What is a gem? Although you might not be able to give a precise definition of a gem at this time, few of you would have any trouble in recognizing that the images below are of gems. So then, what characteristics do they exhibit that allow you to intuitively recognize them, and cause gemologists or geologists to officially label them as such?

[Cabochon and carved gems, faceted gems]

A gem is a natural, mineral or organic substance, that has substantial beauty, rarity, and durability. Let's take each underlined part of that definition and examine it:

Natural means that the material was not made, or assisted in its making, by human effort. When such is the case, modifiers such as "laboratory grown", "synthetic", "cultured", or "man-made", must, by Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations, be used in the descriptions of any such pieces being advertised or marketed. Man-made "gems" have all the chemical, optical and physical characteristics of the natural materials they imitate, but they do not have their rarity or value. You can be certain whenever you see any of the above modifiers that the material in question is not of natural origin.

A mineral can be defined as a crystalline solid with a specific chemical formula, and a regular three dimensional arrangement of atoms. (In a later web lecture, this definition will be broadened to include "amorphous" materials which have a specific chemical formula but do not have a specific crystalline structure, for example, opal and natural types of glass).

Mineral Gems

Iolite, which has a specific chemical formula of: Mg2Al4Si5O18 and a regular arrangement of atoms which places it into a crystal system, with other minerals of similar structure, known as the orthorhombic crystal system is a mineral gem. Another example is emerald, Be3Al2(SiO3)6, a member of the hexagonal crystal system. (The attributes of the various crystal systems will be presented in an upcoming lesson.)

**Check the text: For a preview of crystal systems see page 19 in the Hall text.

[Faceted iolite, uncut emerald crystal]

Organic Gems

An organic gem is one that was made by living things, present or past. Examples include pearls, coral, jet, ivory, shell and amber. Such gems consist of the molecules formed by the organism, although these molecules may have beem altered somewhat due to compression or other geological or chemical forces.

[Organic gems: coral and freshwater cultured pearl earrings, faceted amber (enlargement showing fossilized insect within the gem]

**Gems such as "petrified dinosaur bone" and many other "stony" fossil gems, are classified as mineral, rather than organic. Although its true that bone is an organic material: the reasoning involved is that the original organic molecules and structures of long ago have been totally replaced with mineral solutions such as silica. (This common geological process is called petrifaction).**

[Not classed as organic gems: petrified dinosaur bone agate, cabochon cut from a fossilized coral colony]

Although none of the molecules from the living organisms remain in certain types of organic gems, such as the calcareous corals, the minerals they are composed of were secreted, originally, by the living things as they grew, not replaced later by petrifaction. Likewise, although substantial geologic changes have altered the properties of jet and amber, the materials still consist primarily of the original organic molecules.

[Classed as organic: calcareous "angel skin" coral carved beads, carved jet earrings, circa 1925 amber and jet cigarette holder: Image courtesy of]

A gem is beautiful. Beauty, of course, is a subjective concept that has many aspects, and differs from viewer to viewer, but in general, the attributes of gems which excite our sense of beauty include, color, transparency, luster, brilliance, pattern, optical phenomena and, in some cases, distinctive inclusions.

[Kunzite: color, transparency, brilliance, jasper: color, pattern, luster]

[Ammolite: color, luster, iridescence (an optical phenomenon), rutilated quartz: transparency, distinctive inclusions]

A gem is rare. There are two types of rarity involved: relative and inherent.

Relative: Many gem minerals occur in various locales and, often, in large deposits, but the vast majority of the material does not approach "gem quality".

Inherent: Other minerals occur in only a few locations or in very small deposits. Inherently rare gems are doubly rare as the fraction of an already small amount of ore which is gem quality is very, very, small indeed.

[Ruby: a gem with relative rarity, Benitoite: a gem with inherent rarity]

The mineral corundum (of which ruby is a gem example) is widespread and abundant. So much so, that an enormous amount of low grade corundum is used in industry for abrasives, due to its hardness (9 on a scale of 10). [Interestingly, very tiny, non-gem grade, corundum crystals have found use in today's beauty industry-->as the active ingredient in both medical "dermabrasion"agents, and over the counter "exfoliating" products.]

["Specimen" grade corundum $50 per pound (= @ 2 cents per carat): Image courtesy of Las Vegas Jewerly and Mineral]

Benitoite, on the other hand, is found in gem quality in only one location on Earth: the San Benito River Valley in California. Only a few ounces of cut gems result from each year's mining efforts, almost all of which are quite small in size. Ironically, this ultra-rare, nearly unobtainable stone has been officially designated as the State Gemstone of California.

[Pyramid of gem rarity]

Usually in a deposit of gem mineral bearing ore, the majority is not the mineral being sought. From the small portion of the ore which bears the gem mineral, the majority is too low grade to have any gem uses. For example, 80% of the diamond recovered from diamond bearing ore, is industrial grade.

Within the small amount of gem grade material, the bulk of it is of lowest quality and useable only for inexpensive beads or trinkets. The even smaller amount of better material which can be extracted, is mostly middle grade, or that which is used for cabochons and better beads and carvings. A tiny fraction is high grade and can be used for faceting. Most of the facet grade material has some defects in color or clarity that limit it to "commercial" quality gems. Only the most miniscule part of the original deposit is top grade: AAA color and flawless clarity.

Because the starting amount at the base of the pyramid for a gem like ruby is much larger than the starting amount for a gem like Benitoite, the amount at the top is correspondingly larger.

Finally, picture taking that top "highest grade" part of the pyramid and dividing it, again, into layers based on size: from small at the base, to large at the tip. Is it any wonder that the largest, finest gems bring astronomical prices?

Check the web: To view a list of the World's ten rarest gemstones, visit this site:

Speaking of prices: How valuable are gemstones? If you ask people at random to name a valuable commodity, many might say gold. And true, we do think of gold as valuable. Consider this:

  • Good quality amethyst gems sell for about $40/ct
  • Fine quality aquamarine sells for around $200/ct
  • Highest gem quality blue sapphire sells for as much as $2500/ct.

Pure gold, however, is worth well under $10 per carat! Down through the centuries, gemstones have respresented the ultimate in portable wealth. (In the next lesson, we'll go through the calculation that produced the cost of gold figure).

A gem is durable. It must be strong enough to withstand the stresses and forces involved in fashioning it, and its subsequent use as an ornamental object, or in jewelry. Most everyone has heard of "hardness" and knows that harder is better, in terms of using gems for jewelry--> but in reality, hardness is only the beginning of the story. There are two other aspects of gem durability that are at least as important as hardness.

Three Aspects of Durability

1) Hardness is the ability to resist scratching. Commonly measured on the "Mohs" Scale of 1 - 10. Talc lowest (1), diamond highest (10). Soft gems, especially those below 7 will tend to become dull through abrasion with harder materials in the environment, and lose their surface polish and their crisp edges over time.

2) Toughness is the ability to resist breaking or chipping. This property is measured in relative terms rather than on a numeric scale: sphalerite is fragile, diamond is moderately tough and jade is exceptionally tough. The lower the toughness of a gem the more susceptible it is to damage by the kinds of blows and knocks that are inevitable with frequent wear and use.

3) Stabilty is resistance to changes caused by environmental factors such as temperature, chemicals and light. Apatite is temperature sensitive, pearls are chemically sensitive, and Kunzite's color is unstable in strong light. Unstable gems exposed to common factors of the natural or man-made environment are likely to break, change color, or lose their luster.

Food for thought: Taking into account each of the aspects of the definition of a gem, explain why is each of these not a gem. (Answers to the question are found at the end of the lesson.)

Question One: An exotic butterfly wing, an industrial grade natural diamond, quartz beach sand, a laboratory grown ruby.

Classifying Gems:

There are any number of ways by which gems can be classified. The remainder of this presentation describes several of the most common ways:


Classified By Historical View of Value: "Precious or Semiprecious". These terms were routinely used (until about the 1980's) to separate diamond, ruby, sapphire, emerald and sometimes pearl, from all other gem species such as tourmaline, jasper and amber. Most gemologists no longer use these words and consider them out-moded. Why?

The term, "precious", implies rarity and high value, but, in reality, the individual specimens of each gem species and variety exist within in a full spectrum of rarity, and of value, from very low to very high. Some pieces of "semiprecious" gems are rarer, and more valuable than some individual specimens of "precious" gems.

[Precious? ruby (in zoisite) worth about $1-$2/ct -- semiprecious? Tanzanite worth @ $500-$1000/ct]

?So what should we call them then? Simple: ----> gemstones or gems<-----. These terms will cover them all, regardless of where a given piece lies within the continuum of rarity, beauty, and value for its species.

So seriously is this idea taken that the "Code of Ethics and Principles of Fair Business Practices" of the American Gem Trade Association (a colored stone trade organization) instructs members to "avoid the use of the term "semiprecious" in describing gemstones", and they have purged that term from all their publications.

Classified By Cutting Style: Faceted or cabochon cut: are the two most common ways in which gems are fashioned.

Faceted stones are usually cut from transparent rough of relatively high clarity. They are fashioned with a top (crown) and a bottom (pavilion) that have intersecting flat planes called facets, on their surfaces. These facets have shapes that are generally triangular, kite shaped or rectangular.

Cabochon cutting is most often used for translucent and opaque gems and such pieces generally have a flat bottom and a smoothly curved top called a dome.

[Faceted peridot, cabochon cut lapis lazuli]

The parts of a faceted gem:,

Girdle: The girdle is the divider between the top and bottom of the gem. It defines the face-up outline, and the maximum dimensions of a faceted gem. In well proportioned stones, it usually comprises about 2% of the total depth of the gem.

Crown: The top, the part of the gem above the girdle is known as its crown. In a well proportioned stone it makes up 1/4 to 1/3 of the total depth of the gem.

Table: The largest, usually central, facet on the crown of a faceted gem is the table. Generally, it makes up between 40 - 70% of the crown diameter.

Pavilion: The pavilion is the bottom, the part of the gem below the girdle. In a well proportioned gem, it usually accounts for 2/3 to 3/4 of the total depth of the gem.

[Pavilion view diagrams of round and emerald cut faceted gems]

Culet/Keel: The tip or line at the bottom of the pavilion on a faceted stone where the pavilion facets meet.

[Culet on a square cut stone, keel on an emerald cut stone]

**Check the text: See Lyman, pgs. 69-72 and Hall pgs. 26-27 for a survey of faceted cutting styles.

Classified By Origin: Natural or Synthetic

Natural: A natural gem is one produced entirely by geologic and/or biological processes without any human input or assistance.

Synthetic: laboratory grown, manufactured, or "cultured" by human intervention.

A synthetic can be a copy of a natural mineral such as corundum, amethyst, or pearl, or it can be a unique material not found in nature like YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet) or cubic zirconia. In addition to the use of synthetics as gem substitutes, they are also made for industrial, electronic, and research purposes. Examples include synthetic diamonds used as abrasives, and synthetic rubies and garnets used in lasers.

Classified By Treatment: Unenhanced or Enhanced:

Unenhanced: means (except for cleaning and/or fashioning into a useable gem) that the material is as it was yielded from Nature. The color, transparency, hardness, or optical phenomena have not been changed by man.

**Among the general public "natural" is often misunderstood to mean unenhanced--> but in the reality of the gem trade, the term natural, does NOT equal the term unenhanced. When gems are formally described and graded, the origin (natural-vs-synthetic) is a totally separate factor from the treatment status (unenhanced-vs-enhanced)** Unfortunately, many sellers know that by using the word "natural" in the description of a gem (which may be true) their buyers will assume that the gem is untreated (which is very likely not to be true).

Enhanced: an enhanced gem has received some type of treatment to change its characteristics: Ex. irradiation, heating, dyeing, oiling, laser drilling, etc. There are numerous treatments, some of which are routine, have little effect on value, and are considered acceptable as long as they are disclosed to the buyer, and others which are considered extreme and which dramatically alter the value of the gem. A treatment may increase, decrease or have no effect on the durability of a gem. (In a later web lecture, gem enhancement will be covered in detail.) The examples below are of some of the most common, well accepted treatments that have minimal effect on gem value.

[Routinely enhanced gemstones: black onyx (dyed to change color), emerald (oiled to increase clarity), sapphire (heated to change color), blue topaz (irradiated, then heated to change color)]

** Check the text: See Hall pg. 37 for some other examples of common enhancements

Classified By Intended Use: Simulant or Fake

Simulant: a material, either natural or synthetic, which is being used to imitate another material. Simulants look like what they imitate, but they may or may not share its chemical, physical and optical properties. Not all simulants are synthetics! These mimics are correctly termed either "simulant", "imitation", or "faux".

Ex. synthetic ruby can be used to simulate a natural ruby, but it is also possible for natural red spinel to be used to simulate a natural ruby.

Fake: any material which is represented as something it is not. The fake can be of man-made, or natural origin. **Whether something is a fake or not, is simply a matter of "truth in advertising".**

Not Fakes:

*A synthetic ruby offered as a synthetic ruby.

*Man-made red glass offered as a "faux" ruby.

* A cubic zirconia offered as a "diamond simulant".


* A natural red garnet offered as a ruby.

*A man made Moissanite offered as a diamond.

*An enhanced colored diamond offered as an unenhanced colored diamond.

Simple test: if the material is represented accurately, it is not a fake, if it is represented inaccurately it is a fake, regardless of whether it is natural or man-made!

Classified By Industry Terms: Colored Stones or Diamonds:

Gemologists put all colored stones together into one category and all diamonds into a separate one--> regardless of their color! The reasons for this is that there are great differences which exist in the systems for fashioning, grading and marketing these two categories of gems. This distinction doesn't divide cleanly, however, between all stones that show color, and all that are diamonds.

Some gems which are classified as "colored stones" are, in fact, colorless. Examples would be white sapphire, white beryl, phenakite and rock crystal quartz. Some diamonds have color, in fact, they are referred to as "fancy" diamonds, amongst which we find the green, pink, blue, yellow, orange, brown, red and black diamonds.

Classification is simple: is it a diamond?, No -- then it's a colored stone (regardless of its color or lack of it!)

[Colored stones: pink sapphires, faceted phenakite, rough rock crystal quartz]

[Not colored stones: black and white diamonds in a pendant, brown diamond rough, cut yellow diamond: Yellow diamond image courtesy of]

**Check the text: Pages 38 and 39 of the Hall book show 23 examples of transparent colorless "colored stones" and page 41 shows a number of others that are translucent to opaque white.

Classified by who will be the "End User": "jewelry" gems or "collector" gems:

This distinction is not as clear cut as some of the others. Although there are over 3000 species of minerals, of which only 100 - 150 have the characteristics that we associate with gems, and of these, only about 50 species make up a regular part of the jewelry marketplace. In reality, though, the properties of jewelry and collector stones overlap and grade into one another.

In general, a jewelry gem is one that is both durable enough to be used for most jewelry applications, and common enough to be found in the marketplace in at least moderate amounts. Aquamarine is a good example of a jewelry gem. It is both durable enough and common enough to be readily used, and is widely found in the jewelry marketplace.

[Aquamarine, a jewelry gem]

A collector gem is one that is either not durable enough to be used in jewelry, or so rare that it is not found within the common market channels for jewelry.

Transparent rhodocrostite is an example of a collector gem which, is not durable enough to be set and worn in jewelry, although it is abundant enough to have a place in the jewelry market if it were useable.

Clinohumite is an example of a collector gem which is quite durable enough for most jewelry uses, but so rare that only a few collectors are able to obtain specimens, so it is not found within the normal gem and jewelry channels.

[ Classified as collector gems for different reasons: gem rhodocrosite, clinohumite]


Answers to the thought exercise for this lesson. (If you don't understand why these are the correct answers, then it's a good time to email me and ask!)

1): Each of these items has some of the requisites for being a gem, but lacks at least one of the crucial defining properties. A butterfly wing is natural, beautiful, and may be rare, but it is not durable. Industrial grade diamond is natural and durable, and is rare, but it is not beautiful (which is why it is used only industrially), quartz beach sand is natural, durable and if you were to examine it under a microscope you'd see it is, in fact, beautiful, but it is not rare. A laboratory grown ruby is beautiful and durable, but it is neither rare nor natural.

You have now completed the web lecture for the first lesson!

Go back the the course website to: 1) complete and submit the homework assignment on the text readings and assigned web essays 2) take the non-graded practice quiz on this web lecture 3) post a comment to the discussion board for this lesson, and 4) when it is available, complete the graded quiz based on this web lecture.

When you're ready, proceed on to Lesson Two: Naming and Measuring Gems.