We need to ditch the semi-precious phrase. Stat.
In our overwhelming human need to stratify and rank, the jewelry industry ended up with a few arbitrary jewels crowned as the pinnacle. “Precious” gemstones: ruby, sapphire, and emerald. The rest: lumped ignominiously somewhere distantly behind as “semi-precious.” As in, not-quite precious. Lesser-than precious. Partly precious.
Words matter. If someone chooses a moonstone as an engagement ring, is that any less valuable in their eyes than a diamond or a “precious” colored gem? I have tried on a blue tourmaline the size of a small goose egg that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, according to traditional nomenclature, tourmaline is a semi-precious gem!
Andrea Hansen, jewelry industry expert, Women’s Jewelry Association President, and founder of Luxe Intelligence, has a particularly apt quote about this from Hans Stern, of venerable H. Stern renown: “There is no such thing as a semi-precious stone, as there is no semi-pregnant woman or semi-honest man.” According to Andrea, this was more than a phrase for him–it was both a mantra and life tenet.
The subject of color seems to bring up more passionate responses than for say, diamond grading terms or what to call the latest earring style. Humans are literally attuned to sensing hue and saturation, and react to it instinctively. Gems in every color and variety have a rich, tapestried history in meaning and even healing properties. It’s in our DNA to appreciate and adorn.
Jewelry designer Erica Courtney is known for her savant color sense. Her designs using gemstones consistently win AGTA Spectrum Awards and grace celebrities on the red carpet. Erica works hard for her color: she literally travels the world in search of breathtaking hues, often embodied in rare gemstones from far-flung places. I asked Erica to clarify how she refers to the colored gemstones in her jewelry, and she says, “Sometimes my so-called semi-precious gems cost more than any one of the original few gemstones referred to as precious (ruby, sapphire, emerald). In the world of fabulous gemstones some of them are so rare that sometimes I tell people that I can’t get you another one, even if you give me $10 million dollars. I know this true for some of them, because I shop all over the world in search of the best and there might be a few, but never the same size, shape, or quality as the one we are looking at.
“If a ring is $75,000, with a 10 carat Mandarin Garnet, or a 20 carat Csarite that exhibits a magnificent color change, how can that be considered semi-precious? These superstar gemstones are far more rare and unusual, and should be given the proper classification of ‘Precious’, if not ‘Precious and Rare’ nomenclature. I could never sell anything at some of these values if they weren’t precious and rare and fabulous gemstones. Seriously, is it considered a semi-precious gift?” Erica concludes.
Malak Atut of ZAIKEN Jewelry, frequently uses colored gemstones in arresting combinations, with hues in one-of-a-kind saturations. She shared her sentiments about colored gemstones and the impact of calling something “semi”: “I cringe a bit when I hear ‘semi-precious stones’…there are many instances where a gem that is outside the traditional definition of ‘The Precious Posse (PP)’–diamond, emerald, ruby, sapphire–can be of greater value. When you think of how all gems are formed in nature, with so many unique circumstances that have to be just right for their creation, that in itself makes them precious. Add to that expert lapidary and unique faceting, and those stones certainly become more valuable, and interesting.
“It is time to expand the ‘Precious Posse,’ Malak continues, “and the idea of what is precious in the minds of consumers/retailers. Take alexandrite (a stone that regularly occupies my fantasies), and look at the market value, supply, and its inherent color change characteristics, and tell me that it is not precious? The same could be said of opals, tourmalines–namely Paraiba–and moonstones. Additionally, there is a huge range in the quality of the ‘PP’: there are countless instances where a tourmaline or tanzanite can be worth more than a ‘Precious Posse’ gemstone.”
How did we end up with an incorrect and outdated term that still routinely separates gemstones? The classification of precious versus semi-precious goes back centuries. If you consider the relative limited availability and access to gemstones at that time, these terms probably made more sense in that historical context–though amethyst and opal were considered precious until larger deposits were discovered in the 19th century.
Why is the jewelry trade still using this term? Tradition may have a lot to do with it. Jewelry is ancient, and many of its techniques and terms reflect that age and wisdom. While it’s admirable that jewelry manages to acknowledge its history, we also need to recognize when a phrase is not serving us well, and be able to let go and move on.
I have been to the gem mines of East Africa with the jewelry documentary Sharing the Rough. When you see first-hand the effort it takes to find, mine and cut these gems, you have an entirely new appreciation for all gems. It is disrespectful to the people involved in the gem trade, whose hard work gets these gems to market, to diminish their value in anyone’s eyes with a diminutive “semi.”
To label the rainbow, let’s call a gemstone by its given name: Chrysoberyl, Indicolite, Phenakite. If they are from the earth, then we should use “Natural” before their name. If they are natural, but treated, then that should come next, i.e. “Natural Heated Cambodian Zircon.” If a gem is truly rare, such as Alexandrite or Red Beryl, then let’s call that out. The leading authority on gemstones, the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA), spells out guidelines in their member handbook–and forbids members from using the term “semi-precious.” We can find words that describe the origin of a gemstone, its uniqueness, its physical characteristics, and its beauty. Just don’t disparage a gemstone with something less than precious.
Now if I could just get people to stop saying “bling”…
This article was published on InstoreMag.com November 4, 2014.