In the long history of Alchemy in the world, there have generally been two focuses: creating an elixir of immortality, which caused many a person to drink toxic and deadly concoctions over the years, and creating a Philosopher’s Stone, a rock that could turn lead into gold (a process called Chrysopoeia). The belief was that “the Perfect Stone” could be used to change the properties of any element and draw out the gold in anything. Not only capable of that, many alchemists believed that grinding the Philosopher’s Stone into a red powder would make it a water soluble panacea capable of granting the drinker eternal life.
The search for a way to create the Philsopher’s Stone (aka, the Tincture, the stone, the perfect diamond, “our delicious stone”, and hundreds of other names) was known as the Magnum Opus, or the Great Work. It was considered by many at the time to be the greatest life work of all. So much so that a minor priest named Nicolas Flamel was referenced in a book that made reference to him creating silver from lesser metals by using a Philosopher’s Stone. Flamel died in the 1300s, and the book mentioning his success was written in the 1600s, but within 100 years, Nicolas Flamel was enough of a household name that he showed up in the writings of Victor Hugo and Isaac Newton. Simply the idea that he had found the godstone was enough to propel him to legendary status in Europe.
As far as the actual process of creating a stone capable of transmuting things, the origins are found in Greece and India. Basic beliefs about the world were that all elements were made of a combination of 4 things: Water, Fire, Air and Earth (or Hot, Dry, Wet and Cold in some other systems). Because it was known that you could take an alloy metal and reverse the alloy process, ancients believed that they could reverse engineer anything, and all things must come from a fifth element. The thought was that the fifth element was the philosopher’s stone, and it was the prima materia, the first matter, and by forming it, alchemists could in theory create any element. Alchemy has existed for thousands of years now, with the search for the stone always being paramount. Spurred forward by interpretations of the bible and legends about people in every society who discovered the skeleton key to the universe kept the art of alchemy relevant for an extreme amount of time. Beliefs that Adam was told about the existence of the stone by God at the creation, or the reference to a rejected cornerstone of the Temple of Solomon becoming the chief cornerstone in Psalm 118 have persisted for long enough that Alchemists and their study has survived well into the modern era with a wealth of writings and history recorded about them. When few people know the meaning behind words like Furrier or Cooper, the title “Alchemist” has survived and locked itself in the modern era with books like the Harry Potter series making it common vernacular.
An Alchemist painting from 1771, Joseph Wright of Derby