How an Obscure Gem Became the Stone of the Camino | Azabache Meaning

UPDATED January 12, 2023–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 19 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?

oblong piece of rough, dull azabache meaning it is uncut and unpolished
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.

So then, when considering the azabache stone meaning, it’s essential to know that the semiprecious gem is also called:

  • Azabache
  • Jet
  • Black Amber and
  • Petrified wood.

Azabache is often confused with black opal or obsidian. I know because I wear my azabache Santiago ring almost every day. And people often guess that it is these other stones.

Where is Santiago’s closest source of azabache?

Green fern almost hide the round entrance that looks like a hole in the side of a forest hill, a path leads from the dark entrance to the viewer
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.

So azabache Santiago comes from about 341 m north and west of Santiago de Compostela.

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The most productive of dozens of jet deposits in northwestern Spain, La Cimera Mine is in Oles, Villaviciosa. Azabache meaning jet, is mined there.

Azabache Santiago

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

necklace of black oval shaped beads cut into shining facets lays on blue cloth
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.

Then, they probably purchased azabache Santiago as a memento of their journey or as protection for the journey back home.

Plaza Azabachería is between the Santiago Cathedral and Seminario Mayor San Martin Pinario. It, of course, gets its name from azabache meaning “the plaza of azabache shops.”

“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 believed the stone had spiritual properties and bought and wore azabache as protection from evil.

So, part of the azabache stone meaning is attached to superstition. Of course, I did not know that when I purchased my azabache Santiago ring in 2005.

Location on the Camino

Being positioned on the last leg of the Camino afforded a steady flow of customers and 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.

Did you know? You can book a bed at Albergue Azabache

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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

a statues of St James with staff and book and pilgrim hat with shell is carved from azabache meaning is it is a pitch black statue
Saint James, Spanish, workshop of Santiago de Compostela, circa 1410 and carved from azabache is on the cover of the book by Coffey and Dun | (MET, 65.67) via Wikimedia

Azabache bracelets are available on Amazon, and so is Anne’s book. Grab a quick look:

If You Stand Here: A Pilgrim’s Tour of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela by Anne Born

 

I was surprised to see a statue of St James carved in azabache on the cover of this book:

The Miracles and Translatio of Saint James by Thomas F. Coffey (Editor) and Maryjane Dunn (Editor) 

 

Azabache trinkets

Real Azabache Cross and Evil Eye Set of 2 Red String Bracelets

Mommy and Me Protection Bracelets Set of 2 Real Azabache Cross Charm  

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

over a dozen black buttons are sewn onto a white card that has lines deliniating where to put the buttons of azabache meaning they are easily displayed

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 19 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:

sterling silver ring with black oval stone sits in ring box with white interior and velvet black exterior
My azabache or jet ring that I purchased 17 years ago
sterling silver filligree ring with round stone that is azabache meaning black or jet in same ring box as described in the last image
Sterling 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
book cover with photo of Holy Hill Basilica and text reading: Spiritual and Walking guide: The Wisconsin Way and author's name Stacey Wittig
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Book cover with photo of two-lane track going through green forest with test reading: Spiritual and Walking Guide: Lourdes to San Jean Pied de Port and Stacey Wittig
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book cover with photo of Holy Hill Basilica and text reading: Spiritual and Walking guide: The Leon to Santiago on el Camino and author's name Stacey Wittig
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Click book to order

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Book a Bed at Albergue Azabache

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Stay at Albergue Azabache the next time you are in Santiago de Compostela. Check rates for your stay on the map above. Then let us know what the Albergue Azabache hospitaleros have to say about the azabache meaning and symbolism in the comments below.

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20 thoughts on “How an Obscure Gem Became the Stone of the Camino | Azabache Meaning”

  1. Really interesting, I didn’t know that el camino had any relationship with the stone. In 🇵🇷 we still use the azabache para el mal de ojo! Next time I’m in Santiago, I might have to look for some jewelry with the famous azabache stone! Nice button collection and a very cool ring story

    Reply
      • After reading your piece on azabache and its significance to the camino i dicided i wanted one of my own. I was hoping to find out where you had yours made? Hope to hear from you. Many thanks. Andy.

        Reply
        • Thanks for your comment, Andy! I purchased the ring with the round stone at O Pórtico across from the Cathedral at Rúa de Fonseca, 1, 15704 Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Spain. I’m not certain, but I believe I found my first ring there, too, back in 2005. Wearing it as I type this! Buen Camino

          Reply
    • I learned that the practice of using amulets for protection ebbed and flowed over the course of years as the church enforced or didn’t enforce the ban. The practice stemmed from paganism (Roman religion) and other regional cults.

      Reply
  2. Man I love that ring you bought for your Camino buddy. I’ll be shopping for something similar to yours for the women in my life and the other one for myself. Absolutely stunning…

    Reply
    • Glad you like it, John! She said she did, too! I found it at O Pórtico, Rúa de Fonseca, 1, 15704 Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Spain. It’s very close to the cathedral. Here’s a link to their website http://www.oportico.es/ azabache meaning they can tell you! Let us know what you find!

      Reply
  3. I don’t just like it, I love it!!!! I get compliments on it all the time. Such a special journey commemorated with such a special gift ❤️

    Reply
  4. What a beautiful story, I really enjoyed it!
    I have always been drawn to having an asabache charm. As a little girl I always wanted one. This custom was something that I would never see at home. My family just did not believe in this sort of stuff if you will.
    Thank you for all the data and sharing your story, it really was lovely!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story. I hope that you can find something made of azabache – maybe here on my post!

      Reply
  5. Wonderful article. I came across it while looking for the meaning of the word azabache. My first pet, a black cat, given to me by some newly met relatives, in Bakersfield, California, when I was about 7 years old (1967) was called Azabache. I was told the word meant ash, but not until today did I find out its correct meaning. Ironically, I have a maternal family line that comes from Baie de Loia. Your story and rings are beautiful and I am now on a mission to find a piece of azabache jewelry.

    Best regards,
    Rebecca

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for sharing your story! There are some fantastic azabache pieces in the jewelry store in Santiago, Spain! Let us all know what you find!

      Reply
  6. Thanks for the wonderful article and the charming comments. I went to Santiago de Compostela in 1970; the beautiful poster of two romanesque angels captioned with the holy year was given to me gratis on my stop on the way. Today it remains framed on my wall in eyesight. That generous gift and your posts urge me to find an axa ache item to pass on to my children after I wear it. Muchas gracias!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your Camino experience, Marsha! It would be awesome if you took a picture of your poster and sent it to me! Then if you didn’t mind, I’d post it on one of my Camino stories here on UNSTOPPABLEStaceyTravel.com. Thanks again, Stacey

      Reply
  7. Wow, this post truly piqued my interest! 😍 It’s amazing how seemingly obscure gems like azabache can hold such fascinating stories and meanings. I’d love to learn more about how it became the Stone of the Camino. Do you have any additional information or historical anecdotes to share? 🤓 #GemstoneHistory #AzabacheMeaning #CaminoStone

    Reply
  8. Your exploration of the meaning of azabache on the Camino de Santiago struck a chord with me. As someone fascinated by symbolism and cultural significance, your insights into the history and traditions surrounding this jet stone were truly captivating. Your personal anecdotes added depth to the narrative, making it feel like I was embarking on the journey alongside you. Quick question – have you encountered any other meaningful symbols or traditions along the Camino that left a lasting impression on you? Thanks for sharing your enriching experiences and shedding light on the hidden gems of this pilgrimage route.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words! You’ll find plenty of symbolism along the Camino de Santiago, including the scallop shell, yellow arrows and images of Santiago inside the churches.

      Reply

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