The Prez Sez: Gemstone Appeal
By Moss Aubrey, Ph.D.
I often find myself wondering what specific concepts actually account for the appeal of gemstones. I know better than to presume that the reasons gemstones appeal to me are the same reasons they appeal to others. Gems and related materials have been important to human culture as far back as we can trace. Many prehistoric sites show evidence of the ornamental and religious uses of a variety of minerals, shells, and bones. As cultures evolved, so have the specific attributes and beliefs about various gem materials.
It seems to me that there are a few categories that describe our reasons for the allure of gemstones. These include: 1) economic value, 2) spiritual or healing properties, 3) craftsmanship, and 4) pure esthetic or artistic appreciation. Clearly, a person may appreciate a gem for several reasons simultaneously, but I do believe that these four reasons for a gem’s appeal are well worth considering.
In regards to value, I find this justification potentially the most problematic aspect of gem appreciation. Customers have approached me and have asked whether a particular gem or a piece of jewelry is a “good investment”. They wanted my opinion on its worth compared to the price they paid for it. The whole idea of the economic value of gems is rather frightening, more and more so as I increase my knowledge of gems. In particular, the blatant frauds perpetrated in the gem industry, the misrepresented treatments, and the enhancements, all tend to shake one’s confidence in the stability of the economic value of the entire gem industry. At the same time, gems have been around for quite a while, and they have clearly established themselves as holding inherent economic value. It is this relative value with its degree of fluctuation that certainly does pose problems.
The influence of the media and the specific representations of gems as having a designated value or merit greatly influences the economic appeal of gems, as contrasted with other types of appeal. The marketing of “champagne” diamonds is an interesting illustration of this. It shows how a low value and difficult to market type of diamond with an undesirable color was successfully promoted as having an inherent appeal. Fluctuations in the public taste for different gem materials significantly impacts the economic value of those materials. Recall the fluctuating acceptance of citrine. This stone was very popular in the 1920’s, lost its popularity for several decades, and has once again established a good secondary niche in the colored stone market. Another point that comes to mind is the widely circulating concerns of the vast diamond holdings of the Russian government. Although diamonds are often cited with having a value that continues to increase with each passing decade, there is a widely held concern that, if the Russian’s were to dump their vast holdings on the open market, prices of even the high quality white diamonds would plummet.
The idea of economic value clearly relates to a combination of supply, demand, and marketing strategies. I have to admit that I enjoy discovering that a stone I cut had substantially increased in value over what I paid for the unimpressive rough pebble. At the same time, economics was not what initially sparked my interest in gems, and it does not significantly influence my ongoing interest in gems and faceting.
The second reason some people are interested in gems is the spiritual properties and their potential for healing. I must admit to having a significant amount of skepticism regarding both claims. As a scientist, I am open to new knowledge from a variety of sources. At the same time, I require that claims be substantiated. I know quite well that human nature tends to promote beliefs that are appealing, despite substantial evidence that contradicts those beliefs. In fact, I was recently distressed to learn that people have been eating mercury compounds in the belief that mercury can heal a wide variety of ailments, prolong life, improve memory and sexual vitality, and numerous other benefits. These people hold these beliefs in the face of long standing clear evidence and wide spread public education that the ingestion of such compounds can be fatal, and, in less serious cases, leads to permanent nerve and brain damage, blindness, and numerous other side effects that I think would be sufficient to outweigh the most desired of these supposed benefits.
At a more subtle level, many people believe that various minerals and gem materials, crystals in particular, possess inherent spiritual, metaphysical, or psychic energy properties. These are not new beliefs, and there are wide spread accounts (as in Pliny’s writings) that drinking from an amethyst goblet would prevent drunkenness. This would seem to be an easy claim to verify through empirical testing. Although I have ample supplies of wine I would be glad to test, I do not have an amethyst goblet, preventing me from verifying this claim. Most of the benefits believed to be imbued by crystals and minerals are very subtle. There appears to be little interest in the part of the FDA to investigate these claims, probably because most of the beliefs are harmless at worst. The few studies I am aware of fail to provide any proof of such metaphysical claims. Proponents of metaphysical properties in crystals will cite that acupuncture, chiropractic techniques, and other medical practices outside the mainstream of traditional Western medicine, have been viewed with skepticism and ridicule. However, many of these are now relatively well accepted by the medical community. My response to such an argument is that if such benefits exist and are as potent as claimed, then they should be readily measurable.
A third general basis of appreciation I have heard many people mention is their respect for the craftsmanship and technical merits of gem preparation. This clearly applies very much to gems that are faceted or otherwise shaped. The appreciation may be held for the skill involved in working with such challenging gem material, or the expertise in achieving good symmetry, good meet points, and a superb polish. Successful crafting of rough gem materials into finished gemstones is demanding and requires significant skill and persistence. These are talents worthy of respect, and I always admire the craftsmanship as one aspect of my appreciation of gemstones.
A final reason for our appreciation of gems, minerals, and related materials is more of a pure esthetic appreciation. This cannot be entirely separated from appreciation for craftsmanship, but I do believe that it is sufficiently distinct to warrant discussion. For example, I continue to enjoy viewing gem materials that I have always considered as favorites, despite any inferior technical craftsmanship that may exist in the rendering. I have also enjoyed viewing rather mundane and un-inspiring material that exhibited superb craftsmanship (I am thinking specifically of Merrill O. Murphy’s exquisitely faceted piece of Coke bottle glass.). I think that esthetic or artistic appreciation of gems can be incorporated into our knowledge of the other reasons for gem appreciation and may reflect a mixture of those reasons.
The more we know about gem materials, the more we can appreciate when a particular piece is exquisite, rare in its formation, its color, and its size. For example, in a previous column, I described the beautiful specimen of rhodochrosite I saw at the Denver museum. This piece is inherently beautiful for its deep red color. However, part of my appreciation of it came also from my knowledge of this amazing specimen as being grand in size, compared with the many other pieces of rhodochrosite I have seen at mineral shows over the years.
Similarly, when viewing a superbly faceted stone, I simultaneously consider the technical craftsmanship of the faceting, the rarity of the particular material, the likely economic value of the piece, and the fundamental beauty of the material. I believe that there is an appreciation for these materials that transcends our ability to articulate why we feel the way we do. It is one thing to say “that’s really pretty” and another to be awe-struck by its beauty to the point of speechlessness. It is this last type of appreciation, where I simply gaze without thinking about all the various reasons I enumerated above, and simply appreciate in wonder, without analyzing how, that I am most deeply touched. That raw appeal touching the core of our appreciation of beauty is, I believe, the real force that underlies all of the other identified reasons that we give for ascribing our love of gemstones.