Long before we understood the chemical composition of minerals and the process of their formation, we developed stories to explain their origins, and a system of classification based on color, the most distinguishable trait. While our methods of assessing gemstones have long since evolved, one misnomer defiantly persists: the use of the terms precious and semiprecious. “Semi” is a misleading adjective, implying that these words stand in opposition to one another. We say it’s time to drop the “semi” and describe all gemstones as they are: precious.
Since the late nineteenth century only five stones have been considered “precious”: rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds, and, curiously, pearl, which is not actually a stone at all. Further complicating things is the corundum conundrum, with both ruby and sapphire being variations of this stone. Corundum comes in a beautiful range of colors, which vary based on their composition. Yellow sapphire gets its hue from iron and aluminum, while purple sapphires contain chromium, titanium, and aluminum. A ruby is made up of chromium and aluminum, yet we do not call it a “red sapphire.” Blue sapphire contains titanium and iron, and is the only shade of corundum simply called “sapphire.” Also, if this isn’t confusing enough, there are also red sapphires and blue rubies.
Our understanding of corundum and its many colors has done little to change how we describe jewelry, and the false dichotomy of precious and semiprecious is just as arbitrary. In fact, the way these two terms have been defined over time lacks consistency. For example, there was once a time when the term “precious” encompassed as many as sixteen stones, including zircon, topaz, and tourmaline, recorded in the publication A Treatise on Gems from 1838. Just a few decades later, these aforementioned stones would be relegated to “semiprecious” status.
The lauded mineralogist George Frederick Kunz acknowledged the complexity of these terms in his 1890 lecture at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, stating that “the value of a particular kind of stone is often due in great measure to the caprice of fashion or to some adventitious circumstances of time or place.” He goes on to discuss the rising popularity of semiprecious stones in the second half of the nineteenth century aided by exhibitions, trendsetting royals, and the discovery of numerous mining deposits.
For example, the Duke of Connaught (the youngest son of Queen Victoria) chose a chrysoberyl cat’s-eye engagement ring, making this kind of stone fashionable and, as a consequence, more valuable. The search for this stone also led to the discovery of moonstone and tiger’s eye, ensuring their popularity as well. As another example, Queen Victoria’s love of opal helped revive the stone from its long bout of superstitious unpopularity.
Kunz also remarked:
“Public interest in semi-precious stones has increased greatly during the last ten years. Formerly jewelers sold only diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls, garnets and agates; but at present it is not unusual to have almost any of the mineralogical gems, such as zircon, asteria or star sapphire or star ruby, tourmaline, spinel or titanite called for, not only by collectors, but by the public, whose taste has advanced in the matter of precious stones, as well as in the fine arts.”
The discovery of all these gems brought new life to jewelry design, inspiring jewelers to use them, and clients eager to wear them. While it’s been said that the jewelry industry came up with the term “semiprecious” to describe stones that were more abundant, it seems more likely it was simply intended to distinguish them from the more traditionally used stones. But this distinction wasn’t intended to have inferior implications. Kunz noted that such stones were also known as “fancy stones,” from the French phrase “pierres de fantaisie.”
Regardless of when the term originated and how it was defined, the distinction is misleading, as it implies precious gems are inherently more valuable, when a “semiprecious” stone like demantoid (green) garnet can be worth more than an emerald. They are both green, yet one is “only” a garnet. We say both are equally precious! The same can be said of a river pebble mounted in gold, transformed into a fine jewel as precious as a ruby, emerald, or… a green garnet! A gem is a gem is a gem, and we firmly believe you should choose the jewel that makes you smile, whether it’s a multi-color natural zircon necklace, or an old-mine diamond rivière. All gems are precious.
Anderson, Åse. “Where do semi-precious stones come from?” The Jewellery Editor. Accesed March 4, 2022.
“A Brief History of Gemstone Writings.” Antique Jewelry University. (n.d.). Lang Antiques. Accessed March 4, 2022.
Feuchtwanger, Lewis. A Treatise on Gems. United Kingdom: A. Hanford, 1838.
Kunz, George F. “Precious Stones.” Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania, Vol. CXXX, No. 3. United States: Franklin Institute, 1890.
Rapp, George. “Gems and Man: A Brief History,” EMU Notes in Mineralogy, Vol. 20 (2019), Chapter 8, 323-344.