What is azabache: How an Obscure Gem Became the Stone of the Camino
How an Obscure Gem Became the Stone of the Camino
What is the azabache meaning and what does it symbolize? Azabache is considered the talisman of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s protector, a stone with magical powers and a symbol of the Camino pilgrimage. But how did this obscure gem become the stone of the Camino? Read on to find out!
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Last month when I was in Santiago de Compostela, Robin, a young pelegrina I’d met earlier while walking the Via de la Plata, complimented me on my azabache ring. My unusual ring, crafted by a Spanish jeweler years ago, is sterling silver and sports a black oval gemstone. The Spanish call the gemstone el azabache meaning jet or jet black, in English.
The luminous, jet-black stone caught my eye under the glass of a Santiago jewelry counter 17 years ago. Jet has a special place in my heart because my grandmother collected antique jet buttons. But more on that later…
I searched for something special to commemorate my first Camino, so I had to try that ring on as soon as I spied it.
What is azabache, AKA jet?
Unpolished jet | Photo by GFDL CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia
El azabache, AKA jet or black amber, is a gemstone of black fossil material. Once polished, the black stone glistens and sparkles, yep, like a gem. The rough material is found in fossil beds throughout the world, including Turkey, the USA and France, with the most prized lapidary jet coming from Whitby, England and Asturias, Spain. Most of the carved azabache found in merchants’ shops during the Middle Ages came from Asturias.
It is worth mentioning that Asturian azabache is actually petrified wood from now-extinct trees. The trees, fragmented during times of great flooding, were buried in the flood’s aftermath. Once water-logged and covered, the fossilization process began under the pressure of deep clay beds.
Interestingly, the trees became extinct when dinosaurs did—at the end of the Jurassic period, about 65 million years ago. Indeed, locals say that you can see dinosaur tracks in Asturias where miners extract azabache by hand.
Where is Santiago’s closest source of azabache?
Mina de azabache de Oles | Photo by Noé Varas Teleña via Wikimedia
Since ancient times humans mined azabache from deposits of exceptional quality at Les Mariñes de Villaviciosa and the nearby Oles area. Villaviciosa is on the northern coast of Spain northeast of Santiago and is where the Camino Primitivo splits away from Camino del Norte.
The most productive of dozens of jet deposits in northwestern Spain, La Cimera Mine is located in Oles, Villaviciosa. Azabache meaning jet is mined there.
To best understand how the obscure gem became the stone of the Camino, let’s start with the history of el azabache in the region and follow up with how it’s playing out in Santiago today.
The history of Asturian azabache meaning
Victorian-Contemporary Age-European and British-art and design period; Late 19th Century | Courtesy of Auckland Museum via Wikimedia
A necklace bead from a Paleolithic site in Oviedo, Asturias, is one of the oldest pieces of worked azabache ever found. Consequently, experts reporting it as 17,000 years old push back the Asturian azabache timeline. But, of course, at that point, people would not have called the black stone azabache. Locals wouldn’t have used that term until after 711 when Arabic-speaking people controlled Spain.
According to Wiktionary, azabache meaning is derived from Arabic:
- Andalusian Arabic السبج (az-zabáǧ),
- Arabic سَبَج (sabaj meaning “jet, obsidian”),
- Middle Persian špk’ (/šabag/ meaning “jet, obsidian”),
- from šp (/šab/ meaning “night”), and
- Old Persian (x-š-p)
Azabache is a stone that has represented Santiago and pilgrimage since the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, azabacheros, a guild of artisans who sculpted azabache into amulets, lived and worked on the last 100 meters of the Camino. Then, just like today, medieval pilgrims walked Rua de Acibecheria and passed through Plaza Azabachería—also called Plaza de la Inmaculada—on their way to the Santiago Cathedral.
Plaza Azabachería is between the Santiago Cathedral and Seminario Mayor San Martin Pinario.
“Plaza Azabachería was the location of the fountain where French pilgrims washed up before entering the Cathedral,” explains Anne Born, author of If You Stand Here: A Pilgrim’s Tour of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
“Cósimo de Medici III entered through that Cathedral door [from Plaza Azabachería] on his way to Mass in the San Salvador Chapel in 1669,” the author adds. The Grand Duke of Tuscany probably rode down Rua de Acibecheria to get there.
Azabache shops lined the streets
Shops that sold jet to the pilgrims lined Rua de Acibecheria in those days. Pilgrims, who believed that the stone had spiritual properties, bought and wore azabache as protection from evil.
Location on the Camino
Being positioned on the last leg of the Camino afforded not only a steady flow of customers but also provided easy access to the artisans’ supply chain. For example, Pilgrims walking into Santiago via Camino Primitivo or Camino del Norte carried raw azabache they procured along the way.
Azabache intimately linked to the pilgrimage
The social and economic impact of azabache on the Camino de Santiago has been the focus of Ángel Cardín Toraño for over 20 years. “Azabache is intimately linked to the pilgrimage, as it became the amulet and souvenir of it. Millions of small pieces were sold to walkers. Hundreds of large pieces sold to nobles and dignitaries are now in European and American museums,” Toraño reports in an interview with El Correo Gallego. In addition, the researcher presented many images of azabache statues of Santiago—St. James the Elder—during the Monographic Jet Fair in 2012. Ángel Cardín Toraño is the author of El Azabache: Piedra Mágica de Asturias y Amuleto del Camino de Santiago
Azabache meaning as a magical stone
“Jet is said to protect us from the evil eye, and today we continue to experience the need to surround ourselves with objects that protect us. For the cultures that populated this area of the Bay of Biscay, jet has always been a magical stone, probably because of the shine it acquires,” explains Candelas Sánchez in an article by La Voz de Asturias. El azabache meaning as a protector from the evil eye, stems back to Roman times and pagan beliefs. (See Henig, M., 1984, Religion in Roman Britain, London, BT Batsford LTD.) “The roads were dangerous, and all the pilgrims wanted an amulet that would protect them,” adds Sánchez.
Besides the magical, brilliant shine the dull stone acquires after polishing, azabache may produce an electric charge when rubbed and then separated from wool cloth. This triboelectric effect also happens with amber and could be why people in the Middle Ages believed azabache had special powers.
I must mention that although the church banned the use of amulets or talismans at the Council of Laodicea in the fourth century, the practice continued. Likewise, charms were forbidden because reliance on objects shows a lack of trust in God.
More on azabache meaning and energy
I don’t believe in such things, but those who believe that gemstones have spiritual properties think that azabache or jet can rid negative energy and protect you from fear, indecisiveness, and evil. So the gem is used in protection jewelry.
For example, in Puerto Rico folklore, parents place an azabache charm bracelet on their baby’s wrist to protect them from the evil eye. So traditionally, the baby protection bracelet has an azabache fist attached.
Others say jet acts like a purifier drawing out unwanted energy and attracting positive energy. In that way, the azabache meaning is about transformation. For that reason, it makes sense that those of the Victorian Age used jet for mourning. More on that later, when we talk about my grandmother’s jet button collection.
Baby wears azabache bracelet charm with a fist charm | Photo by PrcHunter via Wikipedia
Azabache and more on Amazon — Click to Purchase
Watch out when buying azabache meaning ‘Buyer Beware’
Buyer Beware: Be wary of purchasing jewelry made of simulated azabache. Or of sellers trying to pass off simulated azabache as the real thing.
How to tell the difference between azabache and black glass?
“The first and simplest way is to hold a piece to your cheek: the glass will feel cool, while jet will always ‘feel’ room temperature,” says Jan Odegard in a book review of Whitby Jet by Helen Muller.
So back to my grandmother’s jet button collection
My Grandma Norma was kind of a wacky person and collected many things. But as a kid, I was fascinated with her azabache or jet button collection. She told me that jet was the material of choice for fashioning buttons for mourning clothes in the Victorian Age. Even Antique Collecting magazine confirms that jet was one of Victorian jewelers’ “most used decorative materials.” Black morning clothes decorated with English jet outwardly displayed the inner feelings of sadness and grief.
OK, so here’s the thing, my love of Grandma Norma’s button collection (and my grandma) drew me to the azabache ring I’ve been wearing for the past 17 years.
Azabache in Santiago Today
So fast forward to Robin, the pelegrina who complimented my azabache ring. She’s from Austin, Texas, and since she was one of the only American pilgrims I’d met during my 33 days on Via de la Plata, I felt a special camaraderie. A merry band of us pilgrims spent Good Friday together, chasing down narrow alleyways to view the 11:00 pm processional and afterward talking to the wee hours before she flew out early the following day.
Within the next two days or so, I felt prompted—yes, prompted by the Lord—to find a similar ring and send it to Robin. That’s really stretching it for me because I rarely buy regalos or presents for others when traveling. Ask my husband.
But during my pilgrimage, I was doing spiritual work, asking God to increase my spirit of generosity. I’d had divine encounters with other pilgrims who demonstrated that fruit of the spirit—generosity—as God showed me what generosity could look like for me. He drew my attention to pilgrims who professed to be Catholics, yogis, Bahá’í, Chinese philosophers or agnostics. Some of those belief systems are somewhat outside my pentecostal comfort zone, but the Lord knows what it takes to move a mountain.
In the past 17 years, I’ve probably been to Santiago eight times. And on each visit, I look for jewelry that would match my sterling silver and azabache ring. But, since I’ve never found anything that could compare to its weighty silver and intricate filigree, I didn’t reason that I’d find a similar ring for Robin. But I went out shopping with hope—and trust. So here’s what I found, I think its something of a miracle:
My azabache or jet ring that I purchased 17 years agoSterling silver ring with round azabache that I found last month
I love the cut-outs in this new ring – the little circles. The round azabache looks like a black moon to me. Or maybe it’s the dark side of the moon. Regardless, it proves that pilgrims can still find amazing azabache jewelry in Santiago de Compostela. And that after centuries, pilgrims are still buying this obscure gem as souvenirs of their Caminos.
Related: Spiritual Places on Camino Primitivo
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Powerful Protection With Azabache Stones
Gemstones & Crystals
Azabache stones are a beautiful, powerful protective talisman that can help guard you against envy and the curse of the evil eye.
All around the world, different cultures use herbs, stones, and other curios as protective objects. In Santiago de Compostela, Spain, it is no different. Azabache stones are a very old type of protective talisman, valued so highly that they are often given to babies at birth.
What Is an Azabache Stone?
Azabache stones are made of jet, a black stone made of fossilized plant matter. Jet itself is a highly prized magical and protective stone, and the jet from the coast of Asturias is considered to be of the highest quality. Jewelry made of jet was often worn or carried by pilgrims to protect them on their journey. Today, it is still used as a defense against evil.
The History of Azabache Stones.
Azabache stones are formed from trees that went extinct over 65 million years ago. Even in ancient Rome, the black stones were valued for jewelry and decoration. When polished, it becomes very shiny. It can also be carved, and is often found in shapes like scallops, human figures, crosses, or azabache hands.
Santiago de Compostela, a town in Spain, is known for its azabache works. It is where the apostle Saint James is buried, and is the end point of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The Rua de Acibecheria (street of azabache) was, at one time, a street designated for artisans who sold protective jet jewelry and stones. When Spanish people traveled to the Americas, they brought their azabache stones with them for safety. Today, these stones are very often used in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other areas that had a heavy Spanish influence.
How Do You Use Azabache?
Jet is a very protective stone, but it is considered especially potent against mal de ojo (the evil eye). This is a curse sent by a look from an envious or bitter person. Wearing azabache stones is believed to protect against this curse. Baby girls are generally given jet earrings or a bracelet. Boys are given jet brooches. Even adults wear azabache jewelry, sometimes with gold, red glass beads, or red coral, to help guard them against negative energy.
Sometimes, azabache stones are used for spiritual healing. If a pain or injury is believed to be caused by a curse, a healer might lay a piece of jet on the area. If the pain went away, it was safe to assume that it was a symptom of the evil eye. If not, it was time for a doctor.
Though jet is magically powerful, it is a brittle stone. For this reason, it is a good idea to take care of azabache jewelry and avoid letting it bang around during sports or heavy work. Clean it with a soft cloth and warm water, and it can last for a very long time.
What Happens When Azabache Jewelry Breaks?
If an azabache hand or other mal de ojo jewelry breaks, it means that someone has tried to give the wearer the evil eye. This is similar to other protective talismans — breaking either means that you have avoided a curse, or acts as a warning that someone wishes you ill. Unfortunately, if an azabache stone is broken this way, it will no longer protect the wearer and must be replaced. (It would also be a good idea to perform a spiritual cleansing, just to make sure!)
All throughout history, people have wanted to protect themselves and their children from harm. Azabache stones are a beautiful, powerful protective talisman that can help guard you against envy and the curse of the evil eye. Wear azabache jewelry with pride, take care of it, and you can look forward to years of protection.
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Translations of tango verses: Azabache
Homero «Mimi» Esposito I have already called «the most poetic of the tango poets» in this blog (in fact, for Mimi, the tango was just an interesting episode in a long biography of a great poet). Esposito, a master of metaphor and allusion, and a sworn enemy of standard rhyme, is also true to himself in this text, where alliteration breathes in the middle of the lines, and the rhyme seems to be a little bit present, but only in approximate consonance. As Argentinian candombe is supposed to be, this is a retro poem about the long-gone Afro-Argentine past (although «across the river» in Uruguay, the candombe tradition, and Afro-Latin culture in general, did not even think of dying).
About the title of the song: Azabache — a black, gleaming stone, with which the eyes of a black guest from the past are compared in this candomba — in Russian it is called jet. It is easily polished and, because of its blackness, has a magical reputation in those countries where jewelry and amulets are made from it. But in the Russian tradition, jets are not associated with the sparkle of eyes, nor with magical charms, so in translation I preferred to compare the eyes of a dark-skinned woman with a black diamond.
Note that Esposito replaces «r» with «l» everywhere to imitate an Afro-Argentine accent, and Raul Beron sings like that.
Musica: Enrique Francini
y Héctor Stamponi
Letras: Homero Expósito
¡Candombe! ¡Candombe negro!
¡Retumba con sangre y tumba*
¡Ay, molenita, tus ojos
¡Ay, tus cadelas que tiemblan
¡Candombe ! ¡Candombe negro!
¡Retumba con sangre y tumba
¡Candombe! ¡Candombe negro!
| Black Diamond
With gratitude to Larisa Jansonen for invaluable help.
Candombe! Kandombe negros!
Thunder, tom-toms of blood,
Swarthy, ah, your eyes
Ai, your hips are dancing,
Candombe! Kandombe negros!
Drums of blood hum,
Candombe! Kandombe negros!
*According to the comments of the late Michael Krugman, the «boom» in the text is not a grave, but the bassiest of African drums.
** Blood, of course, is in the veins and in the heritage. It is interesting, speaking of blood, that Argentina, so white at first glance, turns out to be full of African DNA. But only mitochondrial DNA. Everyone had, it turns out, African foremothers, but that was so many generations ago…
*** Parche in this case, the skin that fits the drums — its trembling is compared to the trembling of the dancer’s thighs, but, for the sake of poetry, I decided to use it in translation slightly different comparison.
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