What Do the Terms “Precious” and “Semiprecious” Really Mean?

The word “precious” recalls images of Gollum saying “my precious” when referring to the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. I can hear the creepy Hobbit’s voice echoing in my head.

What do you think of when you read the word “precious”? Merriam-Webster’s definitions include “worth a lot of money” and “greatly loved,” two qualities that aren’t always mutually exclusive.

In gemology, “precious” and “semiprecious” have nothing to do with creepy fantastical creatures. For many years, the term “precious” referred to:

  • Diamonds
  • Rubies
  • Sapphires
  • Emeralds
  • Pearls
  • Opals.

These gems, prized for their colors and physical properties, were often worn by royalty (think about the colors associated with kings and queens).
On the other hand, semiprecious stones are all other cut and polished gemstones that aren’t considered precious. Here’s an excellent guide to semiprecious stones.

In retail, the terms “precious” and “semiprecious” are being used less frequently, but a shopper still might encounter them. As you can imagine, calling one product “precious” and another product anything less than precious isn’t the best jewelry marketing strategy.

In many progressive retail settings shoppers will see stones separated into two categories: “diamonds” and “colored gemstones.” Pearls may also comprise another category. Given all the confusing terminology, shoppers should reinvent the terms for themselves. Save “precious” for the Hobbits and own the idea behind the word.

Until very recently, I considered amethyst to be the most precious gemstone (until the 19th century, when amethyst was discovered in bulk, it actually was considered a precious gemstone). Amethyst is my mom’s birthstone, and the deep purple color is calming.

Now the stones I consider to be precious are my quarter-carat emerald-cut diamond, my half-carat tanzanite (my boyfriend’s birthstone), and my eternity band with almost all the colors of tourmaline. I’m sure that one day another precious stone will enter my life.

What stones are most precious to you, and what are the circumstances that make them so well loved?

Cover photo by Alakazou1978

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