Bismuth is a relatively rare mineral that has only recently become available to collectors. Prior to the 1600s, it was often confused with tin or iron, which it can closely resemble. The name Bismuth has two possible origins; it may be a German name, a variation of wismuth or weiße Mass, meaning “white mass.” Alternatively, its name could come from the Arabic bi ismid, meaning “similar to Antimony” (another silver-grey metal).
Bismuth was not included in ancient lapidaries, texts that describe gemstones and their powers, nor is it widely included in most modern ones. While lapidary writers took little note of this rare metal, medieval Alchemists showed a keen interest. Alchemists were the forerunners of today’s chemists, educated men and women who performed experiments hoping to find the key to eternal life and/or the ability to turn base metals into gold. Alchemists referred to Bismuth as tectum argenti, Latin for “silver being made” and considered it to be almost an evolutionary step between a base metal and a precious one. Alchemists worked with the metal in the hope that it would reveal its secrets and literally turn into silver, giving them the key for how to turn other metals into gold.
Prior to the modern age, the lines between alchemy, chemistry and metallurgy have considerable overlap. Isaac Newton is venerated today as one of history greatest scientist for his work on physics and optics. Yet he actually devoted more of his writing to the study of alchemy and other occult studies! Similarly, an Alchemist such as Henning Brand (1630-c.1700) spent his life searching for the elusive philosopher’s stone. He performed hundreds of experiments on a wide variety of metals, including Iron and most likely Bismuth. He never found the philosopher’s stone, but he did discover the element phosphorus.