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The Difference Between Precious and Semi-Precious Gemstones

The difference between precious and semi-precious gemstones may seem self-explanatory (“Precious gemstones are just more…precious!) And to some extent, you would be right. But it depends on when you ask the question. Precious and semi-precious gemstones have changed titles, in a sense, throughout history:

In modern usage the precious stones are diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald, with all other gemstones being semi-precious.

This distinction is unscientific and reflects the rarity of the respective stones in ancient times, as well as their quality: all are translucent with fine color in their purest forms, except for the colorless diamond, and very hard, with hardnesses of 8-10 on the Mohs scale. Other stones are classified by their color, translucency and hardness.

The traditional distinction does not necessarily reflect modern values, for example, while garnets are relatively inexpensive, a green garnet called Tsavorite, can be far more valuable than a mid-quality emerald. Another unscientific term for semi-precious gemstones used in art history and archaeology is hardstone. Use of the terms ‘precious’ and ‘semi-precious’ in a commercial context is, arguably, misleading in that it deceptively implies certain stones are intrinsically more valuable than others, which is not the case.

So as you can see, “precious” and “semi-precious” are terms with changing meanings. And of course, whatever gem you like is precious to you!

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