Gemstones vs. crystals: what are the differences?
The terms ‘gemstone’ and ‘crystal’ are often used synonymously to refer to precious stones valued for their vivid colour and sparkle mimicking the magical quality of stars in the sky. Yet, they refer to markedly different materials with implications for scientific accuracy, proper classification, understanding their different cultural and historical significances in society, and determining value. In this guide of crystal vs. gem, learn exactly why gemstones are sometimes misconstrued as crystals, and why not all crystals are designated as gems.
What are crystals?
Crystals are solid materials characterized by a highly ordered, repeating arrangement of atoms, ions, or molecules in a three-dimensional lattice structure. This internal structure gives crystals their characteristic geometric shapes and optical properties, such as transparency, refractivity, and birefringence. These types of materials are used in a wide range of industrial and technological applications, acting as semiconductors or transistors, for example. Some people even value crystals for their seemingly energetic qualities, using them in spiritual practices and to promote healing.
Crystals are typically not cut or polished to the same degree as gemstones. Some crystals, such as quartz and amethyst, are widely available and relatively inexpensive, while others, such as beryl and tourmaline, can be more valuable due to their rarity and unique properties (e.g. the glass-like lustre of tourmaline).
What are gemstones?
Gemstones are minerals that are cut, polished, and fashioned into jewellery or other decorative objects. They are prized for their clarity, colour, and lustre, and are often used as symbols of wealth and power.
While it is true that many gemstones are made up of crystals, not all gemstones are classified as crystals. Some gemstones are amorphous, meaning they lack a defined crystalline structure. Examples of gemstones that are not defined as crystals include opal, amber, and pearl. These gemstones have a more ‘random’ atomic structure compared to crystals.
Main differences between gemstones and crystals
Gemstones’ and crystals’ differences can be summed up as the contrast in atomic arrangement of the two materials. The departure between crystalline structure and other types of gemstone structure (including amorphous structure, fibrous structure, and granular structure) give rise to the other dissimilarities between crystals and gems.
Crystals are materials with an ordered, repeating lattice pattern, while gemstones can have both crystalline and amorphous structures. The former are defined by their highly organized, geometrically arranged atoms, while the latter can have a more disordered arrangement of atoms.
Crystals are typically classified based on their internal structure. There are seven crystal system types: cubic, tetragonal, orthorhombic, monoclinic, triclinic, hexagonal, and trigonal.
Gemstones, on the other hand, are classified based mainly on their physical and chemical properties, as well as their rarity, value in the marketplace, geographic origin, and mineral composition. The traditional classification system for gemstones in the jewellery industry is based on the ‘four Cs’: carat weight, colour, clarity, and cut.
Crystals form in a few specific ways, including:
- The slow cooling of magma;
- Precipitation of mineral-rich solutions;
- Sublimation, where a gas transitions to a solid without becoming a liquid;
- Biomineralization, where living organisms produce minerals;
- And vapour deposition where a solid material is deposited onto a surface through a vapour.
On the other hand, precious stones that fall under the ‘gemstone’ label form when certain minerals react together under high amounts of pressure and immense heat within the Earth. Some of these processes result in crystals, but not all of them. The processes during which gemstones form in a natural environment are:
- Metamorphism: Minerals forced together and undergoing change when subjected to great heat and pressure;
- Hydrothermal: Mineral-rich fluids circulate through rocks and deposit crystals;
- Igneous: Solidification of molten rock;
- Sedimentary: Accumulation of minerals through sedimentation and cementation;
- Metasomatism: Minerals are replaced by other minerals through fluid or gas interaction.
It’s worth noting that the advanced technologies used to create lab-grown gems can be utilized to make both crystals and gems in a controlled environment.
Crystals are often used in scientific or technological applications, as well as aids in metaphysical practices. Gemstones, on the other hand, are primarily used in jewellery and other decorative items. While some gemstones may have spiritual or metaphysical significance attached to them, their primary function is aesthetic.
The value of a crystal or gemstone can be highly subjective and dependent on factors such as market demand, cultural significance, and personal taste. Additionally, some crystals are used for industrial purposes and may have significant value in those contexts. However, in general, gems are considered more valuable than crystals due to their rarity, durability, and aesthetic appeal.
Are gemstones crystals?
In short, some gemstones can be crystals and some crystals can be gemstones. Gems with internal crystal structures are considered crystalline, and certain types of crystals are valuable enough due to their rarity or quality to be considered a gemstone. The overlap is nuanced but clear: You wouldn’t call rock salt or gypsum, the soft mineral used to make building materials like drywall and plaster, a precious gemstone.
While there are many types of crystals with unique and fascinating properties, not all of them are considered valuable in the same way that gemstones and other precious materials are. Yet, both of these materials have been valued by humans for their aesthetic or energetic qualities and continue to be studied and appreciated by scientists, collectors, and enthusiasts around the world.
Inter-Pacific is an expert in lab-grown gemstones, and your partner in building a conscious fine jewellery or gemstone business in an environmentally-friendly way. Having formulated the BIRON® process which results in man-made emeralds that are impossible to distinguish from highly sought-after Colombian emeralds with the naked eye, you can be confident we know what it takes to meet your customers’ preferences. Book a free consultation to discuss why our premium created gems may be right for you.
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