Cultures and Gems – Mayas, Aztecs and Incas

Gemstones played an important role in almost all advanced civilizations. This is also true of those in Mesoamerica. The region, which is characterized by its ancient cultures, began to be settled around 20,000 years before Christ, has always been considered the place of origin of numerous valuable gemstones.

While the Maya people were mainly located in Guatemala, Belize, a small part of El Salvador and Honduras, the settlement area of the Aztecs extended mostly over today’s Mexico. The Inca people predominantly settled those parts of South-America now known as Colombia, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Organized into city-states, people at that time already lived in metropolises with up to 100,000 inhabitants.

The civilizations in Mesoamerica were far ahead of their time. Thus, they not only developed the most advanced calendar of the time, but were generally very adept at observing astronomical phenomena and documenting them. But it was not only astronomy that they explored. They were also extremely skilled builders. Among the most famous architectural features were the classical temple pyramids, which not only served to offer human sacrifices to the ancient gods, but were also used as burial places for their rulers. Tombs that were filled with richly decorated grave goods.

Learn here which gemstones the Aztecs, Maya and Inca particularly valued and how they were used in the everyday life of the Native Americans.

Gemstones in the cultures of the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas

Gemstones and their healing properties were strongly embedded in all Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs, Maya and Inca, however, were known to be very critical in the selection of the stones they valued.


For example, the Mayan shamans wore a black tourmaline during their ceremonies so that they would not be captured and killed by earth spirits. However, the most popular gemstone among Maya was jade. Jade from Guatemala, for example, exists in many different colors. The spectrum of nuances is more varied than with some other stones. It ranges from a slightly mint-colored tint to a rich, dark green. But also white, creamy yellow, lavender or purple can be Jadeite from Guatemala. Another variety, known as Mayan Foliage, is speckled green and white. There are also blue jadestones, but they are rarely found. The rarest existing variety of jade is Imperial Jade. The color green was considered extremely important by the Maya. It represents the water of the sacred caves of the cenotes. It was also synonymous with rich harvests and fertility.

Credit: amanderson2 / cc-by-2.0


The Inca culture greatly reveres one gemstone in particular: Emerald. The towns of Muzo and Chivor, located in what is now Colombia, are known to this day as “the old green mines.” Here, exceptionally beautiful emeralds were mined and are still mined today. Wearing jewelry decorated with or made from emeralds was reserved exclusively for nobles. To this day, the precious stone has lost none of its value. The brighter emeralds are, the higher their market value. Emeralds can even be more expensive per carat than diamonds. The green gemstones symbolize power, immortality, as well as eternal youth. They are also said to have healing properties. Especially for skin problems, the healing properties of emeralds are said to be used.


While particularly valuable gemstones played an important role for the Maya and Inca, the Aztecs worshipped turquoise, which was much more common. The blue-green mineral was used in rituals. Grave goods and art objects were usually decorated with it or consisted of whole parts of the popular gemstone.

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Dr. Thomas Schröck
The Author:

Dr. Thomas Schröck

The founder and managing partner of THE NATURAL GEM has been active in international gemstone trading for 30 years. As a doctor of economics and a certified gemmologist in Switzerland, Germany and the USA, among other countries, he is one of Europe’s leading experts on naturally-coloured, untreated gemstones and investments in them.


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