But Is It a Gemstone? A Definition for Today

If you’ve been making jewelry for any time at all—and using stones in your work—the chances are you know the definition of gemstone. But maybe not. So it may be time—especially for new-to-jewelry makers—to revisit the definition.

Gemstones are usually defined as minerals or organic materials (such as amber, ivory, or pearls) that are beautiful, durable and rare. But those can be slippery terms.

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Semi-Precious to Whom?

Beauty usually has to do with a gemstone’s color, transparency, the phenomena it exhibits, and/or its brilliance. In the gem world, that has usually meant fine color, transparent, faceted gemstones, such as diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires. Gemstones such as garnet, aquamarine, peridot, and spinel were considered “semi-precious,” and not really gems. Opals, turquoise, lapis, and jade were even farther down the list, especially in traditional jewelry stores.

But as jewelry artists became bolder—and the mainstream gemstones became harder to find and more expensive—the term semi-precious began to disappear (thank goodness). Cutters and carvers such as Steve Walters, Bernd Musteiner, Sherris Cottier Shank, Michael Dyber, Bruce Barlow, Glenn Lehrer, John Heusler, Mike Gray, Richard Homer, David Vance Horste, and Justina DeVries, among many, brought a wider understanding to what materials were worth cutting and calling gemstones. Simple materials such as agates and jaspers, carnelian, rose quartz, crystal quartz, and even black onyx, became highly sought after specimens in their hands.

Rutile quartz in the past has been essentially a novelty. But imagine this stone set in a frame of gold. As it moves, the light will run up and down the golden rutile needles—just like the shivers up your spine. Photo courtesy Barlows Gems.

Rutile quartz in the past has been essentially a novelty. But imagine this stone set in a frame of gold. As it moves, the light will run up and down the golden rutile needles—just like the shivers up your spine. Photo courtesy Barlows Gems.

Clear Alternatives

Some cutters—and customers–are finding beauty in translucent forms of gemstones normally sought after in their transparent forms. These softer looking, often pastel versions of aqua, amethyst, or even sapphires and rubies, are commonly cut in cabochons to show off their color rather than their brilliance. They have a visually touchable quality to them that transparent, faceted examples do not.

And what about gem materials in matrix, such as boulder opals, or the simplicity of gray and brown banded agates? Again, in the right hands, these stones show off a unique beauty that can be riveting.

So what is beauty in a gemstone? Color, transparency, and phenomena, but also pattern and the imagination and quality of the cutting can contribute to making a stone a gemstone. All of this can be enhanced or destroyed by the ability of the cutter.

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Gemstone Hardness

The second quality attributed to gemstones is durability as it relates to their ability to withstand wear in jewelry. That usually means something hard. Hardness is a gem’s resistance to scratching. Since most dust in the air contains silica, or quartz (a 7 on the Mohs Hardness Scale), for gems to resist scratching during normal wear, they usually need to be equal to or harder than quartz. The stone should also be tough. It should not have a tendency to cleave (break along directions of weakness in the molecular bonding) or fracture during normal wear, when it strikes a door handle or counter top, for example.

Gemstones can be hard but brittle. Topaz, for example, is 8 on the Mohs scale. But it has a direction of cleavage that makes it brittle and breakable if it hits a hard surface just right. (Even diamond will break if hit in a direction of cleavage—as many setters have found to their cost.) Other stones can be softer than quartz but so tough they’re almost impossible to break. The fibrous structure of nephrite jade, for example, makes it exceptionally durable. It may scratch and abrade over years of wear, but you’ll be hard pressed to break it.

But again, cutters and jewelry artists are even making use of stones such as fluorite—a 4 on the Mohs Hardness Scale with four directions of perfect cleavage. Careful cutting and setting in jewelry such as pendants and earrings help find even these ethereal blue, green or lavender stones a home in jewelry designs. Will they withstand dropping onto a granite counter top? Possibly not. Withstand wear in a ring? Not for long. But worn carefully and stored away from harder materials, they’ll certainly give many years of pleasure.

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Gemstone Rarity

Lastly, gemstones are considered rare, meaning they show up less commonly than granite, for example, or the non-gem varieties of feldspar or quartz. This definition has not expanded as much as the others. But rarity can mean relative rareness.

For example, agates are not rare. Look at any gem show and you can find trays of them, spheres, pillars, cabs by the gazillions. However—a well-polished, well-shaped agate or jasper, cut with an artist’s eye to show an interesting pattern of lines, spots, splotches of color—that is a whole different barrel of rough.

Or take drusies. Lots of geodes contain a crystal-coated void inside them. But most are gray, or the crystals are uneven or broken. They’re interesting but not necessarily desirable for jewelry. Find a geode whose innards are coated with a surface of tiny, well-shaped crystals glittering, in a soft color, or spotted delicately with an mineral other than quartz. Then take an adept cutter with a deep appreciation of that material….and the game changes radically.

Are you someone who has thought “gemstones” are limited to the diamonds, rubies, sapphires, tanzanite, etc., found in the cases of the local mall jewelry store? Widen your gaze! Visit as many gem shows as you can. Go to art shows and look for jewelry artists who buck the traditional trend. Become inspired to find and then work with some of the more unusual denizens of the broader gemstone world.


Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.


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