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Commentary: The Business

Monica Stephenson: Semi-Precious — Says Who?

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It’s time to move on from this outdated terminology for colored gemstones.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

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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

a phrase is no
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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How did we end up with an incorrect and outdated term that still routinely separates gemstones?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, idazzle.com, and is the founder of responsible gemstone company ANZA Gems.

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