“Precious” or “semi-precious”, what gives a gemstone value? The greatest contributors to a gemstone’s value are its beauty, rarity and desirability, according to the Gemological Institute of America, (GIA), the most highly regarded source of education in the gem industry. It has been a misnomer for many years to segregate gemstones according to the terms “precious” or “semi-precious”, yet this unofficial classification goes back centuries.
Traditionally the term “precious “ was reserved for the finest gemstones including diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, implying they are rare, hard to find and costly. The term “semi-precious” referred to all others, regardless of how rare, unusual, difficult to mine or how much in demand they may have been. The leading authority on colored gemstones, the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA), actually forbids its members from using the term “semi-precious.” In today’s world, with small single source mines producing unusual colored and rare gemstones, is it incorrect to refer to these gems as semi-precious. Some unusual gemstones may be popular and more valuable because they are the color or fashion trend of the moment, as with Tiffany’s creation of the market for blue tanzanite in the 1970’s. A cuprian tourmaline or a natural alexandrite, for example, are quite rare and beautiful and should not be considered less important than the traditional “Big 4”.
As long as human beings desire to adorn themselves with beautiful gems, producers will try to meet that need by finding the newest types and sources of gemstones. Hence, there will always be a wide range of stones available of greater and lesser value. It would be more advantageous to the gem industry to dispense with trade terms and to educate the public to call a gemstone by its correct scientific name, such as chrysoberyl, jadeite jade, or Czarite, modified by whether it is natural or synthetic. This name could be further modified according to its origin or its “phenomenal” properties such as chatoyancy, adularescence or color change. The practice of accurate naming would go a long way toward rewarding the status of a gem based on what is truly important in valuing it. The venerable high-end jewelry designer Hans Stern summed it up, “There is no such thing as a semi-precious stone, as there is no semi-pregnant woman or semi-honest man.” Each holds its own place in a continuum of rarity, desirability and therefore, value.