The definition of a gemstone is quite broad and can be used to describe any mineral which is highly prized for its beauty, hardness and rarity and it must have been enhanced in some way usually by altering its shape by cutting and polishing. Gemstones must have beauty and remain beautiful withstanding wear whilst preserving their polish or finish. Beauty may be because of a number of different factors including colour, transparency, markings, the intensity of their brilliance and the effects which can be seen as light hits their surface such as chatoyancy, iridescence or play of colour.
More than 4000 minerals have been identified but less than 100 are used as gemstones and the only ones to be of any major importance are: Diamond, Corundum (Sapphire and Ruby), Beryl (Morganite, Emerald and Aquamarine), Chrysoberyl, Feldspars (Sunstone, Moonstone and Labradorite), Garnets, Jadeite and Nephrite Jade, Lazurite (Lapis Lazuli), Olivine (Peridot) Opal, Aragonite (Pearl) Quartz in all its varieties, Spinel, Topaz, Tourmalines, Turquoise and Zircon.
Gemstones are still referred to as being 'precious' or 'semi precious' even though many gemologists now believe the term 'semi precious' should be dropped. The original 'precious' four gemstones are Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald with all others being labelled as 'semi precious'. Their unique quality has been valued for thousands of years all around the world by people of every culture, race, colour and creed and gemstones remain as popular today as they have always been.
The use of gemstones dates back thousands of years and it is known that people were using shells, bone, teeth and small stones or pebbles as far back as 25,000 - 12000 BC. Originally bright colours and distinctive patterns attracted their attention and when stones began to be shaped specifically for personal adornment, those that were used were soft and opaque. As technique improved, harder gemstones began to be used including Carnelian and Rock Crystal both of which are varieties of Quartz.
The purpose of wearing or owning gemstones has changed continuously throughout history, however they have always represented status and wealth. Many are attributed with having mystical powers and an energy which is unrivaled to that of any other tangible object, they are believed to have healing powers and have been carried as amulets and talismans for thousands of years. The Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians all believed that coloured gemstones had healing powers.
There are a number of ways of shaping gemstones, those which are opaque or translucent such as Agate and Jasper are generally either tumbled or cut as a cabochon (en cabochon) whilst transparent gemstones such as Diamonds, Sapphires and Emeralds are faceted. Tumbling is effectively the same process that rounds beach pebbles, cutting as a cabochon gives gemstones a rounded upper surface and a flat underside and faceting involves cutting the surface into a series of flat, reflective 'faces' called facets. This will maximise its beauty, in some cases enhance its colour and almost always increase its value.
In the English language, the word 'gem' (an abbreviation of gemstone) is often used to describe someone who is considered to be particularly special, highly thought of or 'treasured', for example 'she's an absolute gem'. In saying this it is a subconscious reference to something of great beauty, which is considered to be valuable and rare and most of all highly sought after.
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