The world’s gemstone market is dominated by only a “select few”, despite the fact that there are actually more than 100 gemstones out of the 2000 identified minerals mined from the bowels of the earth. These “select few” enjoy the distinction of being called “precious stones”, while some are classified as “semi-precious”.
While the “top 4” gems namely diamond, emerald, ruby and sapphire rightfully deserve to be called “precious”, this naming convention that created the separation between what is precious and what is semi-precious is quite in its infancy compared to the actual history of gemstones in human society. In the United States, the use of the term “semi-precious” is actually discouraged by The American Gem Trade Association by explicitly stating in their Code of Ethics that members should avoid using it in describing Amethyst gemstones.
Our earliest ancestors were quite literally finding gemstones lying on the ground and not knowing what those shiny objects were, they called them many names; “tears from heaven” or “supernatural drops of blood”. They began associating the stones to the heavenly bodies circling the sun, and began assigning them to human traits they observed of people born around those particular times when a certain celestial body is said to be dominant. This was perhaps the earliest documented origin of the concept of birthstones, and it happened during the time of the early Mesopotamians, our first known astronomers.
During the time of kings, queens, pharaohs and emperors, civilizations of the world held no hard and fast distinction between gemstones. Some were more highly regarded because they were more brilliantly colored than the rest but all were still considered precious. They adorned their possessions with a variety of stones, from crowns and tiaras to swords, mirrors, wine goblets and everything else they valued. Even back then though, gemstones came to symbolize affluence, only used (and owned) by the upper classes.
Gemstones were believed to possess magical or spiritual powers. Each culture had its own beliefs and superstitions associated with gemstones, and these beliefs played a major part in their day to day existence. Volumes upon volumes have been written about how gemstones figured heavily in each and every culture that developed over the centuries.
The Middle Ages
This period in history was marked by hardships. Superstition and mysticism was widespread. The people’s deeply rooted belief in the magical powers of gemstones was especially strong during this era. They believed that gems could heal all forms of illnesses, ward off all evil and protect against plagues. Particularly popular during the Middle Ages was the amber. It was used on crosses, bead necklaces, healing rings and even board games.
Smarting from the devastations of the Middle Ages, societies of the Renaissance took to collecting jewelries as a way of concentrating their wealth into a form that they could easily secure in case the Dark Ages returned. Possession of precious stones in the form of family jewels became the norm. This period saw the introduction of the diamond into western societies from the diamond mines of India and Borneo via the Silk Road. Their growing fascination for this incredibly hard and colorless stone paved the way for innovations in gem faceting to make them suitable for the jewelry designs of the era.
People today think that the ancients have always differentiated gemstones, but this practice only began in the mid-19th century when people took to referring to some stones as semi-precious, meaning “of less commercial value”. Before this practice, the pearl was considered very precious although it is not technically a gemstone. The opal was valued rather highly, too alongside the amethyst. It was actually the discovery of large amethyst deposits in Uruguay and Brazil in the early 19th century that led to it being relegated to the category of being “less” precious, because its newly-discovered abundance rendered it so.
Technological advances in mining has resulted to the discovery of many more minerals and/or gemstones, some of which are so rare that they actually rival diamonds in value. A fine example of this is the Painite; found only in exotic Myanmar, merlot-colored and so rare that the first 50 specimens were numbered so that they can be closely tracked.
The diamond in reality is far from rare, but its perceived value in the eyes of the buying public was deeply established and its supply was so strictly and cleverly controlled by De Beers that even the discovery of large diamond deposits in South Africa in the late 19th century didn’t shake it from its top position as the most precious stone in the world.
There are many “semi-precious” stones today whose rarity makes them as expensive as rubies and sapphires. These include tanzanite, tsavorite garnet, demantoid garnet, alexandrite, tourmaline, aquamarine, and spinel.