top of page
  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

Semi-precious? Says who?

Today, I wanted to tackle another one of those terms the jewelry industry uses – “precious gemstones.” When I was studying to be a gemologist, I learned that diamond is the ultimate precious gemstone. In the land of colored stones, ruby, sapphire, and emerald are the only three considered precious. We call the them “the big three.”  ALL other gemstones are merely semi-precious. So of course I wondered why that was! And who gets to decide that?

Precious versus semiprecious gemstones

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some sapphire!!! But I also love amethyst, and peridot, and opal. And garnet, which happens to be this month’s gemstone. In my view, our cup runneth over. We live on planet Earth, a place with a veritable rainbow of colored gemstones. To focus on just three seems totally crazy!

Precious is about supply and demand

As with many things in the marketing of jewelry, you are led to believe things have always been the way they are now. But the earliest use of “semi-precious” only goes back to 1858. And the four stones we now consider precious… well, let’s just say there used to be others. Pearl, opal, and amethyst were all considered precious at one time.

The textbook definition of semi-precious is “worth less commercially than precious stones.” If that’s the case, we should be looking at supply, since in theory, that’s what determines price. For example, amethyst was re-classified as semi-precious after a huge source in Brazil was discovered. Because, I imagine, the price dropped.

Diamonds, in my opinion, should not be considered precious. Yes, they are lovely and sparkly, but they are not rare. Their supply is simply tightly controlled by the monopoly of De Beers. I went to a talk one time where the speaker said there are enough cut diamonds for every man, woman, and child on this earth! And so I say again, diamonds are not rare! Beautiful and sparkly, but not rare. Expensive, and well-marketed, but not rare.

Truly precious tanzanite

On the other hand, I think tanzanite should be considered precious. It’s a truly rare stone, only found in one place in the entire world (Tanzania). Poor tanzanite is often overlooked, but it comes in beautiful blues and violets and honestly, is an incredibly pretty gemstone. It was only discovered in the 1960’s. It’s found at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, under geologic conditions so unique it’s estimated that we have a one in a million chance of finding it anywhere else on Earth! It’s a thousand times rarer than diamond and likely to be mined out of existence within the next twenty years.

Plus, tanzanite is cheap! For how rare it is, I’m amazed it isn’t more expensive. Get some now before the price goes up! You heard it here, gem gals! Forget investing in real estate or gold, tanzanite is the way to go!

Ruby versus Spinel verus Garnet

Let’s use an example. We’ll take a ruby, which everyone knows is a beautiful red gemstone. And we’ll also take a red spinel, another fine red gemstone. And then we’ll take red garnet, used since ancient biblical times in jewelry. If I were to line them up in front of you, the average American consumer, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them. They have a very similar red color range, and the difference in hardness is not significant. But people want you to pay more for the ruby, that’s why they call it precious. It’s marketing, not rarity. Spinel are actually more rare than ruby. If we just went by rarity, we would be saying the spinel and tanzanite are precious. And yet we don’t.

Garnets (top) and spinel (bottom)
Garnets (top) and spinel (bottom)

Rarity & Value of gemstones

Gemstones are supposed to be like so many other things – the rarer it is, the more valuable it is. But are rubies rare? Sapphires? Emeralds?

It doesn’t seem like it to me. I could walk into any jewelry shop and buy any of those. Especially if I wasn’t looking for a stone that was particularly large. Now, I will grant you that large, clear, natural emeralds are harder to find. But their price reflects that.

The precious versus semi-precious is not really about rarity or value. It’s about getting you to spend more on a product.

At a recent conference I went to, I listened to a mineralogist discuss garnets throughout history. It was absolutely fascinating. Garnets are pretty common, I will grant you that. They are found on every continent in the world. But she scoffed at the ideas of garnets being semi-precious! Because she knew, from her research, that garnets were used in jewelry for royalty. In fact, many museums have made the mistake of labeling a historical artifact a ruby when really it was garnet or spinel.

My point is that a beautiful gemstone is a beautiful gemstone.

Precious gems are precious to you!

Here in America, you hope the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or some other government entity is looking out for you, and trying to protect you and your wallet. From what I’ve discovered, the FTC occasionally considers banning both precious and semi-precious to avoid confusing consumers. But they haven’t as of yet.

Within the jewelry industry, the American Gem Trade Association has a code of ethics. If you are a member, it says very clearly that you “should avoid the use of the term “semi-precious” in describing gemstones.”

The next time a salesperson tells you something is semi-precious, I just want you to look back at them and raise your eyebrow ever so slightly. Because you know better now.

I guess what I’m really saying is that you should buy jewelry because it seems precious to YOU!


Have an idea for a post?

Tell me.


I love to hear from readers.

bottom of page