What is A Gem + All Your Gemstone Questions Answered

What Is a Gem

We all know that a gemstone is something beautiful that glistens in the presence of natural light. Gems come in an array of colors, shapes and various sizes. Beyond the sparkling aesthetics and the physical appearance of a gemstone, what is a gem? 

There are so many different characteristics that come together to create these impeccable stones. Today we’re diving deep into a discussion dedicated to all things gemstones. From the basic definition of a gem and advice on how to categorize them, to breaking down the unique traits that differentiate one from another. 

We’re here to answer all of your gemstone questions, so let’s get started! First up? 

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What is A Gem?

First and foremost, gemstones are naturally occurring specimens that are valued for their decorative and luxurious properties. Commonly used most often in jewelry, gemstones have always been classified as minerals. Hold onto that thought because we have more to add to this once-believed, now-outdated theory about gemstones! 

It’s difficult to come up with one simple definition for gemstones, seeing as there is a myriad of gems with diverse qualities. Straight up, it’s hard to squeeze all gemstones under one definitively titled umbrella. Yet the one uniting factor among gemstones is that they are each eloquently designed by mother nature. Many of them work their way into modern culture by means of elaborate and stunning jewelry designs. 

So, we’ve defined gemstones into basic terms, but on a chemical level, are they minerals or organics? Let’s get back to that tricky belief from earlier.

Minerals vs. Organics: Which Are Gems?

Gemstones have historically been thought of as minerals. By definition, a mineral is a chemical compound in the form of a solid, which just so happens to contain a unique set of crystalline properties. 

That sounds like a lot of chemistry terminology jam-packed into one definition, but essentially, minerals stem from rocks found in nature. The formation of minerals is different from the process of rocks, however, which makes minerals a far more valuable stone than rocks. 

Now, it’s not completely wrong to say that a gemstone is a mineral. For the most part, the majority of gems out there are minerals. However, there’s a key detail we can’t overlook: some gemstones are actually organics. What are organics or organic gemstones?

Technically speaking, organics are a subcategory of minerals, but for the sake of simplification, gemstones are classified as mineral or organic. To make this explanation more sensible, let’s explore the key differences between the two categories.

Minerals

Of the two types of gemstones, minerals are harder. Minerals are more scratch-resistant and they hold up in harsh environmental conditions far better than organics do. Minerals do not stem from living organisms in the way that organics do. Instead, minerals grow in layers beneath the earth’s surface. Whether in rocks, magma, water particles, or anything in between, minerals break away from parts of the physical earth to form into gemstones.

Organics 

Organics are incredibly interesting because they originate from living organisms. Take a pearl, for example. Pearls are found inside the shells of oysters, and as such, are a byproduct of a living organism. Three other examples of organics include amber, coral, and jet. Each of these fascinating specimens results from the actions of a living organism. Organics are far rarer than minerals. Despite the fact that minerals have greater durability and hardness rankings, organics are a novelty, thereby increasing their value tenfold.

The Many Traits of Gemstones 

Many defining characteristics of gemstones relate to their physical traits. From durability and hardness to the spectrum of vivid colors reflecting from a dazzling gem, you can tell an awful lot about a gemstone from its physical composition.

How Durable Are Gemstones?

Durability is a topic of great importance when determining the value of certain gems. Not all gemstones are made the same way, and as a result, the durability of one gem differs greatly from another. On the whole, gems are very durable. Since they are created from material very similar to hard rocks, gemstones are usually difficult to destroy, let alone break. Like every overarching generalization, there are exceptions.

For example, let’s have a look at pearls and opals. These are two of the far more fragile and easily breakable gemstones. Yet their delicate nature doesn’t stop jewelers from using them in their designs. That’s because durability is not the sole deciding factor in the value or popularity of a gemstone. So, what other factors define a gem?

Gemstone Durability Vs. Hardness

Hardness and durability sound like one in the same, right? In the jewelry and gemstone world, these are two very different qualities. While durability relates to a gemstone’s resistance to being crushed or chipped, harness relates to its ability to resist scratching.

Gemstones are ranked for hardness according to the Mohs scale. For example, a diamond tops the ranks at #10, the highest possible ranking. Talc, a clay gemstone from the mineral family, ranks #1, which in terms of hardness, is incredibly soft.

Essentially, the harder it is to scratch a gem, the higher the hardness ranking is. Durability and hardness often go hand-in-hand, but this is not always the case. Some gems have a high hardness ranking with a low durability score, and vice versa. 

Where Do Gemstones Get Their Gorgeous Coloring?

There’s a reason why another word from gems is treasures. These natural ornaments from nature shine and sparkle in a wide array of eye-catching colors. Yet each gemstone has a drastically different color from the next. Emeralds come in an array of deep greens, whereas amber stones can be anywhere from golden orange to a fiery yellow-red. And sapphires are every color under the sun (except red, which are rubies). Each and every gemstone is unique, despite being one gem out of millions. Despite the unique nature of gemstones, you might be wondering how the colors appear so beautifully from one gemstone to the next. So, how does each gem get its unique color? 

It all has to do with the way the light hits the gemstone. The chemical makeup of gemstones determines which colors are reflected and which ones are absorbed. 

For example, if a gemstone is blue like a sapphire, it means that the gem is absorbing every wavelength of color except for that exact combination of blue light. Another way of saying this is that sapphires absorb every single wavelength of color, except for blue. Apply this logic to any gemstone out there and it will ring true! 

The Science of Gemstones

Did we answer all of your burning gemstone questions? We hope so! Truth is, the science of precious gems, “gemology,” is so vast and vibrant that it would be impossible to summarize such a fascinating subject in just one article. Still, we hope we’ve enhanced your understanding of the dynamic world of gemstones! 

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