AskDefine | Define gemstone

Dictionary Definition

gemstone n : a crystalline rock that can be cut and polished for jewelry; "he had the gem set in a ring for his wife"; "she had jewels made of all the rarest stones" [syn: gem, stone]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. a gem, usually made of minerals.


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Extensive Definition

A gemstone or gem, also called a precious or semi-precious stone, is a piece of attractive mineral, which — when cut and polished — is used to make jewelry or other adornments. However certain rocks, (such as lapis-lazuli) and organic materials (such as amber or jet) are not minerals, but are still used for jewelry, and are therefore often considered to be gemstones as well. Most gemstones are hard, but some soft minerals are used in jewelry because of their lustre or other physical properties that have aesthetic value. Rarity is another characteristic that lends value to a gemstone.

Characteristics and classification

Gemstones are identified by gemologists, who describe gems and their characteristics using technical terminology specific to the field of gemology. The first characteristic a gemologist uses to identify a gemstone is its chemical composition. For example, diamonds are made of carbon (C) and rubies of aluminium oxide (Al2O3). Next, many gems are crystals which are classified by their crystal system such as cubic or trigonal or monoclinic. Another term used is habit, the form the gem is usually found in. For example diamonds, which have a cubic crystal system, are often found as octahedrons.
Gemstones are classified into different groups, species, and varieties. For example, ruby is the red variety of the species corundum, while any other color of corundum is considered sapphire. Emerald (green), aquamarine (blue), bixbite (red), goshenite (colorless), heliodor (yellow), and morganite (pink) are all varieties of the mineral species beryl.
Gems are characterized in terms of refractive index, dispersion, specific gravity, hardness, cleavage, fracture, and lustre. They may exhibit pleochroism or double refraction. They may have luminescence and a distinctive absorption spectrum.
Material or flaws within a stone may be present as inclusions. The gem may occur in certain locations, called the "occurrence."

Value of gemstones

There is no universally accepted grading system for any gemstone other than white (colorless) diamond. Diamonds are graded using a system developed by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in the early 1950s. Historically all gemstones were graded using the naked eye. The GIA system included a major innovation, the introduction of 10x magnification as the standard for grading clarity. Other gemstones are still graded using the naked eye (assuming 20/20 vision). For the past several hundred years, gemstones have been broken down into two categories; precious and semi-precious. Though today we think primarily of diamond, ruby sapphire and emerald as "precious", these categories are based mainly on fashion and the composition of these two lists has changed frequently over time.
Recently a catchy little phrase, the four c's (color, cut, clarity and carat) was introduced as an aid the help the consumer understand the factors used to grade a diamond. With modification these categories can be useful in understanding the grading of all gemstones. The four criteria carry different weight depending upon whether they are applied to colored gemstones or to colorless diamond. In diamonds, cut is the primary determinant of value followed by clarity and color. Diamonds are meant to sparkle, to break down light into its constituent rainbow colors (dispersion) chop it up into bright little pieces (scintillation) and deliver it to the eye (brilliance). This is a function of cut. In its rough crystalline form, a diamond will do none of these things, it requires proper fashioning and this is called "cut". In gemstones that have color, including colored diamonds, it is the purity and beauty of that color that is the primary determinant of quality.
Physical characteristics that make a colored stone valuable are color, clarity to a lesser extent (emeralds will always have a number of inclusions), cut, unusual optical phenomena within the stone such as color zoning, and asteria (star effects). The Greeks for example greatly valued asteria in gemstones, which were regarded as a powerful love charm, and Hellen of Troy was known to have worn star-corundum.
A factor in determining the value of a gemstone is called water. Water is an archaic term that refers to the combination of color and transparency in gemstones; used hierarchically: first water (gem of the finest water), second water, third water, byewater.
Aside from the diamond, the ruby, sapphire, emerald, pearl (strictly speaking not a gemstone) and opal reputable laboratories which grade and provide reports on gemstones.
  • International Gemological Institute (IGI), world's largest independent laboratory for grading and evaluation of diamods, jewellery and colored stones.
  • Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the main provider of education services and diamond grading reports
  • American Gemological Society (AGS) is not as widely recognized nor as old as the GIA but has a high reputation.
  • American Gem Trade Laboratory which is part of the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) the largest trade organization of jewelers and dealers of colored stones
  • American Gemological Laboratories (AGL) which was recently taken over by "Collector's Universe" a NASDAQ listed company which specializes in certification of many collectables such as coins and stamps
  • European Gemological Laboratory (EGL).
  • Gemological Association of All Japan (GAAJ), aka Zenhokyo, the preferred lab within Japan, also very active in the gemological research
  • Gemmological Institute of Thailand (GIT) is closely related to Chulalongkorn University, and has a good reputation for their gemmological research
  • Asian Institute of Gemmological Sciences (AIGS), the oldest gemological institute in South East Asia, involved in gemological education and gem testing
  • Swiss Gemmological Institute (SSEF), founded by Prof. Henry Hänni, offering a high scientific standard, and focusing on coloured gemstones and the identification of natural pearls
  • Gübelin Gem Lab, the traditional Swiss lab founded by the famous Dr. Eduard Gübelin. Their reports are widely considered as the ultimate judgement on high-end pearls, coloured gemstones and diamonds
Each laboratory has its own methodology to evaluate gemstones. Consequently a stone can be called "pink" by one lab while another lab calls it "Padparadscha". One lab can conclude a stone is untreated, while another lab concludes that it is heat treated .
Gem dealers are aware of the differences between gem laboratories and will make use of the discrepancies to obtain the best possible certificate

Cutting and polishing

A few gemstones are used as gems in the crystal or other form in which they are found. Most however, are cut and polished for usage as gemstones. The two main classifications are stones cut as smooth, dome shaped stones called cabochons, and stones which are cut with a faceting machine by polishing small flat windows called facets at regular intervals at exact angles.
Stones which are opaque such as opal, turquoise, variscite, etc. are commonly cut as cabochons. These gems are designed to show the stone's color or surface properties as in opal and star sapphires. Grinding wheels and polishing agents are used to grind, shape and polish the smooth dome shape of the stones.
Gems which are transparent are normally faceted, a method which shows the optical properties of the stone’s interior to its best advantage by maximizing reflected light which is perceived by the viewer as sparkle. There are many commonly used shapes for faceted stones. The facets must be cut at the proper angles, which varies depending on the optical properties of the gem. If the angles are too steep or too shallow, the light will pass through and not be reflected back toward the viewer. Special equipment, a faceting machine, is used to hold the stone onto a flat lap for cutting and polishing the flat facets. Rarely, some cutters use special curved laps to cut and polish curved facets.

Gemstone color

Color is the most obvious and attractive feature of gemstones. The color of any material is due to the nature of light itself. Daylight, often called white light, is actually a mixture of different colors of light. When light passes through a material, some of the light may be absorbed, while the rest passes through. The part that is not absorbed reaches the eye as white light minus the absorbed colors. A ruby appears red because it absorbs all the other colors of white light - blue, yellow, green, etc. - except red.
The same material can exhibit different colors. For example ruby and sapphire have the same chemical composition (both are corundum) but exhibit different colors. Even the same gemstone can occur in many different colors: sapphires show different shades of blue and pink and "fancy sapphires" exhibit a whole range of other colors from yellow to orange-pink, the latter called "Padparadscha sapphire".
This difference in color is based on the atomic structure of the stone. Although the different stones formally have the same chemical composition, they are not exactly the same. Every now and then an atom is replaced by a completely different atom (and this could be as few as one in a million atoms). These so called impurities are sufficient to absorb certain colors and leave the other colors unaffected.
As an example: beryl, which is colorless in its pure mineral form, becomes emerald with chromium impurities. If you add manganese instead of chromium, beryl becomes pink morganite. With iron, it becomes aquamarine.
Some gemstone treatments make use of the fact that these impurities can be "manipulated", thus changing the color of the gem.

Treatments applied to gemstones

Gemstones are often treated to enhance the color or clarity of the stone. Depending on the type and extent of treatment, they can affect the value of the stone. Some treatments are used widely because the resulting gem is stable, while others are not accepted most commonly because the gem color is unstable and may revert to the original tone.


Heat can improve gemstone color or clarity. Most citrine is made by heating amethyst, and partial heating with a strong gradient results in ametrine - a stone partly amethyst and partly citrine. Much aquamarine is heat treated to remove yellow tones, change the green color into the more desirable blue or enhance its existing blue color to a purer blue.
Nearly all tanzanite is heated at low temperatures to remove brown undertones and give a more desirable blue/purple color. A considerable portion of all sapphire and ruby is treated with a variety of heat treatments to improve both color and clarity.
When jewelry containing diamonds is heated(for repairs) the diamond should be protected with boracic acid; otherwise it could be burned on the surface or even burned completely up. When jewelry containing sapphires or rubies is heated(for repairs) it should not be coated with boracic acid or any other substance, as this can etch the surface; it does not have to be "protected" like a diamond.


Most blue topaz, both the lighter and the darker blue shades such as "London" blue, has been irradiated to change the color from white to blue. Some improperly handled gems which do not pass through normal legal channels may have a slight residual radiation, though strong requirements on imported stones are in place to ensure public safety. Most greened quartz (Oro Verde) is also irradiated to achieve the yellow-green color.


Emeralds containing natural fissures are sometimes filled with wax or oil to disguise them. This wax or oil is also colored to make the emerald appear of better color as well as clarity. Turquoise is also commonly treated in a similar manner.

Fracture filling

Fracture filling has been in use with different gemstones such as diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. More recently (in 2006) "Glass Filled Rubies" received a lot of publicity. Rubies over 10 carat (2 g), particularly sold in the Asian market with large fractures were filled with lead glass, thus dramatically improving the appearance (of larger rubies in particular). Such treatments are fairly easy to detect.

Synthetic and artificial gemstones

Some gemstones are manufactured to imitate other gemstones. For example, cubic zirconia is a synthetic diamond simulant composed of zirconium oxide. The imitations copy the look and color of the real stone but possess neither their chemical nor physical characteristics.
However, lab created gemstones are not imitations. For example, diamonds, ruby, sapphires and emeralds have been manufactured in labs to possess identical chemical and physical characteristics to the naturally occurring variety. Synthetic (lab created) corundums, including ruby and sapphire, are very common and they cost only a fraction of the natural stones. Smaller synthetic diamonds have been manufactured in large quantities as industrial abrasives. Larger synthetic diamonds of gemstone quality, especially of the colored variety, are also manufactured.
Whether a gemstone is a natural stone or a lab-created (synthetic) stone, the characteristics of each are the same. Lab-created stones tend to have a more vivid color to them, as impurities are not present in a lab, so therefore do not affect the clarity or color of the stone. However, natural gemstones are still considered more valuable on average due to their relative scarcity.
The origin of the gemstone also does not affect its categorization as precious or semi-precious. Rubies, sapphires and emeralds are always precious stones, while other gems are considered semi-precious.
gemstone in Afrikaans: Edelsteen
gemstone in Arabic: أحجار كريمة
gemstone in Asturian: Xema (xeoloxía)
gemstone in Bulgarian: Скъпоценен камък
gemstone in Catalan: Gemma
gemstone in Czech: Drahokam
gemstone in Danish: Smykkesten
gemstone in German: Schmuckstein
gemstone in Estonian: Vääriskivi
gemstone in Spanish: Gema
gemstone in Esperanto: Gemo
gemstone in Persian: سنگ‌های قیمتی
gemstone in French: Gemme
gemstone in Indonesian: Batu permata
gemstone in Italian: Pietra preziosa
gemstone in Hebrew: אבן חן
gemstone in Javanese: Watu permata
gemstone in Swahili (macrolanguage): Kito
gemstone in Latin: Gemma (lapis)
gemstone in Latvian: Dārgakmens
gemstone in Luxembourgish: Eedelsteen
gemstone in Lithuanian: Brangakmenis
gemstone in Hungarian: Drágakő
gemstone in Dutch: Edelsteen
gemstone in Japanese: 宝石
gemstone in Norwegian: Edelsten
gemstone in Norwegian Nynorsk: Smykkestein
gemstone in Polish: Kamienie szlachetne
gemstone in Portuguese: Gema (mineralogia)
gemstone in Romanian: Piatră preţioasă
gemstone in Quechua: Umiña
gemstone in Russian: Драгоценные камни
gemstone in Simple English: Jewel
gemstone in Slovak: Drahokam
gemstone in Slovenian: Dragulj
gemstone in Serbian: Драго камење
gemstone in Finnish: Jalokivi
gemstone in Swedish: Ädelsten
gemstone in Thai: อัญมณี
gemstone in Vietnamese: Ngọc
gemstone in Ukrainian: Дорогоцінне каміння
gemstone in Urdu: جواہرات
gemstone in Chinese: 寶石
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