When Is a Gemstone Not a Gemstone?

When it's a pearl, amber, or coral!

Beads, cabochons and jewelry-making components made of these materials are generally classified as gemstones, but there are some important differences between a true gemstone and a pearl, amber, or coral. Pearls, amber, and coral are all natural materials,  but these natural jewelry-making components are the result of three different biological processes. (And one of them is actually the hardened remains of a living marine animal!)

Freshwater pearls come in a dazzling array of colors and shapes.

Pearls Pearls are one of my favorite natural beads for jewelry making, and are most often classified as gemstones. Pearls are created when a tiny grain of sand or other irritant finds its way into an oyster or other hard-shelled mollusk. In order to protect itself, the mollusk begins coating the irritant with layers of luminescent nacre. Eventually, the pearl becomes large enough that it can be harvested and removed from the inside of the shell.

Pearls are classified as semi-precious gemstones in jewelry, and some of the finest examples of natural freshwater pearls can cost as much as precious gemstones such as emeralds, rubies, and sapphires! The largest known naturally-occurring pearl was discovered in the Philippines in 1934 in a clam, and weighed in at an astounding fourteen pounds! But because it was from a clam, and not a mollusk that secretes nacre, it didn't have the luster of a gem-quality pearl.

I surrounded this ceramic cabochon by Marsha Hedricks with tiny amber gemstone beads.

Amber Amber is the fossilized tree resin that flowed from ancient trees, millions of years ago. Although amber does not have the same chemical or crystalline structure as a mineral, it is also classified as a semi-precious gemstone. Baltic amber, in particular, is prized throughout the world for its variety of colors, which can range anywhere from a milky honey colored stone to a deep, dark, transparent green.

If you are shopping for amber, be on the lookout for bonded amber. This type of amber gemstone is actually composed of smaller pieces of amber that have been stuck together using a binding agent. Bonded amber costs significantly less than natural amber, so always ask what treatments your amber beads have undergone before making a purchase.

Amber that has whole insects or plants encased within it is particularly sought after, but a word of caution: if you find a piece of amber with a large insect inside of it, expect to pay top dollar for such a sample. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.

Coral beads have been prized for centuries by cultures throughout the world.

Coral In recent years, there has been some concern and controversy regarding the harvesting of coral for use in jewelry. Coral is actually the dried, hardened remains of sea coral, a living organism that is vital to our oceans. The expansive coral reefs found throughout the world's oceans are the home to many important marine life that make up the food chain. When the coral dies or is over harvested, these marine animals and fish have no habitat, and the entire ocean ecosystem suffers.

But coral has also been prized as a gemstone by humans for centuries. Genuine coral jewelry and beads have been found in the ancient Egyptian tombs, and the ancient Romans prized coral for its perceived ability to protect the wearer from physical harm.

Genuine red coral, the type most prized for beads and jewelry, is incredibly rare. If you find it, expect to pay a premium for it. Most coral used in today's beads and jewelry making components is actually white coral that has been dyed red or pink. When using these coral beads in your jewelry making projects, the dye from these beads can run and stain clothing, so make sure you avoid exposing them to water when worn.

Do you love using natural gemstones in your beadweaving projects? Check out the 2009 Beadwork magazine collection on CD! You'll get all six issues from 2009 on a single, searchable CD. Each issue of Beadwork magazine is exactly as it was printed, but in digital format. Shelve your print magazines and look up your favorite beading projects, including twenty-four amazing Designer of the Year projects, on the CD! Get your copy of the 2009 Beadwork magazine collection on CD, and make room for more gemstone beads.

What's gemstone bead is your favorite to work with? Are you smitten (like me) with freshwater pearls? Or maybe you prefer an earthier gemstone like agate. Leave a comment and share your favorite gemstones here on the Beading Daily blog!

Bead Happy,


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