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Summary Article: gem, ornamental mineral or organic substance
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

commonly, a mineral or organic substance, cut and polished and used as an ornament. Gems also are used as seals (items of assurance) and as talismans (good-luck charms). For birthstones, see month.

Properties of Gems

The qualities sought in gems are beauty, rarity, and durability. The beauty of a gem depends primarily on its optical properties, which impart its luster, fire, and color; the durability depends on hardness and resistance to cleavage or fracture. The physical properties by which gems are distinguished from each other are form of the crystal, index of refraction of light, hardness, presence or absence of cleavage, type of fracture (conchoidal, even, or uneven) in stones without cleavage, specific gravity, color, streak (color of the powder as determined by rubbing it over white, unglazed porcelain), luster (appearance of the surface in reflected light—adamantine, vitreous, resinous, greasy, silky, or pearly), and transparency. Minor properties that serve to identify some stones are chatoyancy (changeable luster or color under undulating light), opalescence, asterism (starlike sparkling), play of color, fluorescence, phosphorescence, iridescence, and electrical properties. The unit of weight used for gemstones is the metric carat; one carat equals 200 mg.

Gem Cutting

Gems are generally cut to bring out their natural color and brilliancy and to remove flaws. In the cabochon cut, the upper surface of the stone is smoothed and rounded into a simple curve of any degree of convexity; the lower surface may be concave, convex, or flat. All the remaining cuts have flat facets. In the table cut, the facets of the natural octahedron of the diamond are ground to smoothness and polished; one facet, the table, is ground much larger than any other and made the top of the gem, while the opposite facet, the culet, is left quite small. The rose cut consists of a flat base and (usually) 24 triangular facets—resembling a cabochon with facets. The brilliant cut is scientifically designed to bring out the maximum brilliancy of the stone. The crown of a brilliant consists of a table and 32 smaller facets, of which 8 are quadrilaterals and 24 are triangles; the base, of a culet and 24 larger facets, of which 8 are quadrilaterals and 16 are triangles. The base and crown are separated by a girdle. The brilliant cut has certain proportions—in general, the depth of the crown is one third the depth of the stone and the width of the table one half the width of the stone. The trap, step, or emerald cut consists of a table and quadriangular facets above and below the girdle with parallel horizontal edges. Diamond cutting and the cutting of other precious stones are distinct trades.

Diamond Cutting

In diamond cutting the stone is first cleaved or sawed to remove excrescences (outcroppings) or to break it into smaller stones. Cleaving is accomplished by making a groove in the surface in the direction of the grain, inserting a steel knife, and striking the back of the knife a sharp blow. The next process was formerly bruting, i.e., roughly shaping two stones by rubbing them against one another. In modern practice the stones are sawed with a revolving wheel coated on its rim with diamond powder, then shaped by inserting a holder, or dop, containing one diamond into a turning lathe that revolves it against a stationary diamond. The cutting of the facets and the polishing are done by a revolving iron wheel charged with diamond dust. After the facets are cut, the diamonds are cleaned and are ready for sale.

Other Gemstones

The cutter of gemstones other than diamonds is known as a lapidary. Precious and semiprecious stones other than diamonds are cleaved or slit by a revolving diamond-dusted wheel, faceted by being pressed against a lap (a smoothing and polishing tool) charged with diamond dust or a carborundum wheel, and polished with a softer abrasive. Most (and in the case of some gems all) of the work of faceting is done with only the eye of the lapidary as guide.

Types of Gemstones
Precious and Semiprecious Gemstones

The precious stones are diamond; some forms of corundum (ruby, sapphire, Oriental emerald, Oriental topaz, and Oriental amethyst); and emerald. The chief semiprecious stones are aquamarine, amethyst, topaz, garnet, tourmaline, spinel, peridot (see olivine), zircon (see zirconium), chrysoberyl, quartz, opal, turquoise, moonstone, and jade. The organic gems are pearl, amber, coral, and jet; of these, pearl is usually counted as a precious stone.

Counterfeit Gemstones

Artificial and imitation gems are of various kinds. Synthetic stones are made in the laboratory of the same chemical elements as natural stones. Among the synthetic gems produced commercially are rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and spinels. Diamonds of gem quality have also been manufactured. Color changes are produced in diamonds by exposing them to radioactive bombardment. Synthetic stones may sometimes be detected by the presence of air bubbles, which, when numerous, cause a cloudy appearance; by having curved rather than straight striae; and by their unnatural color. Doublets are made by combining a crown, or upper part, which is a thin slice of either the true stone or some inferior but hard gem, with a lower part of the true stone, a substitute stone, colored glass, or colored paste. Triplets generally consist of a layer of paste between two genuine stones of poor color. Paste (glass) gems usually contain lead and are consequently very soft; they soon lose their brilliance and color. Imitation pearls are glass or plastic beads coated with a preparation made from fish scales. A cultured pearl is made by inserting a small bead inside the oyster; the irritation causes the oyster to deposit pearly material upon the bead, leading to the formation of a pearl.

Bibliography
  • See Sinkankas, J., Gemstones of North America (1959).
  • F. J. Sperisen, The Art of the Lapidary (rev. ed. 1961).
  • R. Webster, Gems (2d ed. 1970).
  • J. D. Dana, Manual of Mineralogy (18th ed., rev. by C. S. Hurlbut, Jr., 1971).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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