Humankind’s fascination with gemstones is a fascination that defies reason. Compositionally, gemstones contain no rare elements: diamonds are made of carbon (as is pencil graphite), sapphires are made of aluminum oxide (which is commonly used in sunscreen), and beryl is a silicate (silicates make up 90% of the Earth’s crust). The only difference between gems and other mineral compounds is the atomic crystal structure. It seems hardly believable at times that this single characteristic is responsible for the eye-catching physical brilliance of gems. Science can explain our fascination with the physical beauty of gems, but it still doesn’t explain our fascination with them as objects of emotional and spiritual power.
The jewels of Middle-Earth play a significant role both physically and symbolically throughout the Three Ages. They are the haven of good, associated with light and incorruptibility. The most famous are the three Silmarils, whose power and beauty surpassed that of all other jewels. They are made of some unknown substance and the light of the Trees of Valinor. Regular jewels merely reflect light and cannot shine in the dark, but “even in the darkness of the deepest treasury the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvelous than before.” The Silmarils are receptacles of pure, radiant light and are literally physically manifest incorruptible good, hallowed such that “no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered.” In addition to their abilities to amplify light and repulse evil, the Silmarils are also unique in Tolkien’s works for never being truly possessed. By their nature, the Silmarils are of a purity and light that should not be possessed by an individual, since the light of the Trees of Valinor was designed to illuminate all of Middle-Earth. Melkor steals the Silmarils from Fëanor and in turn has them stolen from him by Beren and Lúthien and a servant of Manwë. The Silmaril retrieved by Beren and Lúthien is eventually placed in the sky as Star of Eärendil while the other two are cast into a fiery pit and the sea by Fëanor’s sons. After being removed from the reach of those on Middle-Earth, the Silmarils are able to provide light to Middle Earth without furthering the cycle of covetousness and death.
We encounter a reflection of the light of the Silmarils in the gifts given to Frodo by Galadriel and Arwen. In Lothlorien, Galadriel gifts Frodo, who of the Fellowship will have to walk the darkest path, with a white crystal phial containing a fragment of the light of the Star of Eärendil. The beauty of the light of the Silmarils is too much for any mortal to bear without succumbing to the desire to possess it, but the light of the phial is only a reflection of that. In addition, neither Frodo nor Sam ever desires to possess the light of the phial in the way that the light of the Silmarils was desired, which is why the two of them are able to bring it to bear against the creatures of Mordor. With Galadriel’s Phial, Frodo is able to fend off Shelob and Sam is able to counter the Two Watchers. Within Tolkien’s description of Arwen’s present to Frodo, we see again references to the Star of Eärendil, a necklace of a “white gem like a star” that can aid in dispelling the memory of fear and darkness. Both the necklace and Galadriel’s Phial are amulets, symbols of light that protect their owner from harm and evil.
Within The Lord of the Rings, the bearers of jewels are all associated with good, and no evil beings are seen to be able to possess or corrupt jewels. The three Elven Rings as well as the seven Rings of the Dwarf-Lords, all of which contain gems, are never corrupted by Sauron’s power. The Dwarf-Lords’ rings fail to protect the Dwarf-Lords because the evil that they succumb to is one of their own making, rather than an external evil. The Dwarf-Lords used their rings to accumulate wealth for themselves instead of for the betterment of their people. They corrupted themselves with a greed for wealth, and thus the rings will no longer work for them. Vilya, Nenya, and Narya are used by their bearers to protect the Elven strongholds against Mordor and thus their power remains until Sauron is defeated. In contrast to the other rings of power, the passing of the Elven Rings from each bearer to its subsequent bearer is peaceful, and the Elven Rings themselves are invisible unless their bearers choose to reveal them. The non-powered jewels within The Lord of the Rings are also of significance. Various jewels are associated with Aragorn, particularly the Ring of Barahir and the elfstone. The former is an heirloom of the line of Isildur while the latter is a gift from Galadriel. Both the eyes of the serpents on the Ring of Barahir and the elfstone are green, which according to Marbode of Rennes represents purest faith that “never grows weak deep within,” fitting for one named Estel and what Aragorn represents to the peoples of Middle-Earth.
In Tolkien’s world, jewels are the reflectors and bearers of light. The jewels of Middle-Earth are on the side of good, but they are not kind, with misfortune and ruin following jewel-bearers who succumb to evil and vice. They can be held and wielded against evil, but only so long as their bearers remain uncorrupted, which is why the Silmarils are never possessed.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Del Rey, 1985).
Marbode of Rennes, “Lapidary of 12 Stones in Verse,” (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1977).