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January 2000

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 portability."

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 awareness.
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.

Debating Definition

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.


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