Did you know there are around 4,000 known types of minerals? About 200 types of those minerals create what we know as gemstones, and are found all over the world. Gemstones are coveted for their beauty, value, and sometimes surprising functionality.
The creation of gemstones begins with the formation of the natural and solid aggregate known as rock. As anyone who’s ever taken earth science knows, there are three basic types of rock. First is igneous, which is formed through cooling and hardening of magma. Depending on how quickly the magma cools and the amount of pressure present, it has a tendency to develop crystallizations, many of which are classified as gemstones. Some gemstones that are formed from igneous rock are diamond, emerald, garnet, quartz, and topaz.
Sedimentary rock occurs through the process of erosion and accumulation. Materials are loosened from the earth via erosion, and are then transported to another location. There, the materials make their home and over time form sedimentary rock. The more materials that settle, the more pressure is put on the lower layers of sediment. Pressure can cause a number of chemical changes to occur, and can ultimately create gems such as opal and zircon.
Through the process of metamorphism, metamorphic rock is formed as the chemical compositions of existing rocks are altered. Igneous, sedimentary, and other metamorphic rocks that are subjected to high heat and pressure can cause them to adopt new chemical compositions. This process can result in the formation of gemstones such as ruby, sapphire, lapis lazuli, jade, and turquoise.
The beauty of these natural treasures is apparent in the windows of jewelry stores, and emblazoned in beloved international valuables. For example, King Tutankhamen’s famous golden death mask was embellished with lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone found primarily in Afghanistan. The Mackay Emerald Necklace, now property of the Smithsonian Museum, is a 167.97 carat emerald discovered in the mines of Columbia. It was a wedding gift from Clarence H. Mackay to his wife, Anna Case, an early 20th century opera prima donna. The Imperial Crown of India, which belonged to George V, was adorned with a myriad of precious gems, including 6,100 diamonds!
One might ask what makes a stone precious or semi-precious. The truth is there is no definite method for determining a stone’s initial value. The concept of a “precious stone” dates back to the time of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and perhaps earlier. However, many of the stones that were considered to be of great value then, no longer have a high ranking place in today’s market. Whether a stone is considered precious or semi-precious relies on its desirability and rarity, which can fluctuate as time passes.
The four stones that are considered a commodity no matter where one hails from are diamond, emerald, ruby, and sapphire. Their luminescent sheens and staggeringly brilliant colorations have made them staples for jewelers worldwide. However, semi-precious stones have a tendency to be priced in the same bracket as precious stones, depending on their size, cut, and clarity. Amethyst, tourmaline, topaz, garnet, and many others can also be quite a commodity.
Funnily enough, there are a number of organic materials that have been classified as gemstones, when technically speaking; they’re not stones at all. Buried deep within Russia’s sedimentary rock, is a substance known as amber, or fossilized pine-tree sap that has been known to date back to the Upper Carboniferous period. Amber has been mined since the Bronze Age, and is desired for its bright yellow warmth and for the fact that occasionally, small insects, leaves, or twigs from millions of years ago are visible within it. Pearl and mother of pearl are also popular organic gemstones. While pearl is created by mollusks as a line of defense against invading grains of sand that may damage its body, mother of pearl is made from the actual shell of the mollusk. Both are coveted for the unique way they’re created, and also for their intriguing color schemes and glass-like finishes.
Not all gemstones are valued simply for their beauty, as some are versatile and useful staples in everyday life. Diamond, for example, is the hardest substance found in the natural world. In fact, the ancient Greek word for diamond is “adámas”, meaning “unbreakable”. Considering the fact that diamond holds the top spot on the Mohs Scale of hardness, it’s not difficult to see why. Accordingly, diamond is used in the industrial field to cut materials such as glass, concrete, and steel.
Many metaphysicists and new age practitioners believe in the spiritual and medicinal properties of gemstones, and their abilities to restore positive energy to the body. For example, stones such as emerald, citrine, aquamarine, and tiger’s eye are believed to promote mental health and sharpness. Agate, bloodstone, garnet, and topaz are thought to improve confidence. Certain gemstones such as tourmaline, opal, peridot, quartz, and ruby allegedly contain healing properties, and assist with various medical ailments. So, the next time you have a sore throat, try carrying a piece of blue tourmaline with you. Who knows? It might just help!