Gemstones & Pearls : News
The Meaning of Gem
The definition has been tugged, prodded and stretched over
two thousand years. It might be time for an update
The sign above his desk reads: "Sensory Supercedes Articulation."
This quote says it all when it comes to defining gems for Josh
Hall of Pala International, Fallbrook, CA. "When I come
across a gem material so beautiful that all my senses react,
the only possible word that can describe what I see is the word
'gem,'" he says.
Hall sees a lot material, most of it excellent. But when truly
superb stones pass through his hands, he reverently pencils in
"gem" on the right-hand corner of the stone paper,
designating it as something special a benchmark.
In the industry, the word is used in a much more generic sense.
"There are gems and there are rare gems," says Gerry
Manning of Manning International, New York City. "Most stones
set in jewelry today can be defined as ornamentation rather than
gems. But a ruby bracelet for $149.99 could not be sold if it
did not have the word gem attached to it. If you restrict a merchandiser's
ability to say this, you wipe out 90% of the market, as well
as the public's ability to have access to affordable jewelry."
Back to School
So what constitutes a gem? For decades, the Gemological Institute
of America has taught students that "gems are specimens
of minerals or organic materials used for personal adornment
that possess the attributes of beauty, rarity, durability and
GIA teaches these attributes must hang together a stone
lacking one or more of them risks losing its status as a gem.
Let's look at each attribute.
It's important for a gemstone to stand on its own, gem enthusiasts
are fond of saying. Beauty may seem like the most straightforward
attribute, but beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Still,
there are certain characteristics.
In loose gems, strength of color is probably the most important
factor. Strong colors are expected in certain gems, including
ruby, emerald and sapphire. Kunzite and aquamarine aren't known
for inherent color strength, yet are greatly appreciated when
they have the strongest color in their normal range.
Some gem enthusiasts believe making color saturation such
an issue limits the potential of less-saturated material. For
example, light-colored amethyst, considered among the lowest
quality of quartz, gains in appreciation and value if it's creatively
and superbly cut. "It is a value-added effect," says
Michael Dyber, a prize-winning cutter in Rumney, NH. "But
if it stirs your soul, it's a gem!"
In transparent gems, the degree of transparency and light return
is often considered crucial. Through market experience, we learn
to expect certain degrees of clarity from certain gems. For example,
aquamarine is generally expected to be clean and emerald is generally
expected to be hazier. Flawless, clean emeralds are very rare,
but connoisseurs would say they are the true gems of their species.
Conversely, certain gems normally expected to be transparent
in their best qualities are sometimes considered finer if they
are hazier, such as velvety sapphires from Kashmir.
What is rare and beautiful is generally coveted. But the rarity
of some gems jeopardizes commercial viability. Tsavorite garnet
is rarer than emerald and entirely free of enhancement other
than fashioning. Yet even with the depressed state of emerald
prices, tsavorite can't compete on a per-carat price because
there's simply not enough of it to go around to warrant consumer
By contrast, consider the success of tourmaline from Paraíba,
Brazil. Small, often highly included and now practically unavailable
on the market, Paraíba tourmaline broke all pricing rules,
sometimes commanding higher per-carat prices than fine sapphire.
Its remarkable and memorable electric-blue color and publicity
added to its cachet as a rare gem.
Then consider amethyst, a quartz that's not considered rare.
Often beautiful, clean, durable and colorful, its abundance brings
its status as a gem into question. That wasn't always the case.
In medieval Europe, amethyst was rare and purple was coveted.
Today, amethyst is coveted only when it's derived from a few
top-color specimens known to have come from extinct sources or
when fashioned by famous cutters and carvers.
Diamond isn't rare either, given the enormous stockpiles and
new sources springing up around the world. But no one paying
the per-carat prices and listening to the advertising in today's
market would believe this. Strict control of polished diamonds
on the market combined with ingenious consumer advertising elevate
diamond to a rare and coveted product.
Some laboratory-grown gems are rarer than their natural counterparts,
such as synthetic diamond and certain types of grown corundum.
"Inventing and manufacturing [laboratory-grown gems] is
not as easy as some would have you think," says Manning.
"The number of exceptional stones out of a harvest is rare;
often there is a 20:1 failure ratio, which can make production
extremely expensive. Today, it's more costly to produce consistent
flame-fusion ruby than it is to produce lower-than-average quality
natural ruby from Burma."
Many say the vagaries of natural production and the finite
resources of any gem deposit will always give natural gems status,
allure and mystique. "Gems are like the miracle of life
itself they are a precious time-capsule that nature made
on a very limited basis," says Bruce Lawton of Lawton &
Associates, Los Angeles, CA.
Durability & Portability
"The love of precious stones is deeply implanted in the
human heart," George F. Kunz wrote in his 1913 book The
Curious Lore of Precious Stones. "The cause of this must
be sought not only in their coloring and brilliancy but also
their durability." A gem must be tough enough to be passed
on to heirs to maintain its status and awaken appreciation in
succeeding generations. Materials such as apatite, rhodochrosite
and aragonite are rare and often beautiful but usually can't
be worn in jewelry and rarely become heirlooms. These would more
likely be viewed as collector stones. If such non-durable stones
must be displayed in a jewel, the skills of the cutter and gem-setter
are critical in protecting them.
Gems have an analogous relationship to precious metals. Both
materials have been used for personal adornment, but also as
stores of value that can be carried in times of crisis. But portability
is rarely discussed today because its relevance dissipated as
other ways of concealing and transferring wealth emerged.
Gems have long been seen as symbols of power, wealth and status.
But their perception and use has changed over time. The word
gem now encompasses a larger, more democratic meaning. So should
the definition of gem change?
The definition has served well for more than 2000 years. But
there have been momentous changes. Many more gem materials are
available today thanks to sophisticated geological surveys, technologically
advanced mining methods and treatments, and generally increased
production. Volume has affected the notion of rarity and
skewed the perspective of what is beautiful.
Consumers still believe gems have an exotic and precious connotation,
says Antoinette Matlins, an author, lecturer and gemologist in
Woodstock, VT. But she fears consumers may become confused about
what a gem really is because they've been betrayed by the trade.
More than ever, she says, jewelers must educate customers
about the amazing ranges of quality and value in gems, including
full information about laboratory-grown and enhanced gems.
Matlins also believes there should be a special way to distinguish
that which is truly rare or special, that which Josh Hall describes
as a benchmark. As Kunz writes, "The sheen and coloration
of precious stones are the same today as they were thousands
of years ago and will be for thousands of years to come. In a
world of change, this permanence has a charm of its own that
was early appreciated."
by Robert Weldon, G.G.
||This magnificent sapphire from Kashmir has a
soft, velvety appearance because of minute inclusions. In this
gem, saturation of color and rarity are prized, while the degree
of transparency is less crucial.
|Some extremely rare gemstones like this
suite of tourmalines from Paraíba, Brazil command
astronomical per-carat prices because their unusual colors have
received so much publicity.
||Gems that are beautiful but not very rare derive
much of their status as a gem from the excellence and creativity
of their fashioning. This ametrine was cut by Michael M. Dyber
of Rumney, NH.
|Some gems are beautiful but not durable. For
example, superb rhodochrosite (shown) has a Mohs hardness of
only 3.5-4.5 and can be fashioned only by experienced cutters.
Courtesy of Evan Caplan, Los Angeles, CA.
Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.