Precious and semi precious gemstones

What is myth and what is reality?

Every gemstone buyer and admirer is familiar with the terms precious and semi-precious.  There are four precious stones, namely; diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald.  Traditionally, these stones command premium prices because they are extremely rare with brilliant colours.  The conventional distinction between these deservedly famous precious gems and their semi-precious cousins is laden with misconceptions, so let’s try to distinguish the myths from the reality.

One would think that the classification of precious and semi precious goes back many centuries.  In fact, the distinction between the two only dates back to the nineteenth century (1858) where the use of the term semi precious literally described a gemstone of less commercial value than a precious gem. 

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Did you know that amethyst is the most traditional precious gemstone?

In fact, the traditional list includes surprising members such as pearl and opal.  The only reason amethyst was reclassified as a semi precious stone is that large deposits were found in Brazil and Uruguay in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Diamonds are by far the most mythical of all the precious stones.  These myths however, are of modern rather than ancient origin. Traditionally, coloured gemstones such as ruby and sapphire were rarer than diamonds and therefore considered more priceless. In the 20th century however, large finds in South Africa created a more abundant supply of diamonds and the perceived value of diamond has risen to the point where it is at the top of the list of the precious stones in the mind of the buying public.

So, are precious gems not valued especially for their rarity anymore?

Actually, there was such a huge supply from the large finds in South Africa and so little demand that the British financiers of the South African mines were in danger of losing their investment. Instead, they created a diamond cartel called De Beers that to this day control worldwide diamond production and supply. Quality diamonds are not scarce, but De Beers control how much supply comes on the market and that keeps prices high.  The advertising campaign, "Diamonds are Forever”, was the brain-child of De Beers and the success of this advertising slogan has ensured that the diamond engagement ring is still the most popular choice.  Therefore, a diamond’s special position as a precious gem can be attributed to a monopoly of economics and social engineering.

Rare semi-precious gemstones such as alexandrite, garnet, tsavorite and tanzanite can be just as expensive as ruby and sapphire.  The minute distinction between precious and semi precious has meant that the terms have become meaningless to many.   The US Federal Trade Commission would like to consider banning the use of the terms altogether to prevent 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”.

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