medieval times passed to modern, the relative importance of external
concerns about the medicinal or talismanic significance of gemstones
slowly begins to recede. The innate beauty of the gemstone becomes
central. Today few people seek out an emerald to cure disease, an
agate to use as a shield against the evil eye, or the amethyst to
ward off drunkenness. In developing connoisseurship in gemstones,
beauty has become the defining criterion.
The dawning of our modern age brought little in the way of unanimity
on the issues of which gems were precious and which were not, unsurprisingly.
The great gemologist Max Bauer, writing in 1904, maintains: “Minerals
which combine the highest degrees of beauty, hardness, durability,
and rarity — diamond, ruby, sapphire, and emerald, for example
— are by common consent placed among the foremost rank of
gems.” Bauer further states that “it is impossible to
draw a hard and fast line between precious and semi-precious stones,”
and that “the minerals that must be reckoned as precious stones
are by no means fixed in number.” Why? Because, says the great
mineralogist, it depends largely on “the fashion of the day.”
Bauer includes as precious most transparent stones (except amethyst)
and two translucent gems, opal and pearl.
The English gemologist G-F Herbert
Smith, writing twenty years later, includes among the precious gems
diamond, ruby, sapphire, and all forms of beryl (emerald, aquamarine,
morganite), excluding all others.
Other writers have made different lists. All have included the “big
four” but most have agreed on little else.
Grading standards: the market
One barrier to developing connoisseurship in gemstones is that many
experts, mainly dealers, maintain that there are no objective standards
of judgment in the appreciation of gemstones. Beauty is, after all,
in the eye of the beholder. The aficionado will hear that phrase
repeated ad nauseam. If there are no standards, then the stone that
the dealer across the counter is trying to sell is obviously the
The fact is that there are very definite standards for the grading
and valuing of all gemstones in the world market. The market is
the place where all the sophistry and all the nonsense about beauty
and the eye of the beholder get swallowed up and vanish without
a trace. The same experts who contend that collectors in the West
prefer opals with more blue, and Asian buyers prefer red (and that
value is all in what you like), will admit that the red stone may
cost four times as much as the one with a predominant blue play
of color. Why?