Gemstones for Jewelry Making: Why Colored Stones Deserve a Better Name Than "Semi-Precious" Stones

25 May 2012

My love of gemstones goes back to my rock-hounding days at about the age of seven. I kept my prized "gemstone" collection in a pink (of course) Styrofoam egg carton, and as I only had twelve spots to work with and many more stones than that, I remember categorizing and recategorizing, sorting and resorting them, based on all kinds of my own made-up criteria and classifications--ones that sparkled vs ones that didn't, ones that showed (what I now know is) crystal structure vs ones that didn't, ones I found in the dirt vs ones I found in the creek, and by color. Thinking back, I also now know that the "diamonds" and "gold" I had were actually a few kinds of quartz--rose quartz and smoky quartz, amethyst--some mica, "fool's gold" or pyrite, and several kinds of agate or jasper, among other plain old "rocks."

Some of my opaque aquamarine. Love these colors!
When I recall my childlike gemological classifications, I have to laugh--I was pretty wise in my crystal structure distinctions and even separating the dirt-mined rocks from the water-mined stones had some wisdom to it (eluvial vs alluvial?). But one way I certainly never dreamed of classifying my gems was as precious vs semi-precious stones; they were all like magic to me, each one just as precious if not as sparkly as the rest.

Now that I've had a few years of gemstone training and worked with gems of all types, values, and levels of rarity, I feel even more strongly against the term "semi-precious" in regards to gemstones. After all, the ones considered precious--diamond, ruby, emerald, and sapphire--aren't the most rare, aren't always the most valuable, and aren't necessarily the most beautiful since beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.

A mookaite slice Lexi gave to me.
I'm not belittling those "precious" gems at all--my heart skips for a sparkly diamond just as much as the next girl's, the gorgeous pigeon's-blood red of a fine Burmese ruby makes me swoon, and I adore the velvety rich blue of a fine sapphire, if not all the other colors as well--I'm just elevating the "semi-precious" gems. Some of my favorite gemstones--including rubellite and indicolite tourmalines, poor underloved spinels, lovely blue little benitoites, and pearls, of course, always pearls--all fall into the "semi-precious" category. Really? I think not!

And how about the opaque gems? I admit I never fully appreciated the beauty in opaque gems until I saw a fine pietersite about four years ago. The swirling colors in it were beautiful and reminded me of those deep-space photos sent back from a NASA satellite. When I met and began working with my teacher and mentor Lexi Erickson, who uses opaque gem slices and cabs almost exclusively in her artisan jewelry, I was once again reminded of their unique beauty. Jaspers (including mookaite, one of my faves), agates, and a wide variety of other gem cabochons can all be just as lovely in their own way, bringing a mix of color and unique textures that other gems simply cannot provide--and generally at a much lower price point. Bonus!


Learn to make the Conical Petrified Wood Pendant by Lexi Erickson in the free gemstones eBook. Photo by Jim Lawson.

Over the past five years or so, along with many other jewelry designers, I've fallen for the beauty of opaque versions of typically known transparent gems, such as aquamarine and ruby. This option allows you to use very colorful and often large, bold versions of popular, well-known gems at a much more affordable price.

I love the deep blues in my polished stick of opaque kyanite.
So the next time you're in the market for some stones to enhance your metal jewelry designs, consider the "semi-precious" transparent faceted gems and those peculiarly beautiful opaque cabs and slices. If you'd like to learn more about a handful of them and get tutorials on how to use them in your jewelry designs (both set in a bezel by Lexi Erickson and wire wrapped by Dale "Cougar" Armstrong), download a copy of our newest free eBook, Natural Gemstones for Gemstone Jewelry Making: Why Colored Stones Deserve a Better Name Than "Semi-Precious" Stones.

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iubooklover wrote
on 25 May 2012 10:08 AM

That's so funny - I was a rockhound as a little girl, too!  Wonder if that's a common experience of jewelry makers?  And thanks so much for the free eBook.  Your website, blog and eBooks are fantastic benefits for the subscriber to your equally fantastic magazine.

TammyJones wrote
on 25 May 2012 11:11 AM

Hi iubooklover, my kindred spirit! I'm glad you find Jewelry Making Daily useful! Thanks for writing and for being part of our community :o)

on 26 May 2012 9:55 PM

I think many of us may have made an early start. As a little boy (around age 5) I found belemnites and gryphea digging in my back yard. My mothers explanation for the Gryphea is "they are devils toe nails."  They sure do look like an ugly toe nail.

Thank you and your associates for  for the e-book,


on 26 May 2012 9:58 PM

Whoops! no the Gryphea & Belemnites were not doing the digging, it was me.


DebraM@44 wrote
on 28 May 2012 1:18 PM

Add me to the list of junior rockhounds! Much of our back patio is a rock garden, and my friends, cousins and I spent countless summer hours rummaging through the various stones. An aunt gave me a rock tumbler for Christmas one year (she gave the best gifts!), and I actually wore out the motor.

Last year, I decided to replace the garden's timber edging with pavers, and found myself searching for "new" rocks to use in jewelry. I now have a bowl full of smooth river rocks, pink quartz, flint and agates (one of my favorites) -- all waiting for me to break out a new rock tumbler, still in the box in the top of the closet.

I also found a remnant from those childhood digs: a river rock with "turn me over" painted on one side, and "thank you" on the other.