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Commentary: The Business

Monica Stephenson: Semi-Precious — Says Who?



It’s time to move on from this outdated terminology for colored gemstones.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 edition of INSTORE.

We need to ditch the “semi-precious” phrase.


As a result of our human need to classify and rank, the jewelry industry ended up with a few gemstones arbitrarily crowned as the pinnacle of the field.

“Precious” are diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald. The rest? Lumped ignominiously below as “semi-precious,” as in not-quite precious, less-than precious, partly precious.

Words matter. If a woman chooses a moonstone for an engagement ring, is it any less valuable in her eyes than a diamond or a “precious” colored gem?

Andrea Hansen, founder of Luxeintelligence, has a particularly apt quote about this from the late Hans Stern, who built H. Stern into a global fashion brand on the back of his colored gem jewelry: “There is no such thing as a semi-precious stone, as there is no semi-pregnant woman or semi-honest man.”

Jewelry designer Erica Courtney is known for her savant color sense. She travels the world in search of breathtaking hues, often embodied in gemstones from far-flung places. “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?” she says. “These superstar gemstones are far more rare and unusual and should be given the classification of ‘Precious,’ if not ‘Precious and Rare.’”

&#8220We need to
recognize when

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Malak Atut of ZAIKEN Jewelry, frequently uses colored gemstones in arresting combinations, with hues in one-of-a-kind saturations. She shares Courtney’s view: “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’ — diamond, emerald, ruby, sapphire — can be of greater value. It is time to expand the ‘Precious Posse’ and the idea of what is precious in the minds of consumers/retailers.”

How did we end up with an incorrect and outdated term that still routinely separates gemstones?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. And while it’s admirable that jewelry manages to acknowledge its history and accumulated wisdom, we also need to recognize when a phrase is no longer serving us well.

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, and treated, 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. We can find words to describe a gemstone’s origin, uniqueness, physical characteristics and beauty. Just don’t disparage a gemstone with something less than precious.

Monica Stephenson tells stories of adornment at her jewelry blog,, and is the founder of responsible gemstone company ANZA Gems.


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