Why Are Some Gemstones Semi-Precious?
By Ron Nash
One of the most familiar distinctions in the gems world is that between precious and semi precious gems. But while you’ll often hear these terms, they are now officially discouraged in the gemstone business.
The idea that some gemstones are precious and others are only semiprecious is familiar to most buyers of colored stones. The precious stones — sapphire, ruby, emerald and diamond — command a premium price in the market due to their color, hardness and rarity.
Nonetheless, the conventional distinction between precious and semi precious gems is no longer sanctioned in the gemstone business, and with good reason.
In fact there are many misconceptions associated with this distinction.
One common misconception is that the distinction has a long-standing tradition, going back many centuries. In fact it is a fairly recent innovation, dating only to the 19th century. The first use of semi-precious to mean “of less commercial value than a precious stone” can be traced back only to 1858.
Another misconception is that the specific list of four precious gems has a long history. In fact the traditional list of precious gemstones is quite a bit longer and includes some surprising members. Pearl, though not strictly speaking a gemstone, was considered to be precious; so was opal. But one of the most traditional precious stones with a history going back to ancient Greece was amethyst. Amethyst was reclassified as semi precious after large deposits were found in Brazil and Uruguay in the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed the introduction of the term semiprecious into the English lexicon corresponds to the new amethyst discoveries.
These days a number of rare “semi-precious” stones such as alexandrite, spinel, jadeite, tanzanite and demantoid, spessartite and tsavorite garnet can be nearly as expensive as ruby and sapphire. Very fine tourmaline and aquamarine in larger sizes also command high prices in the market. It is fair to say that we have now reached the point where the distinction between precious and semi-precious gemstones has become meaningless when looked at from the point of view of price and rarity.
Opposition to the distinction between “precious” and “semi-precious” has garnered support from both the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and gem industry groups. The FTC periodically considers banning the use of the terms altogether to reduce consumer confusion. The American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) has already added the following language to their Code of Ethics: “Members should avoid the use of the term ‘semi-precious’ in describing gemstones.”
AJS Gems, Bangkok is a leading online dealer in fine gemstones, both precious and semi-precious gems. Semi Precious Amethyst