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Precious Cargo: The History of Gemstones

Gemstones are rare, hard, chemically stable minerals. These characteristics allow the stones to survive in their original form for eternity. There are hundreds of chemicals in nature that can be classified as gemstones, but only 50 of them are used in jewelry. Others reach collectors. Most gemstones have a simple chemical make-up, and their rarity springs from their unique crystallization process, which is different for each gem stone.


Gemstones used for jewelry are hard enough to withstand cutting without being broken. By polishing the stone, the gem gets a unique geometrical form that highlights its color and brightness. Gemstones have three common attributes: their beauty, durability and rarity.


There is general consensus on the beauty of gemstones, and over the years some have gained in popularity over others. The most prestigious gems are the blue ruby, the blue sapphire, the green emerald and of course – diamonds. These stones excel in their color and transparency. Pearls have been considered expensive gemstones for years as well, although they are not minerals.


Gemstones have to withstand erosion, acids and other harmful materials, as well as chemical disintegration processes. After the polishing process, the gem has to be hard enough to keep its form and brightness of its polished surfaces. Any stone below 7 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness quickly disintegrates, and cannot be used in jewelry (expect for pearls).


The inherent hardness of gems enables them to withstand breakage. They are also stable, a trait defined as the resilience of the material in the face of acidity, its stability of color, its ability to maintain its color against sunrays and heat, and chemical stability.


Gemstones have an early root in history. There is evidence of precious gems in ancient tombs. In our region, gems from other regions of the world were found in several tombs, a fact that suggests vibrant trade. In the bible, Queen Sheba came to visit King Solomon, and brought gifts of gold and precious gems from Africa. The bible also mentions the high priest being adored in gems.


Gemstones were once attributed with magic powers and their colors were associated with different powers, such as purity and strength (amethyst) and loyalty (pearl).
Gems can be found in several countries, among them Myanmar, Thailand, Australia, India, Brazil, Colombia and Afghanistan.


Based on the introduction chapter By M. Sevdermish and A. Mashian, The Dealer’s Book of Gems and Diamonds, 1996.

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