Romancing The Stone - Onyx: The Jewel Of Ancient And Modern Design

November 02, 2012

The origin of onyx is rooted in ancient myth. Greeks and Romans believed that Cupid clipped Venus’ nails at the banks of the Indus river. The goddess’ nails fell to the water and floated to the bottom where they were transformed into onyx. In fact the word “onyx” means fingernail (or claw) in Greek. This may be a reference to its mythical origin or simply be an accurate description of the stone itself, as Onyx’s hallmark is its heavy mineral veining, drawn through the dark stone like fingernails.


Mythical reverence led onyx, particularly black onyx, to become a significant stone in ritual and shows of elegance throughout history. Its smooth texture is perfect for carving. As such, onyx was used thousands of years ago to make figurines of the gods and heroes and for ceremonies and burials. It was also used in combination with other stones to make bowls, cups, stamps and seals, jewelry, and precious inlays. In more recent history, black onyx rose to popularity in Victorian times for necklaces, rings, and earrings. This popularity is attributed to the Victorian ritual of mourning, in which those who had lost loved ones could only wear the color black. Black onyx was also linked to strength and positive spiritual effects for the wearer, something mourners wished to draw upon; indeed, onyx was worn in battle on shields, swords and armor because it was believed to strengthen and protect warriors. 


Today, we know much more about how onyx is formed. Like many natural stones, it is formed from layered deposits in warm springs and limestone caves. Over millions of years, fine calcite deposits build to create a smooth, translucent layer. Onyx is actually a form of marble, and as such, it is more fragile than other natural stones, like granite. That it is more susceptible to etching does not make it an underutilized stone, rather, it simply makes its uses more precious. Thoughtful application in modern design can make onyx a striking stone, particularly when we now know how beautiful this transparent stone is when backlit to showcase it – properly displayed under or over lit areas, one can appreciate the unique veining and the sometimes dozens of colors offered in one piece. 


Contemporary uses of onyx continue to follow tradition. Black onyx is still used in cameos to create contrast with white layers, and it is considered a masculine gemstone for rings (particularly in men’s class rings). As a decorative element, onyx is suited to low traffic areas in homes and businesses. Slabs are generally smaller than other stones, given that it is more difficult to extract in large blocks; however, MSI offers a wide selection of sizes and colors. Onyx is particularly suited for exotic countertops, like bartops, or for fireplace faces and backsplashes where the stone sees gentle use but is highly visible. Onyx tiles may even be used for flooring, especially as edging and accents.

Onyx is also commonly coupled with other stones and materials for added depth and contrast, particularly suited to backsplashes where decorative accents are in plain view of a high traffic area, but are not subjected to wear. Onyx mixed with travertine and onyx with glass are two such options. The added materials mean an even greater variety to satisfy a designer’s imagination. For example, the unique combination of red onyx with travertine achieves a colorful but subtle elegance, as well as earthy appeal. Similarly, the mix of Giallo Crystal Onyx, Ivory Travertine And Honey Onyx Caramel Glass and the Giallo Crystal Onyx And Ivory Travertine scheme both make bold statements in a understated way, perfect for the backsplash in an indoor or outdoor Tuscan inspired kitchen. The options are endless with the variant nature of onyx, alone or in combination – a stone ideal anywhere the design calls for a touch of precious elegance.

Stay tuned for the upcoming conclusion to the Romancing the Stone Series – a look back at all the beautiful stones we have covered in this series and the many options MSI Stone offers for each.