blue morpho butterfly wing has been researched for use against counterfeit money by NanoTech Security Corp to prove that vibrant color can be produced without using pigments or dyes.

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Disclaimer: I do not claim all the photos posted on this site. If you see an image that belongs to you, please contact me by leaving a comment below and let me know. I will either give the correct credit or take it down.

Metamorphic Rubies

Some of the world’s most spectacular gemstones were created because of massive geologic events. In South Africa diamonds scattered the surface of the earth and it was later discovered that the source of these gemstones was the mouth of an ancient volcano. Like diamonds, rubies are formed under extreme geologic conditions and forces, they are nothing less than geologic miracles.

About 250 million years ago the super continent Pangea split up to form Laurasia and Gondwana. Laurasia was the upper continents of the former Pangea (now Northern Hemisphere), and Gondwana, the lower continents of the former Pangea (now Southern Hemisphere).

Eighty million years ago the Indian continent broke away from Antarctic and started making its way north from Gondwana into the Northern Hemisphere.  Traveling at the swift pace of 10-12 inches a year, it took approximately 30 million years to travel 4,000 miles north, and in doing so the geologic forces closed the land gap by uplifting and folding the Tethys Ocean floor as it went.  As the Indian continent slammed into Asia it created the top of the world, The Himalayas, with a peak of over 29,000 feet. The tropical, salt water of the (once Tethys Ocean and later) Tethys Sea was rich with plant and animal life, and now their fossilized remains are forever locked in the band of rocks along where the two continental plates collided.

So what does all this have to do with the formation of beautiful, rare rubies? Trace amounts of salt. Ruby is a variety of Corundum. Its chemical composition is aluminum and oxygen (aluminum oxide), and chromium is the element that gives ruby its bright red color.  Some areas of the Tethys Sea were quite shallow and in other places the seawater evaporated entirely leaving behind a rind of salt. In this particular geologic and geochemical environment salt mixed with wash off from the land to form a unique limestone that, once heated, acted as a flux allowing for the aluminum to mix with the chromium, creating very pure rubies with beautifully developed crystals in the metamorphosed marble host rock.

Instagram: sothornton505

Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of all the photos posted on this site. If you see an image that belongs to you or someone else, please contact me by leaving a comment and I will either give the correct credit or take it down.

Ammon and Ammonite

This blog connects two of my favorite things: 65-245 million year ammonite fossils with 3rd-2nd century BC Greeks coins minted under Lysimochos, a successor of Alexander the Great.

Lysimochos was one of  Alexander the Great’s lifelong companions and top generals, and since since Alexander designated no heirs his empire was divided into principalities and kingdoms amongst his 12 generals. Lysimochos received Thrace, rich in gold and silver. (Thrace on a modern map is now parts of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece).

Lysimochos’ coinage depict Alexander the Great as the deified son of Ammon, the Egyptian god equivalent to Zeus in Greek mythology, and who Alexander believed he was related to after a visit to the desert oracle at Ammonium  (Siwah) in the Libyan desert.


Photo: Tetradrachm. On the obverse, the features of Alexander on this coin follow the descriptions of his biographers: slightly bulging brow ridges, upward staring eyes, luxuriant curly hair, long straight nose, and full lips. The reverse of the coin depicts Athena in her Corinthian helmet, holding a winged Nike. The Gorgonian shield is to Athena’s side. 

Ammon in which ammonite gets its name is represented in the form of a ram or as a human with the head of a ram. Similarly shaped, ammonites are fossilized ancient squid in the same spiral, and often ribbed progression as ram horns. The fossils range in diameter from the size of a monster truck tire to half an inch.


Photo: Ammon

Most of the ammonites I collect are iridescent. Over millions of years the outer organic shell layer is replaced with layers of aragonite, the same mineral that give pearls their luster. Gem quality ammonite is called ammolite and found mostly in Canada. Ammonites are otherwise most notably found in the Rocky Mountains and Madagascar.

Top: dksfdskhfdks

Photo: Some ammonites from my collection. Cleonicarus Fire Opal Ammonite (Madagascar). The rays of red flash are the thickest areas of nacre. The white almost chalky ammonite is Procheloniceras sp. aff. Albrechtiaustriaes. A client found this in his oil field in Texas and sent it to me. The dark spiny ammonite to the left is Hoploscaphites Nodosus. Love the teensy ammonites too!


Disclaimer: I do not claim all the photos posted on this site. If you see an image that belongs to you, please contact me by leaving a comment below

and let me know. I will either give the correct credit or take it down.