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Basics of Gemstones: Things to Know Before Buying

The mystical power of gemstones...

The only thing more beautiful than the shine of new gold, platinum, or silver is the otherworldly sparkle of a gemstone. Gemstones have fascinated humans for centuries, bestowing “powers” and remedies to beholders. They come in a rainbow of colors, and current technology has even given us the ability to replicate or enhance them.

When shopping for a new piece of jewelry, it can be difficult to decide which gemstones are right for you. Do you prefer a classic, solitaire diamond?💎 What color stone would you like? And what would you like the meaning behind your stone to be? Let’s discuss the many facets of gemstones and their role in jewelry.

Basics of Gemstones: A Rainbow of Colors on Chiffon Material

What are gemstones?🧐

Gemstones throughout history

Gemstones have a long history of importance, and gemstone names often reflect their perceived powers. Early cultures believed gemstones had mystical abilities: many believed red stones, such as rubies, stopped bleeding, whereas opals were vessels for rainbows. Additionally, warriors brought certain stones into battle for protection. There is even a list of gemstones in the bible that are thought to be the inspiration for birthstones.

Later, royalty often owned gemstones to display their wealth and status. Some of these royal gemstones, such as the Hope Diamond, have existed for centuries and are still revered today. Likewise, some have even permeated popular cultures, such as Jennifer Lopez’s pink diamond engagement ring or the Heart of the Ocean from the movie Titanic. Gemstones continue to fascinate people and appeal to their inner desire for luxury.

Jennifer Lopez Showing Fans Her Pink Diamond Engagement Ring

Jennifer Lopez shows fans her pink diamond engagement ring. | Credit: The Adventurine

What are gemstones made of?

Gemstones are combinations of minerals found deep in the earth’s crust. When exposed to high pressure, varying temperatures, etc., these minerals form deposits. Gemstones can be formed from a variety of minerals. For example, while diamonds are made of carbon, emeralds and aquamarines are two different combinations of beryl.

You can find gemstones all around the world, but many come from Australia, Asia, South America, and Africa. Huge companies and individual miners extract mineral deposits through various methods, and they sell them to companies that cut, polish, and perfect the stones for commercial use or retail.

The many methods of gemstone sourcing

Not all gemstones are natural, but that doesn’t make them any less special. Here’s a list of common gemstone sources:

Natural

Natural gemstones are minerals that formed organically in the earth’s crust. These gems are valuable because they can take years to develop. In fact, some diamonds formed over millions—and in some cases billions—of years!

Buyers have debated over the perceived value of these natural gemstones for years, and there are several groups who prefer synthetic stones to natural ones. Considering the irreparable damage to the earth caused by mining, it’s understandable that lab-created gemstones have become a popular choice among younger generations in their bid to save the environment.🌎

Aerial View of a Diamond Open Mine Under Blue Sky

Aerial view of a diamond open mine

Lab-created/Synthetic

Unlike natural gemstones, synthetic gemstones are created in a lab, but they are structurally identical. Labs take the same minerals used to create a natural stone and simulate an environment in which they take shape. This process can mimic the natural process or be an entirely different procedure that forms the same results.

Synthetic or “lab-created” gemstones are real gemstones despite not being “natural”, as they contain the same materials as natural gemstones. Some synthetic stones may show signs of being lab-created, but some even have inclusions like their natural counterparts for wearers seeking a natural look!

Simulant

Simulants are stones or other materials cut and polished to “simulate” the look of another gemstone. Simulated gemstones can be made of glass, plastic, or even other stones. Spinel is often used as a simulant, because it comes in a variety of colors and can be cut to look like many other gemstones.

Unlike synthetic stones, simulants do not resemble the stone they are intended to look like when subject to further inspection. Though they may not be real gemstones, simulants are perfect for the budget-conscious buyer who wants the appeal of a natural stone.

Precious and semi-precious gemstones

Many people inquire about the difference between precious and semi-precious stones. In short, precious gemstones include diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds, and every other gemstone is semi-precious. This distinction is primarily commercial, as the precious stones tend to garner higher prices than the semi-precious ones. In the end, the term shouldn’t be taken too seriously,😀 as all gemstones are precious to the people who purchase them.

The complex process of gemstone grading

There are four categories used to grade gemstones, referred to as the four C’s: color, clarity, cut, and carat. Let’s take a look at each category below:

The 4 C’s

Color

Colored gemstones are rated on three criteria: hue, tone, and saturation. “Hue” refers to the color that consumers can see: pink, red, blue, purple, etc. Gemstones can come in any hue—there are even black gemstones! The “tone” refers to how light or dark the stone is with respect to the lightest and darkest specimen of that gemstone. Finally, “saturation” grades the depth of the stone’s color. For instance, a pale sapphire would not be nearly as valuable as a deep, vibrant blue one.

Pro Tip #1
Diamonds are the exception to the color criteria, as they are graded on being colorless. They are graded with letters D-J, with D being a yellowish diamond and J being colorless. While larger differences may be noticeable to the naked eye, diamonds within one or two grades of each other are hard to distinguish without a microscope.

Clarity

Most gemstones contain some form of inclusion. Inclusions are tiny, internal imperfections caused by other minerals, fractures, or openings. “Clarity” rating refers to how well light is able to pass through the gemstone’s surface, and these inclusions tend to affect light from properly passing through.

Colored gemstones are typically graded on whether they are “eye-clean” or not, meaning whether they have any inclusions that are visible to the naked eye. To properly categorize them, gemologists break them into three categories: Type I, Type II, and Type III.  Type I stones are “eye-clean”, Type II stones have some inclusions, and Type III stones are very included.

Gemologist Inspecting the Clarity of a Yellow Gemstone

Pro Tip #2
Diamonds are measured slightly differently, as their colorless appearance means retail grade diamonds usually don’t have any inclusions that would be visible to the naked eye. However, they do have some inclusions visible by a microscope, and they’re rated on a scale of F (flawless) to I (included). Diamonds with a Flawless rating are some of the rarest gemstones to find!

Cut

Although a gemstone’s cut doesn’t seem important, it drastically affects how much the stone will shine. “Cut” does not necessarily refer to the gemstone’s shape, but rather the craftsmanship that went into cutting each facet and the balance attained by a properly cut raw gemstone.

When it comes to cut criteria, all gemstones are the same. Ideally, a stone should be symmetrical, with all parts in balance and no exaggerated features. Buyers should also check for “windowing” which is when light does not reflect back to the viewer from the bottom of the stone. A properly cut stone with a faceted tip will reflect light back through its surface, providing extra sparkle.🌟 Finally, always check the surface of the stone with a jewelry loupe or microscope to notice if the surface is polished or has small imperfections that could affect the “scintillation” or brilliance.

Carat

Carat measures a loose gemstone’s weight. As such, one carat is ⅕ of a gram or 200 milligrams. As with most retail items, the bigger the gemstone the higher the price.

Despite many buyers focusing on size, it can actually be rather difficult to distinguish between ¼ carat differences. For instance, if a 1-carat diamond isn’t in your budget, consider looking at ¾ carat stones that will be nearly indistinguishable from your original choice.

Pro Tip #3
Often, when a large gemstone seems unaffordable, buyers may opt to purchase a group of smaller stones clustered into one setting. While these stones may have lower individual carat weights, together their “total carat weight” may be just as high as that of a larger stone. It’s a great option for anyone who may not have the budget for larger gemstones.

Gemstone hardness

While not an official part of gemstone grading or certification, hardness should be taken into account when shopping for a new piece. Gemstones are graded on the Mohs scale of hardness, which gives consumers an idea of how durable their stone will be over time.

If you’re someone who abuses your jewelry, consider the durability of a gemstone before buying. The hardest gemstone is a diamond with a rating of 10, but sapphire and ruby are also great options at a rating of 9. In contrast, pearls are extremely soft at 2.5. Knowing where your gemstone fits on the Mohs scale is crucial to making your piece last as long as possible.

Gemstones chart: find what gemstone works best for you

There are so many gemstones to choose from that it can be a bit overwhelming! Below is a chart detailing the types of gemstones you’re most likely to encounter when purchasing new jewelry:

Gemstone Color Mineral Composition Mohs Hardness Precious Or Semi-Precious Value* Primary Continent of Origin**
AmethystpurpleQuartz7Semi$$Africa
South America
Aquamarinegreen-blueBeryl7.5-8Semi$$South America
DiamondcolorlessCarbon10Precious$$$$$Asia
North America
EmeraldgreenBeryl7.5-8Precious$$$South America
GarnetallSeveral garnet compositions6.5-7.5Semi$$Africa
Jadegreen, orange, yellow, black, white, lavenderJadeite
Nephrite
6-7Semi$$$Asia
Lapis Lazuligreen-blue, violet-bluerock~2.75Semi$$$Asia
Morganitepink, orange-pinkBeryl7.5-8Semi$$$South America
OpalallHydrated Silica5-6.5Semi$$$Australia
Pearlwhite, grey, black, pink, orange, yellowCalcium
Carbonate
2.5-3Semi$$Asia
Peridotyellow-greenOlivine6.5-7Semi$$North America
RubyredCorundum9Precious$$$$Asia
Africa
Sapphireblue, every color except redCorundum9Precious$$$$Asia
Spinelred, orange, pink, purple, blue, blackSpinel8Semi$$Asia
Tanzaniteviolet blue
violet
Zoisite6-7Semi$$$$Africa
Topazorange, yellow, brown, red, pink, blue, green, colorlessTopaz8Semi$$Asia
South America
TourmalineallTourmaline7-7.5Semi$$$South America
Africa
Turquoiseblue
blue-green
Turquoise5-6Semi$$North America

*Gemstone prices vary by color, cut, carat, and clarity
**Many gemstones can be found on multiple continents.

Additionally, here’s a chart of all birthstones by month:

Birth MonthBirthstone(s)Mohs Hardness
JanuaryJanuary Birthstone: Garnet Garnet6.5 - 7.5
FebruaryFebruary Birthstone: Amethyst Amethyst7
MarchMarch Birthstone: Aquamarine Aquamarine7.5 - 8.5
March Birthstone: Bloodstone Bloodstone6.5 - 7
AprilApril Birthstone: Diamond Diamond10
MayMay Birthstone: Emerald Emerald7.5 - 8
JuneJune Birthstone: Pearl Pearl2.5 - 4.5
June Birthstone: Alexandrite Alexandrite8
June Birthstone: Moonstone Moonstone6 - 6.5
JulyJuly Birthstone: Ruby Ruby9
AugustAugust Birthstone: Peridot Peridot6.5 - 7
August Birthstone: Sardonyx Sardonyx7
August Birthstone: Spinel Spinel8
SeptemberSeptember Birthstone: Sapphire Sapphire9
OctoberOctober Birthstone: Opal Opal5.5 - 6.5
October Birthstone: Tourmaline Tourmaline7 - 7.5
NovemberNovember Birthstone: Topaz Topaz8
November Birthstone: Citrine Citrine7
DecemberDecember Birthstone: Tanzanite Tanzanite6.5 - 7
December Birthstone: Turquoise Turquoise5 - 6
December Birthstone: Zircon Zircon7.5

*Birthstone images in this chart are from American Gem Society (AGS)

The difference between rocks, gemstones, birthstones, and crystals📁

So what’s the difference between a rock and a gemstone if they’re both just minerals? And how do crystals fit into the mix? Here are a few differences between these common minerals and structures below:

Rocks

Unlike gemstones, rocks don’t really have any specific chemical or mineral content. Furthermore, they do not usually have aesthetic and value implications, which are necessary to classify as gemstones. However, some rocks, such as lapis lazuli, do qualify as gemstones in their polished state, as they do have aesthetic value in jewelry and other trinkets. Needless to say, the lines can become a bit blurry!

Gemstones

Gemstones are minerals that have been cut and polished to enhance their aesthetic and monetary value. They’re measured by size, rarity, and durability, and they are prized in cultures all around the world. Their mineral structure is purer than that of common rocks, but they can have impurities and imperfections. The vibrant color of gemstones due to their mineral makeup is another way to distinguish them from rocks.

Birthstones

👉🏻Some gemstones represent a specific birth month, and we call these birthstones.

Birthstones are traditionally meant to represent characteristics, mystic powers, or colors associated with each birth month, and many people enjoy sharing a bit of their personality with others by personalizing their jewelry with birthstones.

For more information on birthstones or to search gemstones by month or zodiac, take a look at our Complete Birthstone Guide.

Crystals

Crystals are minerals with an orderly atomic and molecular structure. There are some crystal gemstones—such as rose quartz, amethyst, and citrine—that quality as such because of their durability, but most lack hardness. Furthermore, crystals aren’t usually made of rare components: rock salt is a crystal, but it’s far from rare or valuable!

Holding Amethyst Purple Crystal in Hands

However, one valuable type of crystal is Swarovski Crystals. These man-made gems are made in Austria, and their special cuts and secret chemical formula provide a sparkle that rivals traditional gemstones. Because they are man-made, Swarovski Crystals are a sustainable, budget-friendly alternative to real gemstones.

Precious gemstones: the brightest and boldest minerals

As previously discussed, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds are considered “precious” gemstones.  This does not mean they are the best gemstones, but rather they tend to sell for higher prices due to their durability and value. Read the breakdowns of each gemstone below to see which one is right for you:

Diamond

Diamond is the April birthstone and stone of 10th and 60th wedding anniversaries. Getting their name from the Greek word adamos or “unbreakable”, diamonds are extremely durable carbon gemstones.

Silver Diamond Ring on White Textile

Diamonds are notorious for their bright white color, but they can also be pink, blue, yellow, or brown.  A diamond’s sparkle is unique, as it reflects colorful light back at the wearer under any lighting. Originally mined in India, diamond mining efforts have extended across the globe in search of this valuable gemstone.

Thought to be stones of pure light, diamonds were considered healing gemstones that symbolize purity, beauty, and eternal love.❤️ They are the most popular stone for engagement rings, as their value and beauty are unmatched.

Sapphire

Sapphire is the September birthstone and gemstone of 5th and 45th anniversaries; their name comes from the Greek word sappheiros or “blue stone”. However, the term sapphire can refer to any corundum gemstone that isn’t red. In fact, “fancy” sapphires come in several colors: pink, yellow, green, etc.

Gold Sapphire Diamond-Cluster Ring on a Rock

Traditional sapphires range from greenish blue to purplish blue, and deep blue gemstones are most prized. Some of the most valuable sapphires come from India, but there are corundum mines around the world.

These gemstones symbolize healing, wisdom, and nobility. Sapphires also have a popular role in British history as the chosen stone for the engagement ring of Princess Diana, which was passed on to Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.

Ruby

Ruby is the July birthstone and stone of 15th and 40th wedding anniversaries, and its name derives from the Latin word rubeus or “red”. Rubies are the most valuable gemstone made from corundum, and they contain chromium deposits which make them sparkle as though they’re on fire.

Classic Ruby Gemstone Jewelry: Yellow Gold Ruby Statement Ring

Rubies can range in color from light pink to a deep scarlet. Ancient cultures associate the gem’s red color with that of blood, the life force of all living things. Rubies were thought to bestow incredible power and quell fear, but they also symbolize romance due to their red color.

Rubies sell exceptionally well at auction, and they have actually broken price records for having the highest per-carat value. The best rubies come from Myanmar, Northern Vietnam, and the Himalayas, where they actually form in marble!

Emerald

Known as the May birthstone and the gemstone of 20th and 35th anniversaries, the name emerald comes from the Greek word smargados or “green”. Emeralds are a form of beryl, and they range from light to deep green. The depth of their color also correlates to their value, with darker green gemstones carrying more value.

Gold Jewelry With Precious Emerald Gems

Symbolizing loyalty, prosperity, and hope, emeralds have been a treasured gemstone for centuries. Emeralds were first mined in ancient Egypt, and Cleopatra adored the gemstones so much she ensured they were included in all of her adornments.

High-value emeralds typically come from Colombia and India, but there are mines in Afghanistan, Brazil, and Zambia as well.

Make your gemstones a tribute to your personality

When it comes to fashion, gemstones have always played an important role in opulence. Necklaces and earrings coated with diamonds are often seen at award show red carpets, and loose gemstones are often used in advertisements to show the decadence of a product. As such, adding gemstones to your jewelry is a great way to create a high-end look with little effort.

Gemstones are a perfect way to reveal a bit of your personality with each jewelry piece. Whether you choose gemstones by color, meaning, or value, you can use them to create a bright, personalized look. While some gemstones command a higher price, it’s important to remember that value lies with the wearer. Whether your gemstone is a flawless diamond or a lab-created stone, what matters most is that YOU love it!🏆

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