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An argument could be made that all gemstones are precious. Some are just more precious than others. The terms “gems” or “gemstones” are not actually scientific terms, but are rather common terms for any ornamental stone that may be polished for jewelry and cut to specific shapes to make it more aesthetically pleasing.
In other words, “gems” are stones we shine up and slice up to make them look more beautiful. Any stone that is cut and polished for the purpose of using it to make jewelry, either as beads or pendants or cabochons, is considered a “gemstone.” This classification of stones can include minerals, rocks, organic materials like coral, and even meteorites.
The most valuable gemstones are usually described as precious gemstones. These are the stones that are usually cut into facets and which are transparent when they’re polished. In scientific terms, most precious gemstones have a hardness of 8 or higher on the Mohs scale of hardness. A gemstone with a hardness of 7 or higher is usually hard enough for normal jewelry use. These stones have the durability to stand up to the normal wear and tear to which they’ll be subjected if used in jewelry.
Precious stones are generally the colored stones: rubies, emeralds, sapphires and, of course, diamonds. The undisputed kings of the precious stones are the diamonds.
Any gemstone that is not considered a precious gemstone falls under the semi-precious gemstone label. These gemstones generally allow some light to pass through, meaning they are translucent. Or they may be opaque, meaning no light passes through. A semi-precious stone can be organic (such as amber), a mineral, a rock (meaning a conglomerate of different minerals), or even a meteorite. Most semi-precious gemstones have a hardness of 7 or lower on the Mohs scale.
Semi-precious gemstones are usually not cut into facets but rather into cabochons. They are popular choices for beads. One of the best-known semi-precious gems is turquoise. Other commonly recognizable semi-precious stones are tiger’s eye, malachite, and common opal.
The classification of gemstones into different categories began in the mid-1800s. The terms precious stones and semi-precious stones rapidly grew in popularity and are now universally used throughout the world. The terms are household words, both among people who buy and wear jewelry, as well as those who sell gemstones and jewelry. The terms are not without controversy, however.
The practice of classifying some gemstones as precious and some as semi-precious has led many people to the conclusion that some stones, the precious ones, are more important and valuable than their semi-precious kin. This impression has been bolstered by the fact that over 98 percent of the dollar value of gemstone imports into the United States is found in imports of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. So it may be fair to say that the term is correctly applied if value is the only factor included in the equation. If other factors, such as color, texture, and availability are taken into account, the term could become questionable in some instances.
The semi-precious categorization is applied to all varieties of gemstones that don’t fall into the precious designation, even though some may be harder to come by. Meteorite would be a prime example. Although some consider the term semi-precious to be a derogatory or misleading term, it isn’t likely to disappear from the nomenclature any time soon.
Classifying gemstones according to their economic impact can be misleading. Precious stones are generally considered to be more valuable, more beautiful or desirable, and harder to find. The problem with this idea is that actual marketing examples don’t bear out the validity of that argument.
For example, a spectacular opal from Australia sold for over $5500 per carat in 2004. Gems cut and fashioned from red beryl have sold for over $10,000 per carat in the past. These semi-precious stones sold at higher per carat values than their precious stone counterparts. Thus, to relegate semi-precious stones to the mark-down aisle can be an inaccurate classification.
Rare generally means something is hard to find or of a very limited quantity. Precious stones are generally considered to fall in this category, but in actuality many stones classified as semi-precious are more rare in the gemstone world. Red beryl, gem silica, and demantoid garnet are all located and produced in smaller quantities than any stones on the precious list. In fact, these stones are incredibly rare, in comparison to gems such as diamonds and emeralds.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We’ve all heard that old saying. It is appropriate to apply that sentiment to the gemstones we like to have in our jewelry. Where one person may find the sparkle of a diamond to be the most beautiful, and therefore most desirable, another may pick the fire and depth of an opal as the must-have stone.
The perception of what is beautiful, and therefore desirable, determines how much we are willing to pay for that stone. Anyone who is versed in basic economics understands the effect that demand has on a market. It is conceivable, therefore, that a semi-precious stone such as opal could, in some cases, be more expensive than a precious stone like diamond.
Not only are stones separated into piles marked “precious” and “semi-precious,” they also get graded, just as if they were in school. To grade a stone means you measure the gemstone’s quality and marketability. Factors taken into consideration are color, clarity, and how much it may end up costing when sold. A lower grade means a potentially lower price. That doesn’t mean these stones are not beautiful or desirable; it simply means you may be able to afford more of them.
It would be fair to argue that the terms “precious” and “semi-precious” when applied to stones are basically meaningless and arbitrary. If we didn’t call them by these terms, the gemstone market would not collapse tomorrow, and we wouldn’t stop wearing our beloved gemstone jewelry.
If you’re interested in creating your own jewelry or purchasing an item created by another craftsman, don’t let the labels on the stones influence your decision. Focus on the gemstone and why it appeals to you. Do you find the stone beautiful and desirable? Will the stones suit your needs? Can you use them in the way you intend to? Are you willing to pay the price asked? If your answer is yes to these questions, then the characterization of precious or semi-precious just became irrelevant.
A gemstone is a mineral or other natural material, such as a pearl, that is beautiful and which has the durability needed to be used as a personal ornament or body adornment. Any stone that meets this criterion should be considered precious.
Since we currently labor under the precious vs. semi-precious designations, you may be surprised to learn that there are actually only four stones considered precious, while semi-precious stones number in the hundreds. A look at these four special gemstones gives some clues as to why they get their classification.
There are hundreds of stones which fall into the semi-precious category. Crafters of handmade jewelry use these stones to give their creations flair, class, and a uniqueness that is all their own. Some of the most popular semi-precious stones, in no particular order, can be used to make outstanding beaded jewelry, each a one-of-a-kind creation.
This stone’s name is a play on the French word citron, meaning “lemon.” It was originally called this because of its deep yellow color. It can be found as a light yellow or a rich dark tone, or a golden orange that ranges to a brownish-orange. Citrine is a type of transparent quartz that gets its yellow color from iron.
Natural citrine is a rare find. In the 1700s, it was discovered that smoky quartz or amethyst could be heated to between 470 and 560 degrees. Baking it to these temperatures caused it to become citrine. Most of the citrine on today’s market began as an orange-brown amethyst or smoky quartz.
Turquoise is known by its distinctive color. The gemstone can range in color from a pure sky blue, to blue-green, to a pale green. A sample of turquoise with an even, robin’s egg blue color will carry the highest price tag. Most turquoise includes black or brown veining. This matrix is the remains of the original stone. This veining is called spider web matrix, cobweb, edisonite, or eggshell.
To find turquoise, the best place to look is inside fracture lines in volcanic rock. It is one of the oldest of the gemstones. It is an extremely popular gemstone in Native American tribes, and is even considered sacred by some. It has traditionally been used as a healing stone, as it was thought to block disease and promote the growth of healthy tissue. Turquoise’s soothing blue color was thought to bring happiness and good fortune to the wearer, especially when the gemstone was given to another as a gift.
Turquoise that is sky blue or a dark royal blue with no matrix visible is called Sleeping Beauty turquoise. Stones with a green tint are usually the least valuable. Turquoise is a relatively soft stone and is usually sold with a wax coating to protect it.
In folklore, garnet was worn to increase the wearer’s confidence and courage. It was said to endow the wearer with energy and security. Among the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, garnet was thought of as a protective stone. It was believed the stone would light the night to protect its wearer from evil and impending doom.
The ancient Romans called peridot the “evening emerald” because of the colorful glow it emitted under candlelight. It was believed that wearing peridot could lessen depression and protect the wearer from evil spells and spirits. It was also worn as an aid to restful sleep and to slow the progression of the aging process.
In ancient civilizations, topaz was thought to cool hot heads and turn boiling pots to cold water. Blue topaz was worn as a way to cure insanity and insomnia. It was believed to relieve the symptoms of asthma. Some even believed that wearing topaz when confronted with danger would make the wearer invisible. In mysticism, giving blue topaz as a gift is said to symbolize love and fidelity.