The Joy of Gems

Gemstones have been treasured by humankind since the beginnings of civilization. Every ancient civilization found practical and decorative purposes for gem materials. The durability of gemstones lent itself to practical uses: ancient gemstones were carved and used as seals that acted as the bearer’s signature.

Egyptian scarabs are the best known of ancient seals; the Egyptian chief justice wore a lapis lazuli seal engraved with the image of the god Ma which represented “Truth”. Scarabs were also said to have the power to deliver the dead into eternal life. Of course, these gemstone seals were beautiful so they were also worn as talismans to protect and bless the wearer. The crown jewels of many kingdoms were pawned to finance wars of conquest and discovery; the best known was Queen Isabella of Spain who financed Christopher Columbus in his voyages. Fortunately, today everyone can enjoy gemstones.

The Beauty Factor

Nature’s creation of mineral crystals which are cut into gems is a miracle of complexity, the culmination of a process which takes thousands of years. Gemstones are purchased for many reasons: to add to a connoisseur’s collection, as a sentimental gift, as a fashion statement or to commemorate a significant occasion. Ultimately you should choose a gemstone for its beauty. The color of the gemstone is a result of subtle differences in the chemistry of the crystal. Color is also an essential element of a gemstone’s beauty; the variety of colors in gemstones is nearly infinite; every conceivable color can be found in a gemstone. Beauty is also influenced by the internal landscape of a gemstone.

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Gemstones may be transparent, reflecting out a fiery brilliance or they may have an internal landscape of tiny inclusions that create a mystical aura, a hovering star, an all-seeing eye. Completing the work of nature, the cut brings out the full potential of a gemstone’s brilliance, scintillation, and dispersion. Carved gemstones have reached a peak of perfection today that has evolved over the last 8,000 years.

Judging beauty is subjective: your preferences for color, shape, size and clarity will influence your gemstone choice. There is not single “best” gemstone, each has its own personality. To make a purchase that will give you years of satisfaction you must have the “gemstone experience”; this requires looking at many gems and getting a feeling for what is truly possible in the world of gemstones. With knowledge and experience you can become a discriminating buyer.

The Value of Rarity

Like the ancients, we value the rarity of natural gemstone materials. Gemstones are Nature’s limited edition: this makes them much more valuable than any man-made or synthetic stone that scientists can manufacture. Pricing gemstones is quite complex. Supply and demand economics govern the natural gemstone market. Factors that determine supply of gem materials include mining problems, labor problems and costs, politics, weather, as well as nature’s limited supply of deposits. Of the roughly 3000 species of minerals about 200 qualify as gem materials.

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However, only twenty species are commonly used as gems in jewelry. Even if a gemstone is exceptionally rare it may not command a high price if there is no great demand for the material. For example, fine red spinels are far more rare than rubies, but since the stone is not well known it does not command a price any where near the price paid for rubies of comparable quality. The romance of gems greatly influences the demand for certain varieties; natural alexandrite has a legendary mystery surrounding it; it is a stone many people want in spite of the fact that few people actually see the “real thing”. Prices for natural alexandrite of good quality is beyond most people’s budget. Demand for a particular gem will vary from time to time. Fashion influences the gem market; historical events can create an increase on current demand. Demand for sapphires and sapphire prices went up after Prince Charles of England gave Lady Diana Spencer a sapphire and diamond engagement ring.

The Aspect of Durability

Gemstones taken as a group, vary a great deal in their durability. Some gemstones are more suitable as “collection” stones than as jewelry stones since the strain of daily wear can damage them. Some gemstones simply require more protective settings. Durability is one of the aspects that make gemstones unique. Durability is discussed in detail in this book; to assure lasting beauty, some varieties should be set in a pendant, earrings, or pin or brooches rather than in a ring, which is vulnerable to sharp blows and the wear of everyday life.

Tanzanite heart, 16.39 carats, Tanzania
Cutting by Philip Youngman. Photo by David Dikinis

An Appreciating Asset

A fine gemstone can be set into a piece of jewelry that becomes an heirloom for generations. There is no such thing as a used diamond. Fine natural gemstones have a store of value; while you store this value, you can enjoy the pleasure and prestige of wearing the gemstone. The greatest appreciation in value over the passage of time has traditionally been enjoyed by the finest gemstones, the best of each variety.

Gemstones as an Investment?

With a few exceptions, gemstones have appreciated over a period of time. But gemstones as an investment is a concept that needs to be examined very closely. If you are making the purchase of a gemstone because you will enjoy owning and wearing it, this gemstone may be an excellent place to put your money. It will bring you a lot more happiness than a piece of paper. If you are looking at this same gemstone purchase simply as a financial transaction, proceed with caution. There is no secondary market in which you can easily liquidate your gemstone investment and receive the full wholesale value. If you are approached by a company selling gemstones as an investment, investigate the firm and find out how long they have been in business. They may be there to sell you a gemstone, but will they be there to buy it back?

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Where to Buy Gemstones?

Unless the buyer is an expert on gemstones, he should seek an experienced, established and honest jeweler or gemologist. A knowledgeable, established business person in your community is the one you seek. With him you can develop a relationship that expands your gem knowledge as well as your gem collection. An honest jeweler/gemologist will stand behind what he sells; hopefully he will be able to tell the buyer the background of the gemstone and will take the time to explain the carat, color, clarity, and cut, as well as any enhancement the gemstone my have undergone. He may best be able to fulfill your gem quest.

To evaluate the seller, look at his stock, does he have a variety of the types of stones you are looking for? Is he knowledgeable about these stones? What services does he provide? Will he give you “trade-ups?” Does he provide custom settings? Does he have the equipment necessary to give you the service you are looking for?

Approach “sales” with caution. If you really know what you are shopping for and take the time to do some comparison shopping, you will know what the best buy is. Some stores have perpetual “half off” promotions, “half off” of what? Take the time to compare the prices with other items of their same or similar quality elsewhere and truly see where you will get the most for your money.

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If you are an adventurous buyer, you may look for gemstones overseas or informal “bargain” venues like flea markets. To be successful at this, you must be knowledgeable an probably lucky. If you think you are getting a super deal of a ten carat alexandrite for five dollars on the streets of Cairo or Seoul, you are seriously deluded. Street hawkers are usually selling imitations. Gemstone dealers all over the world are professionals who know exactly what their merchandise is worth. For you, it is important to know you are buying what you want and that it is the quality that the seller says it is and that the price is fair.

Time Well Spent

Your greatest protection in buying is to be educated about gemstones and to take the time to become familiar with the gemstone market. You must physically look at the gemstone. Be informed enough to ask pertinent questions. If you do not receive intelligent, truthful answers, look elsewhere. Buying gemstones is really a lot of fun, especially if you know what to look for and just apply common sense.

Precious vs. Semi-precious

Traditionally, the term “precious stone” referred to diamonds, rubies, emerald, sapphires, and pearls, with the term “semi-precious” referring to all other gem materials. Today the term “semi-precious” is being dropped buy literate gemstone buyers and lovers. More gemstone varieties are available now than ever before. One thousand dollar per carat garnet or tourmaline does not deserve to be called “semi-precious.”

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Compared to “precious metals,” gemstones are far more precious. There are 142 carats in an ounce, so a gemstone that costs a mere $5 per carat would be worth $710 per ounce. This makes the gemstones more valuable than any “precious metal” compared to 1990 metal prices. It is perfectly acceptable to call a mined and cut gem material; “gemstone,” “colored gemstone,” or even “precious gemstone.”

See Also:

Gem Dealers’s Secrets – Handbook for the Gem Buyer – Table of Content

By Sondra Francis - Copyright © Sondra Francis, G.G. 1999
About the Author: Sondra Francis has scoured every major colored gemstone market in the world since 1978. She was a charter member of the American Gemstone Association and served as a board member. She was a founding member of the International Colored Gemstone Association. A true gem lover, Sondra has marketed her treasures on the wholesale and retail markets.
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Acknowledgments: A special thanks to Pam Dulgar, Alex Edwards, Cheryl Kremkow, Kate Kirby, Helen Mitchell, Carol Morgan Page, David Pond, Elaine Proffitt, and Ray Zajicek for their help.
Photographs: Bart Curren and ICA Gembureau ; Alex Edwards, Pearl Sales Institute ; David Dikinis
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