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What are Precious and Semiprecious Stones?

semiprecious stones
A colorful collection of tumbled stones. All of these stones belong to the "semiprecious stones" category. Included in the photo are gold tiger's eye, gray Botswana agate, carnelian agate, fancy jasper, red jasper, green tree agate, sodalite, plasma jasper, blue chalcedony, eye agate, blue lace agate and others.

A Classification of the 1800s

Gemstones were first classified into the categories of "precious stones" and "semiprecious stones" in the mid-1800s. These terms quickly become popular and are now used throughout the world. Most people who sell gems and jewelry are familiar with the terms and have used them. The terms remain in common usage in printed materials and discussions throughout the gemstone and jewelry industry. However, many people in the gem and jewelry industry do not like these terms, and their use is controversial.

What Are "Precious Stones"?

"Precious stones" is a name that is usually used in reference to four types of gems: diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. Some people have included opal, jade or pearls in the "precious stones" class, but these have not received persistent and widespread use. Separating stones into "precious" and "semiprecious" classes has led many people to believe that "precious stones" are more important and more valuable than "semiprecious stones." This idea has somewhat been supported by the fact that diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds account for over 98% of the dollar value of U.S. gemstone imports for consumption reported by the United States Geological Survey [1].

What Are "Semiprecious Stones"?

The names "semiprecious stones" and "semi-precious stones" are used for all varieties of gemstones that are not categorized as "precious." Any gemstone suitable for being used in personal adornment would be included. Semiprecious stones include gemstones fashioned from: agate, amber, amethyst, aquamarine, aventurine, chalcedony, chrysocolla, chrysoprase, citrine, garnet, hematite, jade, jasper, jet, kunzite, lapis lazuli, malachite, moonstone, obsidian, onyx, peridot, rhodonite, sunstone, tiger's eye, tanzanite, topaz, turquoise, tourmaline and many other materials.

Some people believe that the word "semiprecious" is derogatory, irreverent, misleading, or confusing, and that its use should be discontinued. Perhaps the people who initiated this classification had the intent of casting all gems but a few under a derogatory light?

Unfortunately, eliminating the word "semiprecious" from use would be extremely difficult. Over the past 150 years, scores of popular books have been written with the word "semiprecious" in their titles. Today the terms appear repeatedly in numerous books, magazines, web pages, and other documents published by companies in the gem and jewelry industry, government agencies, and the most influential institutions in gemology. Purging these terms from professional use would be difficult, but, eliminating them from common use would be nearly impossible - especially because some people really like these names.

Does "Precious" Mean Valuable, Rare, Beautiful or Desirable?

The division of gemstones into the categories of "precious" and "semiprecious" might give some people the idea that "precious stones" are more valuable, more rare, more beautiful or more desirable than "semiprecious stones." Here are some of the problems with calling some stones "precious" on the basis of their value, rarity, beauty or desirability.

The "Value" Problem

In 2004 the Aurora Australis Opal sold for $1 million dollars, a price of over $5500 per carat. High-quality 8x10 millimeter jade cabochons weigh about 2.5 carats and can sell for as much as $25,000. Gems cut from red beryl have been sold for over $10,000 per carat. These gems have much higher values per carat than most individual "precious stones" sold in the United States market. These examples are clear evidence that semiprecious stones can be worth a lot of money.

The "Rarity" Problem

Many "semiprecious" stones are also more rare than precious stones. Red beryl, ammolite, benitoite, gem silica, demantoid garnet, tsavorite garnet, and numerous other gems are all found in a fewer number of locations and produced in smaller quantities than any of the "precious" stones. They are incredibly rare in comparison, but that does not earn them the term "precious."

The "Beauty" and "Desirability" Problems

Beauty and desirability are both properties that are based upon the opinion of the observer. It would be interesting to present excellent specimens of diamond, ruby, emerald, sapphire and opal to a random cross section of people and ask them which, in their opinion, is the most beautiful or desirable. It is possible that opal, typically considered to be a "semiprecious stone" would win or place higher than the "precious stones" in the contest.

A Consideration of "Grade"

Furthermore, the words "precious" and "semiprecious" do not consider the "grade" of the stones. "Grade" is a general measure of gemstone quality and marketability that considers color, clarity and potential price. Some rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds are of a grade that gives them a very low price - often low enough that large numbers of semiprecious stones will be more highly valued.

For these reasons, the terms "precious stone" and "semiprecious stone" are arbitrary and meaningless. If the terms suddenly disappeared from the language of gems and jewelry, there would be no loss of accuracy and precision on common communication. At the same time, a bit of confusion would disappear with them. For that reason the terms should be eliminated, but they are so entrenched in the industry and common usage that eliminating them would be essentially impossible.

Focus On What Appeals to You

A person who is interested in purchasing an item of jewelry should not be influenced by the names "precious" or "semiprecious." Instead they should focus on what gemstone appeals to them, suits their intended use, and has a price that they are willing to pay. The names "precious" and "semiprecious" are old and arbitrary designations that have never been truly meaningful.

All Gemstones Are "Precious"

A gemstone is a mineral or other natural material that has the beauty and durability needed for use as a personal adornment or an ornamental object. Some people believe that any stone that meets this definition should be considered as something special and "precious."

semiprecious stones
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Article Authored by

Brad Cole Bradley Cole: Bradley is the manager of and has authored much of the content on this website. He also does customer support, photography, maintains the website, and consults with customers about rock tumbler repair and maintenance.
Hobart King Hobart M. King: Hobart is the owner of and has authored much of the content on this website. He has a PhD in geology and is a GIA graduate gemologist. He also writes most of the content for