Whether you’re a gem aficionado or a casual jewelry lover, you’ve likely come across the terms “precious” and “semi-precious” when discussing types of gemstones. The difference between precious and semi-precious gems is mostly manufactured, as it doesn’t always reflect higher value or rarity.
So, what are semi-precious vs. precious stones? We’ll be answering that today as we uncover the origin of this distinction and list every precious and semi-precious gemstone! By the end, you’ll be ready to shop for precious or semi-precious gems shrewdly and confidently.
There’s no scientific difference between precious and semi-precious gems. In many cases, “precious” gems aren’t even more valuable than “semi-precious” counterparts. But that wasn’t always the case.
References of “precious” stones appear in literature stretching centuries back. But separating “precious” and “semi-precious” stones is fairly modern.
One of the earliest sources mentioning the “precious” vs. “semi-precious” distinction is British jeweler Edwin W. Streeter’s 1898 guide Precious Stones and Gems, Their History, Sources, and Characteristics. The epigraph under his Semi-Precious Stones chapter title states:
“Of less commercial value than those described in the foregoing pages, but nevertheless many of them very beautiful”
Throughout history, definitions of precious gems evolved. What made them “precious” was oftentimes their perceived powers as healing stones, along with their rarity or monetary value.
This is the considered the most definitive precious stones list:
Diamond: Transparent, pure carbon gem in any color
Sapphire: Transparent non-red corundum, traditionally blue
Emerald: Transparent to translucent green beryl
These aren’t ordered by price; a precious stones list by value would be tricky, as different properties for each gem can mean drastically different prices.
However, we can roster the most expensive examples of each precious gem ever sold:
Diamond: The Pink Star at $71.2 million, sold in 2017 ($1.2 million per carat)
Ruby: The Sunrise Ruby at $30.3 million, sold in 2015 ($1.2 million per carat)
Sapphire: The Blue Belle of Asia at $17.5 million, sold in 2004 ($44k per carat)
Emerald: The Rockefeller Emerald at $5.5 million, sold in 2017 ($305k per carat)
You may notice the Blue Belle sapphire had a higher price but a lower price-per-carat than the Rockefeller Emerald. Similarly, the Pink Star diamond sold for a higher price but lower price-per-carat than the Oppenheimer Blue diamond, which sold for $57.5 million, just under $4 million per carat.
As you can see, value is tricky! Value is also subjective. The most “precious” gems can differ among groups or change over time.
Pictured above: Freshwater pearls
Most hold that the four stones above are the only true precious gemstones. However, traditional, older lists included more stones.
What are the seven precious stones?
Along with the original four gems, the three added in this list are pearl, alexandrite, and oriental cat’s eye (cat’s eye chrysoberyl).
In other cases, largely religious references, you may hear about longer lists of precious gems, particularly twelve or nine.
Twelve as a number carries spiritual significance in many religions and folklore. The oft-mentioned twelve-gem lists come from Judaism and Christianity.
Typically, they’re either the twelve gemstones set on Aaron’s Breastplate (the High Priest’s breastplate in Judaism) or the twelve foundation stones of The New Jerusalem in Christianity (from the Biblical book of Revelations).
So, what are the twelve precious stones?
Those in Aaron’s Breastplate are somewhat debated, but generally include:
(Fun fact: Most historians believe the idea of birthstones originated from these!)
Now, if we’re discussing the twelve foundation stones in Christianity, they are:
Lastly, we have the list of nine precious stones.
The nine precious gems are part of a cultural, historic jewelry style called the Navaratna (Sanskrit for “nine gems”). The Navaratna gems, including their placement in jewelry and decor, have religious, mythological, and astrological significance.
Which are the nine precious stones?
Each gem represents part of the Solar System, starting with ruby (for sun) at the center. The remaining eight gems that surround ruby are:
Yellow Sapphire (Jupiter)
Blue Sapphire (Saturn)
Hessonite Garnet (North Lunar Node)
Cat’s Eye Chrysoberyl (South Lunar Node)
Ancient royals wore Navaratna amulets, and today, the Navaratna is still tied to royalty in Thailand, where it serves as the king’s official symbol.
We’ve covered all the precious gemstone lists, but which gemstones are semi-precious? And what does “semi-precious” mean?
What makes a gemstone semi-precious? Some have only assigned a certain number of gems status on the semi-precious stones list. Nowadays, any gemstone that isn’t one of the traditional four precious gems is typically considered semi-precious.
Next, we’ll do a comprehensive breakdown of all the semi-precious gemstone names and colors!
Pictured above: Larimar
There are dozens of semi-precious gems, so we’ll make it easier with a few categories. First, we’ll cover some of the most popular semi-precious stones and some lesser-known ones!
To kick off our list of gemstones a-z, we’ll dive into some classics:
Apatite: Translucent, popularly sea-green calcium phosphate
Azurite: Opaque, azure-blue to turquoise copper carbonate
Azurmalachite: Opaque, blue and green patterned mixture of azurite and malachite
Celestite: Delicate, transparent soft blue to white strontium sulfate found in geodes
Chrysocolla: Opaque, blue to teal, copper silicate often with brown patterns
Danburite: Transparent, colorless to yellow calcium borosilicate from Connecticut
Eudialyte: Opaque, typically red to magenta cyclosilicate
Fluorite: Translucent calcium fluorine in virtually any color, commonly purple, green, or both
Fuchsite: Opaque, green, chromium-rich muscovite
Howlite: Opaque, white borate gem with silver or brown veining, often dyed to imitate turquoise
Iolite: Transparent, blue to violet gem-quality cordierite
Kyanite: Translucent, grayish-blue aluminosilicate similar to andalusite and sillimanite
Larimar: Opaque, blue to seaglass-green pectolite with white patterns, only found in the Dominican Republic
Pictured above: Sugilite
Craving more? Maybe you’ll like these fan favorites:
Malachite: Opaque copper carbonate with concentric patterns in multiple green shades
Petalite: Rare, transparent, colorless to light pink feldspar-like gem
Prehnite: Pear-green inosilicate with milky translucence and pearly sheen
Rhodochrosite: Manganese carbonate that can be translucent, solid pink or opaque, pink with white color-banding
Sphene: Transparent titanium-rich titanite that’s usually vibrant yellow-green with colorful sparkle
Sugilite: Opaque vibrant fuchsia to purple complex cyclosilicate usually found with black or white veining
Topaz: Transparent, popularly blue or white aluminum silicate with fluorine that boasts many colors, including the most valuable golden to pink-orange Imperial Topaz
Turquoise: Opaque sky-blue to blue-green microcrystalline phosphate with yellow, brown, or black veining
Zircon: Transparent zirconium silicate with diamond-like luster and sparkle, found in all colors but most popular in blue
Pictured above: Afghanite
These gemstone names may be unfamiliar, but they just may be your new favorites:
Afghanite: Translucent, cobalt-colored feldspar-like gem from Afghanistan
Aragonite: Translucent, usually white to gray, calcite-like calcium carbonate formed geologically or biologically via mollusks or corals
Dioptase: Translucent, deep green to teal copper cyclosilicate
Dolomite: Transparent white, pink, or tan calcium magnesium carbonate with saddle-shaped crystal
Lazulite: Opaque cobalt-blue to indigo magnesium iron phosphate
Magnesite: Transparent white to yellow-brown or opaque white magnesium carbonate with black veining
Scheelite: Transparent, commonly blue to white calcium tungstate with high dispersion and almost diamond-level luster
Shattuckite: Opaque and fairly rare, vibrant blue copper silicate
Smithsonite: Translucent, calcite-related zinc carbonate in many colors but most beloved in pink, blue, or green
Tantalite: Group of tantalum iron oxide minerals closely related to columbite
Pictured above: Cat's eye chrysoberyl (a.k.a. cymophane)
Many gems are all about sparkle, and sparkle is all about light. Next, you’ll learn about some pretty gemstones that dance with the light like no other.
Phenomenal gemstones interact with light uniquely to display mesmerizing optical phenomena. These semi-precious stones include:
Black Star Diopside: Greenish-black diopside with four-ray or six-ray asterism
Chrysoberyl: Family of transparent aluminum beryllium oxide gems or singular yellow-green gem (unlisted varieties: chatoyant cymophane a.k.a. cat’s eye and mint-colored vanadium)
Enstatite: Translucent olive-green magnesium-rich pyroxene sometimes displaying asterism
Kornerupine: Rare, transparent magnesium aluminum borosilicate, commonly brown, deep green, or yellow and capable of asterism or chatoyancy
Pezzottaite: Transparent raspberry red or pink beryl-like stone containing caesium and capable of cat’s eye effect and asterism (no longer considered a beryl variety)
Ulexite: Rare, silky, translucent white nesoborate called “television stone” for its ability to reflect images underneath it onto its surface and chatoyancy
Pictured above: Pyrite
Looking for a stylish but more neutral shine? Check out these metallic gems:
Bronzite: Greenish-brown, fibrous, iron-bearing enstatite variety with a bronze metallic sheen and sometimes 6-rayed asterism
Brookite: Translucent or opaque, typically brown, submetallic titanium dioxide
Cassiterite: Rarely transparent and colorless tin oxide gemstone with diamond-like luster, strong dispersion
Cuprite: Transparent, somewhat metallic, red copper oxide
Hematite: Opaque, metallic gray to rust-red iron oxide gem with red powder streak
Magnetite: Opaque, metallic, dark gray or brown iron oxide mineral that’s magnetic (unlisted variety: lodestone)
Marcasite: Opaque, metallic iron sulfide related to pyrite with paler bronze-yellow hue and iridescent surface corrosion
Pyrite: Opaque, metallic brass-yellow iron sulfide called “fool’s gold”
Pictured above: Morganite
Prominent gemstone families not only make gem identification easier, but also gem choosing! Narrow down your favorite with these categories of different kinds of stones:
Besides transcendent emerald, the remaining beryl gems are semi-precious:
Beryl: Group of transparent to translucent beryllium aluminum silicates (unlisted varieties: colorless goshenite)
Aquamarine: Transparent, pale blue to sea-green beryl
Heliodor: Transparent, yellow to golden beryl
Morganite: Transparent, light pink to peach beryl
Pictured above: Tsavorite garnet
Garnets are commonly mistaken as precious gemstones, but their semi-precious status doesn’t make them any less beautiful! Here are a few notable ones:
Demantoid: Transparent, brilliant yellow-green to deep olive andradite among the rarest garnets
Tsavorite: Transparent forest-green to emerald-green grossular garnet and one of the rarest, most valuable garnets
Pictured above: Kunzite
Spodumene gems may not be as well-known, but they’re all worth a second look:
Spodumene: Family of often large but delicate lithium aluminum silicates or individual, transparent gem in single- or bi-colored hues like orange, gray, or brown (not including colors of varieties)
Hiddenite: Transparent green spodumene and rarest spodumene variety
Kunzite: Transparent, pink to purple spodumene that fades color with sun exposure
Triphane: Transparent colorless to yellow spodumene
Pictured above: Moonstone
As the most common mineral in Earth’s crust, feldspar is varied and abundant. That means more variety and gorgeous gems:
Feldspar: Broad group of typically glassy and white aluminum silicates containing calcium, potassium, or sodium, split into two main subgroups: plagioclase (albite, anorthite) and alkali (orthoclase, sanidine, microcline, anorthoclase)
Amazonite: Opaque, green to teal potassium feldspar (microcline) variety
Andesine Feldspar: Translucent, pink to orange plagioclase feldspar with possible red to green color changes and iridescence
Labradorite: Translucent, blue to gray plagioclase feldspar with labradorescence (type of internal iridescence)
Moonstone: Translucent white mixture of orthoclase and oligoclase feldspar with bluish-white adularescence (internal glow)
Oregon Sunstone: Transparent copper-containing feldspar from Oregon that’s commonly light yellow to pink and is actually a labradorite variety
Orthoclase: Transparent colorless to pale champagne-yellow feldspar gem
Rainbow Lattice Sunstone: Extremely rare multi-colored orthoclase feldspar with iridescent lattice pattern, aventurescence, and adularescence
Spectrolite: Rare, opaque labradorite variety from Finland with full-spectrum labradorescence
Sunstone: Translucent, pink to orange plagioclase feldspar typically found with orange coloring and metallic glittering aventurescence
Pictured above: Citrine
Quartz gems are arguably the most well-known crystals, the main types of quartz being:
Quartz: Family of transparent to translucent macrocrystalline silica stones or singular, colorless gem also called “rock crystal” (unlisted varieties: tangerine quartz, lemon quartz, blue quartz, herkimer diamond)
Ametrine: Translucent yellow and purple mixture of citrine and amethyst
Citrine: Transparent yellow to brown quartz (reddish-orange variety: Madeira citrine)
Druzy: Type of crystal aggregate, usually inside geodes, with layer of sparkling tiny crystals or shortened term for quartz with this formation
Mystic Quartz: Natural clear quartz that’s been treated with a metallic vapor surface coating to display rainbow iridescence
Prasiolite: Translucent light green quartz often created by heat-treating amethyst
Rose Quartz: Ballet-pink to rose-red quartz with hazy translucence, capable of showing asterism
Smoky Quartz: Translucent clear quartz variety with brown to black “smoke” inside from natural irradiation and aluminum
Pictured above: Bumblee jasper
Microcrystalline quartz, or chalcedony, comes with even more options:
Chalcedony: Family of microcrystalline quartzes or singular translucent, pale white to gray-blue gem
Aquaprase: Translucent, vivid blue-green chalcedony variety containing nickel and chromium discovered in Africa in 2013
Bloodstone (Heliotrope): Opaque, dark green chalcedony with red speckles
Carnelian: Translucent, yellow to red chalcedony in single hues or multi-colored patterns
Chrysocolla Chalcedony (Gem Silica): The most valuable chalcedony, a translucent, bright blue to blue-green chalcedony with chrysocolla inclusions
Chrysoprase: Semi-transparent apple-green chalcedony with nickel
Fire Agate: Semi-transparent, iridescent agate with brown base and flashes of red, orange, green, and/or blue
Jasper: Opaque, color-banded or patterned family of chalcedony gems
Pictured above: Paraiba tourmaline
Smaller but still significant gemstone families include:
Calcite: Group of calcium carbonates or individual transparent, orange gem
Cobaltocalcite: Rare, translucent calcite that’s bright pink to maroon from cobalt
Chlorite: Group of mica-rich phyllosilicates with primary subgroups: clinochlore and chamosite (unlisted varieties: amesite, cookeite)
Seraphinite: Forest-green patterned clinochlore chlorite variety with light green to silver feather mica inclusions, plus opaque and translucent areas
Mica: Large family of phyllosilicates known for being soft and flaking into thin sheets, with primary groupings: biotite, muscovite, and lithium mica (unlisted varieties: yellow to orange phlogopite, black biotite)
Lepidolite: Opaque, usually grayish-purple mica with white quartz patterns and sometimes green tourmaline spots
Scapolite: Aluminosilicate mineral series or singular, commonly honey-yellow and transparent gemstone (unlisted varieties: rainbow scapolite, petschite, nuttalite, wernerite, meionite, marialite)
Serpentine: Subgroup of kaolinite-serpentine minerals or individual brownish-green gem often displaying light and dark green patterns
Sodalite: Group of sodium-rich, feldspar-like gems or individual, opaque royal blue and white mottled stone (unlisted variety: hauyne)
Spinel: Group of hard minerals with complex, variable composition or singular, transparent gem most popular in ruby-red to pink colors
Rubellite: Translucent, deep pink, red, or magenta tourmaline
Indicolite: Transparent to opaque, blue to blue-green tourmaline
Watermelon Tourmaline: Transparent to opaque, bi-colored tourmaline with pink, green, and sometimes white layers
Chrome Tourmaline: Transparent to opaque dravite tourmaline in green shades
Zoisite: Usually transparent, solid- or multi-colored gemstone family with three primary varieties: tanzanite, anyolite (ruby zoisite), and thulite
Pictured above: Mexican fire opal
The next categories cover unique gems that aren’t everyday crystals!
Most gems are mineral crystals, but mineraloids differ. Below, we’ll list the semi-precious mineraloids (that aren’t organic):
Obsidian: Opaque, usually black and sometimes patterned, hydrated silica-glass rhyolite (unlisted varieties: Apache tears, rainbow obsidian, fire obsidian, snowflake obsidian, mahogany obsidian, sheen obsidian)
Pictured above: Canadian ammolite
An organic gem doesn’t form geologically. Instead, plants and animals are behind these semi-precious jewels:
Amber: Translucent, typically red-orange, hardened tree resin from ancient pines
Ammolite: Opaque fossilized aragonite shells of extinct ammonites displaying multi-colored iridescence
Coral: Traditionally pink to red gem composed of exoskeletons of coral marine creatures
Fossil: Fossilized organism or plant material (e.g. shark teeth, ivory, dinosaur bone, bamboo, coral) with distinct patterns and often filled with minerals
Ivory: White to cream tusks or teeth from large mammals, mostly composed of dentine
Jet: Opaque black to brown lignite-coal organic mineraloid typically formed underwater from fossilized, decayed wood
Petrified Palm: Tan to golden-colored, spotted, fossilized extinct palm called Palmoxylon
Petrified Wood: Type of fossilized plant material, often made more durable with fillings or replacements of silica and displaying tan to red patterns
Pictured above: Lapis lazuli
Many gems contain two or more minerals, classifying them as rocks. Here are some of those valuable rocks and stones:
Calligraphy Stone: Unique golden-yellow rock composed of hematite and various fossilized materials, creating red, green, and brown calligraphy-like patterns
Charoite: Translucent, milky purple and white swirling-patterned rock largely composed of mineral charoite
Chrysanthemum Flower Stone: Opaque, dark rock with white crystal (celestite, feldspar, andalusite, or calcite) “chrysanthemum” pattern from prehistoric formation
Hawk’s Eye: Opaque deep teal or blue-gray chalcedony rock containing fibrous crocidolite inclusions that cause simple chatoyancy (multiple rays of reflected light) and striped patterns
Lapis Lazuli: Opaque, indigo rock that’s 25-40 percent lazurite with gold pyrite and white calcite speckles
Pictured above: Pietersite
Ready for more? Let’s rock ‘n’ roll with the rest:
Pietersite: Opaque multi-colored rock of hawk’s eye and tiger’s eye cemented by chalcedony, typically orange or gray-blue with chaotic patterns
Rhyolite: Opaque pale pink, white, or gray lava rock with the primary variations obsidian, tuff, and pumice (unlisted varieties: rainforest jasper, apache sage, wonderstone, thundereggs)
Ruby Zoisite (Anyolite): Opaque multi-colored rock (sold as zoisite variety) composed of pink-red ruby and green zoisite, often with black pargasite veining
Septarian: Opaque rock composed of brown aragonite, yellow calcite, and gray limestone
Shiva Lingam: Sacred in Hinduism, an opaque chalcedony rock with iron oxides and variable minerals to create typically tan, maroon, and gray sections
Super Seven: Sacred, translucent multi-colored rock containing amethyst, clear quartz, smoky quartz, cacoxenite, goethite, rutile, and lepidocrocite
Tiffany Stone: Opaque rock with translucent portions composed of fluorite, opal, and bertrandite (plus other minerals), displaying blended swirls of mostly purple shades, white, and black
Tiger’s Eye: An opaque chalcedony rock like hawk’s eye but golden-yellow to reddish-brown from iron oxide, along with simple chatoyancy and stripes
Tiger Iron: Opaque rock with golden-brown tiger’s eye, black hematite, and red jasper
Turkiyenite: Turkish, opaque lilac to grape rock (typically with white spots) that’s mostly purple jadeite but also contains quartz, orthoclase, and other minerals
Verdite: Soft, opaque green rock from South Africa that’s mostly composed of fuchsite and usually has yellow and brown patterns
Zebra Rock: Opaque white and reddish-brown banded rock from Australia that’s mostly chalcedony and sericite with other minerals
Pictured above: Euclase
Lastly, we have the collector’s delight: rare and valuable stones!
While these aren’t the rarest semi-precious stones (those are next), the following gems make the longer list of rare gemstones:
Axinite: Translucent calcium aluminum borate silicate that’s usually golden-brown with strong pleochroism
Bastnasite: Translucent brownish carbonate with rare earth elements, found in Sweden
Cavansite: Translucent to opaque azure-blue calcium vanadium silicate
Cinnabar: Delicate, translucent or opaque mercury sulfide in bright red to crimson, rare in crystal form
Crocoite: Soft, translucent saffron-red to red-orange lead chromate crystal
Euclase: Translucent beryllium silicate that’s usually baby-blue to colorless, sometimes bi-colored with both
Londonite: Very rare cesium-rich borate in translucent milky white or transparent yellow
Vesuvianite (Idocrase): Transparent, typically yellow-green calcium aluminum silicate discovered on Mount Vesuvius (unlisted varieties: cyprine, Californite, xanthite, wiluite)
Zincite: Translucent orange or red zinc oxide from New Jersey that’s very rare naturally, so it’s often synthetically produced
Pixtured above: Alexandrite
As of 2005, painite held the Guinness World Record for rarest gemstone mineral, but nearly 1,000 more painities have been discovered since. Regardless, here are the current rarest semi-precious stones (alphabetically):
Black Opal: Famously Australian opal variety with dark body tone and typically play-of-color
Benitoite: California’s transparent, sapphire-blue state gemstone
Grandidierite: Translucent cyan-colored magnesium aluminum borosilicate almost never big enough for faceting
Jade: Term for jadeite or nephrite, two silicates with different compositions and properties, most popularly green but also available in colors like purple, white, orange, and black (jadeite being rarest and most valuable)
Jeremejevite: Transparent, usually blue to violet aluminum borate
Larimar: Teal and white patterned pectolite variety exclusively from Dominican Republic
Musgravite: Transparent grayish-green to purple beryllium oxide that’s rarer than its taaffeite variety
Painite: Extremely rare, transparent red to brown borate containing zirconium and boron that’s only from Myanmar
Paraíba Tourmaline: Very rare, translucent, bright blue to green tourmaline only officially from Brazil
Poudretteite: Transparent pink, violet, or colorless cyclosilicate mineral from Canada
Red Beryl: Transparent to translucent crimson to orange beryl variety
Taaffeite: Transparent, usually mauve, musgravite
Tanzanite: Translucent, blue to violet (most valuable) zoisite variety exclusively from Tanzania
At the end of the day, precious and semi-precious classifications are helpful but not the definitive factors when purchasing gemstones. Whether you choose to adorn yourself in precious diamonds and emeralds or equally beautiful semi-precious stones, their true value is how they make you feel.
Let your intuition guide you as you find the perfect gem for you!
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