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Carnelian belongs to the quartz group of minerals, the second most abundant mineral group on earth. Although all quartz gemstones share the same chemical composition of silicon dioxide, they are classified into two distinct branches based on crystal formation: Macrocrystalline quartz and cryptocrystalline quartz. Carnelian belongs to the cryptocrystalline branch of quartz. Cryptocrystalline, also referred to as chalcedony quartz, includes a variety of other gemstones including agate, onyx and jasper. Carnelian is classified by its distinct color and is defined as a red-orange to brownish-red variety of chalcedony quartz. Carnelian obtains its color through iron impurities that form within colorless quartz crystal.
Carnelian, also referred to as 'cornelian', was thought to have been named after the color of the cornel cherry. Carnelian may often be confused with 'sard', a darker, brownish variety of chalcedony quartz. Since there is no clear distinction between sard and carnelian, many specimens may be correctly identified as both. Carnelian is also one of the many gemstones classified as 'carbuncle'. Carbuncle is a term that was originally used to refer only to red garnet cabochons, but nowadays, the name can be used in reference to any red cabochon cut gemstone. Recently, natural carnelian has become extremely rare and in order to keep up with demand, many carnelian stones are actually agate stones that have been dyed and or heated to obtain their carnelian-like colors.
Carnelian is one of the oldest known gemstones, with written records dating back over 4000 years. It was highly prized and worn by many of the world's noble people throughout ancient times. Carnelian holds a very special place in the Christian religion. According to holy scriptures, carnelian was one of the twelve gemstones worn on the breastplate of Aaron, the first high priest of the Israelites and a prophet. Carnelian also played significant roles in ancient Greek, Roman and Babylonian cultures. In fact, it was popularly worn in amulets and talismans, and commonly used for the making of insignia rings and seals.