Onyx comes through Latin (of the same spelling), from the Greek ὄνυξ, meaning "claw" or "fingernail". With its fleshtone color, onyx can be said to resemble a fingernail. The English word "nail" is cognate with the Greek word.
Onyx is formed of bands of chalcedony in alternating colors. It is cryptocrystalline, consisting of fine intergrowths of the silica minerals quartz and moganite. Its bands are parallel to one another, as opposed to the more chaotic banding that often occurs in agates.
It has a long history of use for hardstone carving and jewellery, where it is usually cut as a cabochon or into beads. It has also been used for intaglio and hardstone cameo engraved gems, where the bands make the image contrast with the ground. Some onyx is natural but much of the material in commerce is produced by the staining of agate.
Onyx was used in Egypt as early as the Second Dynasty to make bowls and other pottery items. Use of sardonyx appears in the art of Minoan Crete, notably from the archaeological recoveries at Knossos. Onyx is also mentioned in the Bible at various points, such as in Genesis 2:12 "and the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone", and such as the priests' garments and the foundation of the city of Heaven in Revelation.
Onyx was known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The first-century naturalist Pliny the Elder described both type of onyx and various artificial treatment techniques in his Naturalis Historia.
Slabs of onyx (from the Atlas Mountains) were famously used by Mies van der Rohe in Villa Tugendhat at Brno (completed 1930) to create a shimmering semi-translucent interior wall.