A gemstone or gem (also called a precious or semi-precious stone, or jewel) is a piece of attractive mineral, which - when cut and polished - is used to make jewelry or other adornments. However certain rocks, (such as lapis-lazuli) and organic materials (such as amber or jet) are not minerals, but are still used for jewelry, and are therefore often considered to be gemstones as well. Most gemstones are hard, but some soft minerals are used in jewelry because of their lustre or other physical properties that have aesthetic value. Rarity is another characteristic that lends value to a gemstone.
The traditional classification in the West, which goes back to the Ancient Greeks, begins with a distinction between precious and semi-precious stones; similar distinctions are made in other cultures. In modern usage the precious stones are diamond, ruby, emerald and sapphire, with all other gemstones being semi-precious. This distinction is unscientific and reflects the rarity of the respective stones in ancient times, as well as their quality: all are translucent with fine color in their purest forms, except for the colorless diamond, and very hard, with hardnesses of 8-10 on the Mohs scale. Other stones are classified by their color, translucency and hardness. The traditional distinction does not necessarily reflect modern values, for example, while garnets are relatively inexpensive, a green garnet called Tsavorite, can be far more valuable than a mid-quality emerald. Another unscientific term for semi-precious gemstones used in art history and archaeology is hardstone. Use of the terms 'precious' and 'semi-precious' in a commercial context is, arguably, misleading in that it deceptively implies certain stones are intrinsically more valuable than others, which is not the case.
In modern times gemstones are identified by gemologists, who describe gems and their characteristics using technical terminology specific to the field of gemology. The first characteristic a gemologist uses to identify a gemstone is its chemical composition. For example, diamonds are made of carbon and rubies of aluminium oxide. Next, many gems are crystals which are classified by their crystal system such as cubic or trigonal or monoclinic. Another term used is habit, the form the gem is usually found in. For example diamonds, which have a cubic crystal system, are often found as octahedrons.
Gemstones are classified into different groups, species, and varieties. For example, ruby is the red variety of the species corundum, while any other color of corundum is considered sapphire. Emerald (green), aquamarine (blue), bixbite (red), goshenite (colorless), heliodor (yellow), and morganite (pink) are all varieties of the mineral species beryl.
Gems are characterized in terms of refractive index, dispersion, specific gravity, hardness, cleavage, fracture, and luster. They may exhibit pleochroism or double refraction. They may have luminescence and a distinctive absorption spectrum.
Material or flaws within a stone may be present as inclusions.
There are no universally accepted grading systems for any gemstone other than white (colorless) diamond. Diamonds are graded using a system developed by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in the early 1950s. Historically all gemstones were graded using the naked eye. The GIA system included a major innovation, the introduction of 10x magnification as the standard for grading clarity. Other gemstones are still graded using the naked eye (assuming 20/20 vision).
A mnemonic device, the "four C's" (color, cut, clarity and carat), has been introduced to help the consumer understand the factors used to grade a diamond. With modification these categories can be useful in understanding the grading of all gemstones. The four criteria carry different weight depending upon whether they are applied to colored gemstones or to colorless diamond. In diamonds, cut is the primary determinant of value followed by clarity and color. Diamonds are meant to sparkle, to break down light into its constituent rainbow colors (dispersion) chop it up into bright little pieces (scintillation) and deliver it to the eye (brilliance). In its rough crystalline form, a diamond will do none of these things, it requires proper fashioning and this is called "cut". In gemstones that have color, including colored diamonds, it is the purity and beauty of that color that is the primary determinant of quality.
Physical characteristics that make a colored stone valuable are color, clarity to a lesser extent (emeralds will always have a number of inclusions), cut, unusual optical phenomena within the stone such as color zoning, and asteria (star effects). The Greeks for example greatly valued asteria in gemstones, which were regarded as a powerful love charm, and Helen of Troy was known to have worn star-corundum.
Historically gemstones were classified into precious stones and semi-precious stones. Because such a definition can change over time and vary with culture, it has always been a difficult matter to determine what constitutes precious stones.
Aside from the diamond, the ruby, sapphire, emerald, pearl (strictly speaking not a gemstone) and opal have also been considered to be precious. Up to the discoveries of bulk amethyst in Brazil in the 19th century, amethyst was considered a precious stone as well, going back to ancient Greece. Even in the last century certain stones such as aquamarine, peridot and cat's eye have been popular and hence been regarded as precious.
Nowadays such a distinction is no longer made by the trade. Many gemstones are used in even the most expensive jewelry, depending on the brand name of the designer, fashion trends, market supply, treatments etc. Nevertheless, diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds still have a reputation that exceeds those of other gemstones.
Rare or unusual gemstones, generally meant to include those gemstones which occur so infrequently in gem quality that they are scarcely known except to connoisseurs, include andalusite, axinite, cassiterite, clinohumite and bixbite.
A few gemstones are used as gems in the crystal or other form in which they are found. Most however, are cut and polished for usage as jewelry. The two main classifications are stones cut as smooth, dome shaped stones called cabochons, and stones which are cut with a faceting machine by polishing small flat windows called facets at regular intervals at exact angles.
Stones which are opaque such as opal, turquoise, variscite, etc. are commonly cut as cabochons. These gems are designed to show the stone's color or surface properties as in opal and star sapphires. Grinding wheels and polishing agents are used to grind, shape and polish the smooth dome shape of the stones.
Gems which are transparent are normally faceted, a method which shows the optical properties of the stone's interior to its best advantage by maximizing reflected light which is perceived by the viewer as sparkle. There are many commonly used shapes for faceted stones. The facets must be cut at the proper angles, which varies depending on the optical properties of the gem. If the angles are too steep or too shallow, the light will pass through and not be reflected back toward the viewer. The faceting machine is used to hold the stone onto a flat lap for cutting and polishing the flat facets. Rarely, some cutters use special curved laps to cut and polish curved facets.
Color is the most obvious and attractive feature of gemstones. The color of any material is due to the nature of light itself. Daylight, often called white light, is actually a mixture of different colors of light. When light passes through a material, some of the light may be absorbed, while the rest passes through. The part that is not absorbed reaches the eye as white light minus the absorbed colors. A ruby appears red because it absorbs all the other colors of white light (blue, yellow, green, etc.) except red.
The same material can exhibit different colors. For example ruby and sapphire have the same chemical composition (both are corundum) but exhibit different colors. Even the same gemstone can occur in many different colors: sapphires show different shades of blue and pink and "fancy sapphires" exhibit a whole range of other colors from yellow to orange-pink, the latter called "Padparadscha sapphire".
This difference in color is based on the atomic structure of the stone. Although the different stones formally have the same chemical composition, they are not exactly the same. Every now and then an atom is replaced by a completely different atom (and this could be as few as one in a million atoms). These so called impurities are sufficient to absorb certain colors and leave the other colors unaffected.
For example, beryl, which is colorless in its pure mineral form, becomes emerald with chromium impurities. If you add manganese instead of chromium, beryl becomes pink morganite. With iron, it becomes aquamarine.